Polygraph Examiner: Job Description, Salary & Certification

Find out the truth about a career as a polygraph examiner. Learn about the educational requirements, licensing, salary and job skills necessary to administer lie-detector tests. Schools offering Criminal Justice degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Overview

Polygraph examiners, sometimes called polygraphers or polygraphists, administer tests to determine whether someone is telling the truth. While rarely admissible in court, polygraph tests (commonly called lie-detector tests) are widely used in law enforcement and background checks for hiring purposes. The chart below shows more details for polygraph professionals.

Typical Education Bachelor's degree; polygraph training program
Education Fields of Study Criminal justice, psychology, biology, nursing; polygraph training
Licensure Federal, state and local licensing and/or certification may be required
Key Skills Excellent communication, interpersonal and analytical skills
Job Growth (2016-26) 17% (forensic science technicians)*
Median salary (2019) $53,037**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Payscale.com

What is a Polygraph Test and How is it Administered?

When people lie about something important, it tends to make their heartbeat, respiration and perspiration increase. A polygraph exam measures at least three physiological responses to questions: Sensors on the chest and abdomen record respiratory activity; a device similar to a blood-pressure cuff records cardiovascular activity; and electrodes attached to the fingers measure the activation of sweat glands. Polygraph examiners typically ask neutral questions first about examinees' name, age, occupation, etc., to measure their base responses to non-stressful questions. These responses are compared to bodily reactions to critical questions.

What Are the Requirements for Becoming a Polygraph Examiner?

Polygraph examiners generally need a bachelor's degree, with some exceptions for individuals with specialized training who lack college degrees. State or federal licensing or certification is usually required. The American Polygraph Association maintains a list of accredited training programs, which offer a minimum of 400 hours of instruction over 10 to 17 weeks. Such programs may offer courses in psychophysiology, instrumentation, question formulation, interviewing techniques and chart analysis, with a practicum in which students conduct exams on their own. Polygraph examiners must have excellent verbal and written communication skills, interpersonal and analytical skills, high levels of professional and personal integrity, and -- you guessed it -- often must pass a polygraph exam.

Who Employs Polygraph Examiners?

The American Polygraph Association had more than 2,800 members in 2015. A review of open jobs listed at its website shows that examiners are needed to work in government, law enforcement, immigration control and sex offender programs. Polygraph examiners are often needed to conduct background checks for private firms and government contractors, as well.

Why Are Polygraph Tests Used if They Are Not Always Reliable?

As of 2015, scientific studies showed that polygraphs provide a mean accuracy of 0.85 to 0.89, with a 95% confidence range. But since polygraph exams can produce both false positives and false negatives -- indicating that a truthful person is lying, or that a lying person is truthful -- they are generally not admissible in court. However, many employers consider them useful for conducting background checks on job applicants, and many law-enforcement agencies believe they are a useful tool to use in questioning suspects, witnesses and purported victims.

How Much Money Do Polygraph Examiners Make?

Polygraph examiners earned a median salary of $53,037 a year in 2019, according to Payscale.com. The Central Intelligence Agency, which uses polygraphs to determine eligibility for security clearances, advertised polygrapher jobs paying between $56,233 and $106,012 in 2018.

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