Going back to school at any age is never easy. But going back to school as a full-time police officer — working graveyard shifts and taking on investigative assignments with unpredictable hours — makes pursuing a degree even more challenging than it is for the average working adult.
As more and more departments mandate four-year degrees for promotion, there are an increasing number of police officers trying to balance the rigors of academia with their demanding jobs.
Lt. Barbara Barrist has spent 24 years with the Los Angeles Police Department. She is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Homeland Security program at American Military University, a 100 percent online university offering more than 80 degree programs.
Barrist began work on her Master’s degree in September of 2011 and is expecting to graduate at the end of this year. When she first decided to go back to school, she considered returning to the state college where she had taken classes years before.
“I was extremely busy at the time and was in a particular job assignment where I was on-call, so getting to a particular class at a certain time would have been extremely difficult,” Barrist said.
At the suggestion of a friend and colleague, she decided to consider getting her degree online.
Lt. Debbie Ingram works with a police department in Washington State and has been in law enforcement for 20 years. Lt. Ingram said her department requires a four-year degree for promotion and she wanted to make sure she had the option to pursue further advancement in the ranks.
Ingram also attends American Military University and is scheduled to graduate in June with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice. She also chose online education for the convenience and the ability to complete her degree on her own schedule.
“There was no way I could go to a brick-and-mortar school, I just do not have the time,” Ingram said.
When she began her degree, she was on graveyard duty. “It was all I could do to get up and go to work and do a few other things,” she said.
Quality in Online Education
“I was skeptical about the quality of online education at first,” said Lt. Barrist, but what she found inside the AMU classroom impressed her. The quality of both her instructors as well as her fellow Master’s students provided her another layer of knowledge and direct perspective from different life experiences.
“I felt very fortunate to have classes with people who are high-ranking military officers and who had high-ranking positions in Homeland Security as well as other law enforcement officers,” she said.
“I actually found that instructors and students were more engaged than what I had found in state colleges.”
Lt. Ingram found herself being that additional wealth of information for other students.
“Many of my classes were with students in their 20s who wanted to get into law enforcement,” she said. “I did feel that I could lend some perspective as someone who has been in the field for long time — I spoke from experience and they spoke from a book.”
Applying School to Work
While Lt. Ingram found herself having more on-the-job experience than many of her fellow students, she did learn a lot that applied to her current job.
“I had a class on Constitutional Law and I loved that class,” she said. “I learned how laws are structured and why, and it fascinated me what cops used to do and how that curtailed into where we are today.”
Similarly, Barrist found that what she has learned in her Homeland Security courses has contributed to her career. “It gives me the ability to ask more questions than I had asked before,” she said.
“If you don’t know enough about a certain topic, you don’t know what questions need to be asked.” Now that she has a better understanding of homeland security and the various issues, she finds herself inquiring a lot more regarding counterterrorism practices, for example.
Masters of Time Management
Both women agreed that time management has been important for their academic success.
“When I start a class, I print out the syllabus so I know exactly what’s required for the entire class and when it’s due,” Ingram said.
She often takes two classes at a time, so she has to plan out every week. She sets goals for each week and figures how school assignments fit with her demanding work schedule.
Lt. Barrist said it has been important to set clear boundaries with her family.
“You have to keep your schedule. If you decide you’re going to work on an assignment and your family knows it that can usually take care of any grief they give you,” she said.
“If your family has other ideas [about what you’re doing] and it never gets communicated that you need to do school work, it can cause problems in the household.”
Even with the best of intentions to efficiently manage your time, however, issues are bound to come up. Fortunately, when they do, professors are often accommodating.
Many of the AMU professors are themselves current or past practitioners, they understand the unpredictable nature of law enforcement and the challenge for students to balance of work, family and school obligations.
Barrist said there were a few instances where she had to ask for extensions for classes. “As long as I kept my professor informed and up-to-date, I never had much of an issue,” she said.
Bottom Line: Education is Important
Both women anticipate their degrees will make a difference in their careers, whether through promotion, performance or better understanding of law enforcement.
“Every bit counts in terms of education and your ability to have critical thinking skills,” said Barrist.
“I think my writing ability has increased significantly as a student of AMU, more than it did when I was at the state college level. I always encourage people around me to continue their education.”
About the author
Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. In addition to his editorial and managerial responsibilities, Doug has authored more than 700 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), and an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association. He is also a member of the Public Safety Writers Association, and is a two-time (2011 and 2012) Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" Finalist in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.
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