Private detectives tend to enjoy a great deal of professional independence, which is precisely what draws many investigators to the field. These professionals often choose when they work, how many clients they serve and the types of cases they accept. Before they achieve this degree of flexibility, however, private investigators must meet all training and licensing regulations governing their work. These requirements are state-specific, so not all detectives pursue the same certificates, degrees and professional licenses. Prospective PIs’ academic choices frame the legality of their work and future career opportunities and earnings, so it is important that they research their options and choose wisely. The following guide outlines the steps to becoming a private detective, what the future might hold for them and how these factors interrelate.
Private detectives conduct investigations in multiple areas, ranging from finding missing persons to discovering the cause of a fire, or recovering stolen property to investigating identity theft. They conduct casework, interview witnesses, perform surveillance, and review public and government records to collect information. Cases may at times require investigators to testify in court or work alongside law enforcement.
Private detectives are licensed professionals who offer a wide range of investigative services. They may be self-employed, work for an agency or subcontract with government organizations to investigate crimes or threats—at the state, local or national level. Their career duties vary, but can include determining the credibility of a witness; placing individuals under surveillance to determine their identity, location, affiliations, character or movements; finding owners of abandoned property; securing evidence for use in civil or criminal cases; investigating threats of violence; or identifying the cause an accident, injury, fire or loss. They may carry firearms, work undercover and testify in court cases.
Private detectives earned an average national salary just north of $45,000 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Earning potential can vary by specialization, industry, professional background, education and location. Use the map below to explore the salaries of private investigators and detectives in the US.
The demand for private investigation services continues to evolve, especially with a growing need for securing private data online. The Internet introduced new types of insurance fraud, banking fraud and, increasingly, identity theft. The overall private investigation industry is small, employing under 35,000 professionals nationally in 2015, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Learn more about the projected growth of detective careers using the map below.
The private investigation industry is regulated at the state level to ensure public interests are protected and that private detectives abide by all laws and regulations. Because each state determines licensing requirements, criteria vary. Commonly, candidates are required to be at least 18 years old, have a clean criminal record, meet training and educational requirements, clear a background check and pass a state licensing examination.
There is no universal training path to becoming a private detective. Although many states, such as Maine, only require that candidates have a high school diploma or equivalent, other states require formal education in private investigation, criminal justice or related field. For example, Michigan requires applicants to have a bachelor’s or graduate degree in criminal justice, law, security management or computer forensics to qualify for a license. States like California, on the other hand, use academic training to determine one’s professional experience requirement: applicants with associate degrees in criminal justice or police science must complete 5,000 hours of practical experience while those with bachelor’s degrees need only 4,000 hours. Prospective private investigators should review their state licensing requirements before selecting a program to ensure it meets academic prerequisites.
Most states require detective licensing candidates to meet professional experience requirements. There are multiple ways to gain this experience, which is a major benefit of the field. Again, state requirements vary, but prospective private investigators may qualify for licensure after working in any of the following positions:
Each state determines the length of professional experience required. For example, Maryland requires candidates to meet one of the following requirements to apply: have at least five years of experience as a full-time police officer, five years’ experience as a fire investigator, three years as a detective with a police agency or at least three years of experience as an investigator with a county, state or federal office.
Private detectives may either apply for an armed or unarmed investigation license. When working as an investigator, detectives are not allowed to carry a gun unless they hold a firearm permit. Candidates may be required to complete both a formal firearms training course along with a training program that covers the rights and responsibilities associated with the power to arrest suspects in the field. After completing their training, candidates must submit a firearm application to the state for approval. It’s important to note that private detectives may not carry a concealed weapon without obtaining a separate Concealed Weapons Permit.
The next step toward becoming a private detective is filing a completed state licensing application. Candidates must also submit fingerprints, undergo a background check, provide two passport photos and pay an application fee. Once their application is approved, candidates are allowed to sit for a private investigator proficiency examination sponsored by a state agency. These examinations vary by state, but typically include multiple choice questions that cover topics such as state laws and regulations, surveillance, undercover investigations, insurance and liability, handling evidence and civil liability.
Private detectives are generally required to carry insurance policies to conduct investigations. Generally, this is a $10,000 insurance policy or bond filed with the licensing state agency. Some states, such as California, require armed private detectives to also file a larger insurance policy that covers bodily injury, death or property damage. Be sure to check state licensing requirements to learn about insurance policy minimums before establishing a policy.
