How to Become a Private Detective in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a private detective. Learn about job duties, education requirements and average salary to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Law Enforcement degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Private Detective Do?

Private detectives gather and analyze information to provide services including verifying backgrounds, investigating crimes and searching for missing persons. They may also conduct interviews and perform surveillance. Private detectives need to be aware of the laws and legal issues surrounding their work, since they don't have police authority. Private detectives can be hired by companies, lawyers or individuals.

The table below outlines the general requirements for becoming a private detective.

Degree RequiredNone required; associate's or bachelor's degree could be useful
Education Field of Study Police science, criminal justice
Key ResponsibilitiesGather evidence and information; conduct interviews and surveillance; run background checks; investigate crimes and thefts
LicensureMost states require a license
Job Growth (2014-2024)5% for all private detectives and investigators*
Average Salary (May 2015)$52,840 for all private detectives and investigators*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Private Detective?

Private detectives uncover information that is useful to the companies, lawyers or individuals that hire them. They may perform pre-employment background investigations or credit checks, testify in criminal court cases or conduct surveillance to monitor an individual's activities. Sometimes they even take on assumed identities so they can observe individuals discreetly.

Step 1: Choose a Specialty

You could specialize in a number of areas as a private detective. For example, as a financial investigator, you'd investigate large monetary transactions or recover stolen assets, while as a store detective, you could prevent merchandise theft in retail establishments. You might become a computer forensic investigator in order to gather evidence and catch those responsible for hacking into computer systems. As a corporate investigator, you would help companies ferret out illegal activities such as the mishandling of expense accounts. Additional steps may be necessary depending on the specialty chosen, but outlined below are some basics.

Step 2: Earn an Associate's Degree

You don't typically have to fulfill formal educational requirements to become a private detective, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), although you'll generally benefit from postsecondary education (www.bls.gov). BLS says police science or criminal justice courses can be useful if you're interested in becoming a private detective. Associate's degree programs in these subjects are available and include courses in areas like criminology, American corrections, juvenile delinquency and criminal investigations.

Step 3: Consider a Bachelor's Degree Program

Some types of private detectives may need or benefit from a bachelor's degree; for instance, an aspiring corporate investigator must often complete a 4-year program in business administration, accounting or a related field. Bachelor's degree programs also expand your knowledge in a specific area if you're interested in specializing in financial or computer forensic investigation, for example.

Step 4: Gain Experience and Skills

Employers often hire in this field based on your past experience, so you may want to contemplate acquiring a job at a law enforcement agency or private security firm. Some private detectives start out as bodyguards or have a background in the military. Future employers may also look for evidence that you can work alone or in groups, make sound decisions, be assertive and communicate effectively.

Step 5: Become Licensed

As a private detective, you'll need to be licensed in most states, and the requirements can vary widely depending on where you live. Some states also require background investigations and have age, education and experience requirements. If you plan to carry a firearm, you'll need to fulfill additional requirements. You can check with your state's licensing department to ensure you're in compliance. The licensing process commonly involves successfully passing an examination on regulations and laws.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you're interested in investigating, you may also be interested in a career as a police detective. Like private detectives, police detectives collect facts and evidence, though they work with criminal cases rather than civil matters. Another career alternative is a gaming surveillance officer. Gaming surveillance officers work in casinos, watching for suspicious or illegal activity.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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