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How to Become a Detective

detective, private investigator Some detectives specialize in computer forensics. / Credit: alphaspirit | Shutterstock

Is your ability to think critically one of your best qualities? Perhaps you’re known among friends as a great problem-solver? If this sounds like you, then you might have what it takes to be a detective.

There are two main types of detectives in the United States — police detectives and private detectives. Private detectives are more commonly known as private investigators, or PIs. And while private and police detectives have similar titles, they hold quite different positions.

Police detectives are employed by local, state and federal governments to investigate criminal cases. They are law enforcement officials who are legally able to conduct surveillance, arrest suspected criminals and obtain search warrants.

Police detectives usually start their careers as patrol police officers and move up the ranks within their law enforcement agencies to become detectives. Police officers may have to pass tests or earn a certain number of college credits before they are eligible to become detectives. For more information on how to become a police detective, see How to Become a Police Officer.

Private investigators, on the other hand, are not employed by law enforcement agencies. While they may investigate crimes, collect facts and even serve people with legal documents, they do not have the same authority as police detectives. But a PI's services are still highly valued, especially in situations where no laws have necessarily been broken or in which police involvement is limited.

If you’re thinking of starting a career as a private investigator, then keep reading to learn more about what PIs do, including what their responsibilities include, where they typically find work, and how much they can expect to earn annually.

What private investigators do

PIs find facts and analyze information for many kinds of cases, including criminal and civil legal cases, financial and corporate investigations, and personal matters. They offer a range of services and employ a variety of tactics to collect information.

Much of what a private investigator does is straightforward fact-gathering. They conduct personal interviews, search public records and databases and verify the information they have been given about individuals under investigation.

However, PIs may also use more clandestine methods to gather evidence. They may conduct surveillance or go undercover to collect sensitive information. However, if PIs are hoping to use the evidence they collect in a court of law, then they must obtain this evidence legally.

And while there are laws that determine the extent of what PIs may do while investigating a case, it is often up to the investigators themselves to use good judgment in determining whether or not their tactics are both legal and ethical. 

The services offered by PIs include background check verification, tracking missing persons and personal protection services. 

Some PIs choose to specialize in a particular area of service. Computer forensic investigators, for example, specialize in recovering, analyzing and presenting data from computers for use in investigations or as evidence in a case.

Legal investigators help prepare criminal and civil defense cases, locate witnesses, and deliver legal documents. And corporate investigators conduct both internal and external investigations for corporations. 

Where detectives work

Many PIs are self-employed and are hired on a case-by-case basis by individuals or companies. However, other PIs work as employees for detective agencies, corporations, law practices or financial institutions.

Certain detectives, known as loss prevention agents, are employed by stores and hotels to monitor theft and investigate suspicious activity.

Most PIs work alone, but some may work with others while conducting surveillance or monitoring suspects. The work of a PI can involve confrontation, and depending on the laws in the state in which a PI works, he or she may choose to carry a weapon for self-defense.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment of private investigators is expected to grow by 21 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

This increased demand for PIs is believed to stem from heightened security concerns associated with the Internet and the growing demand for accountability at healthcare facilities and other public institutions.

The median annual wage for private investigators was $42,870 in 2010.

Becoming a PI

There is no formal training required to become a PI, and most private investigators learn on the job. Depending on the setting in which a PI finds work, he or she may receive formal training by an employer or be expected to learn from working with more experienced investigators.

However, most detective agencies require that their PIs possess at least a high school diploma, and some prefer to hire candidates who also have some college credits. While there is no degree program designed specifically for PIs, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or political science may be helpful for aspiring investigators.

PIs who wish to specialize in a field such as computer forensics should have a degree in computer science.

Most states require PIs to obtain a license before contracting clients. Investigators wishing to carry a weapon must also meet certain requirements. For more information on state licensing, check out PI Magazine’s state license requirement list.

Professional certification is also available for PIs who wish to specialize in criminal defense investigation or security.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth writes about innovative technologies and business trends. She has traveled throughout the Americas in her roles as student, English teacher, Spanish language interpreter and freelance writer. She graduated with a B.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University. You can follow her on Twitter @techEpalermo or .

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