The entire application process can take 90 or more days to complete. Once licensed, private detectives are allowed to begin working legally in the state. They may seek employment with private investigation agencies, corporations, insurance firms and government organizations, or start their own businesses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 25 percent of all private detectives were self-employed in 2014.
|Career Goal/Educational Needs||Certificate||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master’s|
|I’m interested in private detective work, but due to my personal and professional obligations, I can’t attend a full-time degree program. I possess related professional experience and would like practical, employment-specific training.|
|I’m considering private investigation as a career field, but would like to keep my options open. I’d like a broader education, one that may prepare me for a variety of employment paths.|
|I have some professional experience in investigation and would like to develop my skills to advance my career.|
|I possess both professional experience and advanced training in private investigation and am seeking an academic career or leadership position in the field. I’d like to open my own business, but need additional graduate-level education to prepare for new opportunities.|
For those considering detective careers, the major question remains: “How to get started?” Private investigation is a specialized career in which experience is as important as formal training. Because educational requirements vary from state to state, prospective students have a selection of potential academic programs to consider. Learn more about detective degrees, training programs and practical experience opportunities below.
Vocational schools offer career-focused courses and certificates in private investigation. These programs generally require between 15 and 18 credit-hours of study and concentrate specifically on investigative techniques like finding and interviewing witnesses, conducting background checks, reviewing public records and examining financial assets. Depending on the licensing requirements of the state, these programs could provide a relatively quick entry into the field of private investigation.
Military service is particularly useful for prospective investigators as it often satisfies professional requirements for state licensing. No single military occupation is recommended for a career as an investigator. Instead, skill development is paramount; teamwork, resilience and critical thinking all translate well to civilian position in private investigation.
Community colleges offer courses and programs that focus on career-specific skill development, preparing graduates to transition into entry-level careers. Students can choose from different levels of academic training in private investigation, including workshops, single courses, multi-session programs and certificates. Community colleges may also offer associate degrees in an area like criminal justice, which can help graduates gain the knowledge needed for a career as private investigator.
Law enforcement academies are specialized local- and state-based training programs for individuals interested in careers as police officers, sheriff deputies, detectives and highway patrol officers. A typical 18- to 24-month program combines academic and physical training. Students study the principles of policing, criminal law, firearms, accent investigation and emergency management. Successful graduates can transition into law enforcement positions in their community, which positions them well for detective careers in the future.
Four-year universities offer a wider selection of academic programs at the undergraduate level. Students can select from continuing education workshops, bachelor’s degrees and, depending on the school, master’s degrees in fields such as criminal justice and policing. These programs incorporate general education and humanities studies with focused studies in law and the criminal justice system. Post-graduation employment possibilities are broad: students can use their training to advance in their current private investigation careers, advance into leadership positions in law enforcement or qualify for entry-level investigation work.
Individuals interested becoming private investigators or are seeking additional skill development for career advancement can select from four primary credentials: certificates, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees. Explore what each program has to offer and the type of coursework it includes.
Certificates are short-term programs that cover the foundational knowledge and concepts required to work as a private investigator. Program lengths vary from two or three courses to complete multi-semester programs. Curricula cover the basics of the legal system, criminal and civil investigations, and investigation specializations. Students study the role of an investigator, ethics and how to conduct investigations using interviews, evidence discovery and reporting.
This class offers an overview of the criminal justice system, law enforcement, the legal process and the corrections system.
This course serves as an introduction to policing at the local, state and federal level, including the role of police.
In this class, students study the underlying philosophy of the correctional system and its various components, such as sentencing and parole.
Associate degrees are two-year programs that cover more topics than certificate programs, and in greater depth. These programs can prepare graduates for professional opportunities beyond private investigation in fields such as corrections, corporate security and law. Traditionally requiring between 60 and 66 credit-hours to complete, associate degree programs introduce students to the U.S. criminal justice system and the relationship between its components, namely law enforcement, corrections and the courts. Students also learn contemporary strategies used to maintain justice.
Explores the foundational principles behind the law and private investigation, with topics ranging from insurance law to ethical issues, and state law to investigator and attorney relations.
Provides an overview of civil investigations, introducing students to specifics in workplace, domestic violence and insurance casework.
Teaches students about the role of the private investigator and the planning, organization and execution of an investigation.
Bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice are designed for both new and seasoned private detectives. Through a four-year program of study, students study the theoretical foundations of criminal justice alongside the administration of law enforcement, the role of the courts and rehabilitation within the corrections system. Students gain insight into criminal law and criminal procedures, preparing them for a range of post-degree employment opportunities.
This course teaches students the history of criminal law in the United States and profiles specific criminal offenses.
This class serves as an introduction to the methodologies private investigators use to apprehend suspects. Topics might include crime scene recording, collecting evidence and interrogation.
In this course, students learn how security is organized and managed in private, public and government organizations. Topics include asset protection, operational issues and security duties.
The master’s degree is a graduate program of study designed for individuals seeking administrative or leadership positions in detection. These traditionally two-year programs expose students to specific aspects of the criminal justice system, including corrections, juvenile justice and criminology. Students also research behavioural analysis, giving knowledge a practical context. Some programs allow student to specialize in a concentration like police administration, criminal justice police, or community corrections.
Through this course, students gain advanced knowledge of how correctional-based programs (e.g. probation) can be developed and leveraged as an alternative to traditional institutional or prison-based rehabilitation.
In this class, students learn how to collect, analyze and interpret, and secure data sets used throughout the criminal justice system.
This class serves as an overview of modern law enforcement problems. Topics include organized crime, civil disturbances, crime reporting to dealing with public reaction to crime.
The field of investigation is at once broad and specialized: private investigators may choose to handle many different types of cases or focus on more targeted areas of work. These might include missing persons, private security, surveillance or worker’s compensation. Below is an overview of five popular private investigation concentrations found in detective degrees, along with 2015 median pay amounts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Legal investigators help attorneys collect evidence and prepare cases for litigation. They work across the legal industry, in areas such as criminal law, personal injury, civil law or worker’s compensation. They may process and serve legal documents, interview witnesses, review public records or verify information in a legal proceeding.
Insurance investigators work to expose insurance fraud by reviewing seemingly dubious claims. They may subcontract with insurance agencies, government organizations or private investigation firms to conduct surveillance, gather evidence, interview witnesses and review records. Broadly, insurance investigators may handle cases in home insurance, auto insurance, life insurance, worker’s compensation, and health insurance.
Financial investigators investigate financial services in areas like asset tracing, corruption, bribery, money laundering and accounting fraud. They may contract with a corporation to uncover cases of tax evasion, or examine financial records for an attorney in diverse litigation. Financial investigators use skills in computer forensics and accounting to source, trace and follow the movement of money.
Corporate investigators conduct internal or external investigations into workplace issues. Common foci include fraud, theft and embezzlement, workplace violence and intellectual property theft. Corporate investigators may also be contracted to perform regular compliance audits, monitor financial records, screen employees prior to hiring, conduct security risk analyses and investigate cases of sexual harassment.
Computer forensics investigators are specially trained in collecting and analyzing digital data that can be used as evidence in a court of law. Investigations could be either corporate or criminal. Investigators might, for example, recover deleted emails in a case of employee fraud, examine records that pertain to industrial espionage or recover computer files that may have been used in a forgery scheme.
The success of private detectives hinges on their ability to properly collect and analyze information over the course of an investigation. Investigators need a specific skill set to gather information, maintain confidentiality and collaborate with others. Discover what it takes to be an effective and professional investigator.
Detectives must be able to handle sensitive information and materials in a discreet and proper manner. Their interactions with witnesses and collaborators should be conducted with integrity to maintain credibility.
Challenging cases require investigators to uncover information not available in criminal databases and histories. Improvisation and on-the-spot creativity is key.
Interviewing is vital to investigation. Detectives need strong verbal and written communication skills and listening skills. They must also know how to ask the right questions to get the answers they seek.
Private investigators should operate discreetly, maintaining confidentiality in their work. Protecting interviewees, clients and sensitive data is paramount to being a trusted investigator.
A majority of private investigators work alone, and their days and nights are long days. They might also face challenges in solving a case. Self-direction and self-motivation are central to their success.
Detectives rely on a range of different tools to carry out their investigations, from the clandestine (hidden body cameras) to the overt (firearms). It is essential that investigators know the appropriate tools for the job. Common equipment:
Private detectives may choose to earn specialized certifications that go beyond standard state licenses. These specializations can help individuals advance in their detective careers or even pivot into a new industry. Example credentials:
The protective service and investigation industries offer an assortment of potential career paths outside of private investigation. Find some of those employment avenues in this chart.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Graduates of criminal justice programs also go into careers as correctional officers, firefighters, probation officers, and security guards.
And, just like any career, salaries can vary greatly depending on where you live and work—the state, city, and even the community. Our salary comparison tool will give you more information about the salaries of similar occupations in your area.
The private detective industry offers a multitude of career options. Because of this diversity, staying ahead of industry trends, making connections with other professionals and finding employment opportunities can be challenging. The following resources can connect you with continuing education programs, conferences, networking events and job boards.
PINow.com is a database of licensed and screened private investigators that connects prospective investigators to employers.
The National Council of Investigation and Security Services is a national membership-based organization that represents the rights of private investigators and security professionals.
The United States Association of Professional Investigators is an organization open to all professional investigators that offers networking opportunities, conferences, and continuing education programs.
The World Association of Detectives was founded in 1921 that supports the private investigation profession, establishes ethical guidelines, and advocates for its members.
The World Association of Professional Investigators brings together professionals working in all areas of investigations through networking events, email lists, and conferences.
Want to become a sleuth? A private eye? It takes the right combination of experience and official training to qualify for a license to practice as a private detective. Use the search tool below to learn more about various detective degrees and certificates.