How to Become a Private Detective or Investigator
Although most learn on the job, many people entering this field have a law enforcement background.
Private detectives and investigators mostly need several years of work experience in law enforcement. Workers must also have a high school diploma, and the vast majority of states require private detectives and investigators to have a license.
Education requirements vary greatly depending on the job. However, a high school diploma is usually required.
Some jobs may require a 2- or 4 year degree. Although previous work experience is usually the most important requirement, candidates sometimes enter the occupation directly after graduating from college with an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or police science.
Corporate investigators typically need a bachelor’s degree. Coursework in finance, accounting, and business is often preferred. Because many financial investigators have an accountant’s background, they typically have a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field and may be Certified Public Accountants (CPAs).
Computer forensics investigators often need a bachelor’s degree in computer science or criminal justice. Many colleges and universities now offer certificate programs in computer forensics, and others offer a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.
Most private detectives and investigators learn through on-the-job experience, often lasting several years.
Although new investigators must learn how to gather information, additional training depends on the type of firm that hires them. For instance, at an insurance company, a new investigator will learn to recognize insurance fraud on the job. And corporate investigators hired by large companies may receive formal training in business practices, management structure, and various finance-related topics.
Because computer forensics specialists need both computer skills and investigative skills, extensive training may be required. Many learn their trade while working for a law enforcement agency for several years where they are taught how to gather evidence and spot computer-related crimes.
Continuing education is important in this area because computer forensic investigators work with changing technologies. Investigators must learn the latest methods of fraud detection and new software programs. Many accomplish this by attending conferences and courses offered by software vendors and professional associations.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Private detectives and investigators typically must have previous work experience, usually in law enforcement, the military, or federal intelligence jobs.
Some have worked for insurance or collections companies, as paralegals, in finance, or in accounting. Many of these people, who retire after 25 years of work, often become private detectives or investigators as a second career.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
The vast majority of states require private detectives and investigators to have a license. Requirements vary, depending on the state. Professional Investigator Magazine has links to each state’s licensing requirements. Because laws often change, jobseekers should verify the licensing laws related to private investigators with the state and locality in which they want to work.
In most states, detectives and investigators who carry handguns must meet additional requirements.
Some states require an additional license to work as a bodyguard.
Although there are no license requirements for computer forensic investigators, some states require them to be licensed private investigators. Even in states and localities where licensure is not required, having a private investigator license is useful, because it allows computer forensic investigators to perform related investigative work.
Candidates also can obtain certification. Although not required, becoming certified through professional organizations can demonstrate competence. In addition, certification may help candidates advance in their careers.
For investigators who specialize in negligence or criminal defense investigation, the National Association of Legal Investigators offers the Certified Legal Investigator certification. For investigators who specialize in security, ASIS International offers the Professional Certified Investigator certification.
Communication skills. Detectives and investigators must listen carefully and ask appropriate questions when interviewing a person of interest.
Decision-making skills. Detectives and investigators must be able to think on their feet and make quick decisions, based on the information that they have at a given time.
Inquisitiveness. Private detectives and investigators must want to ask questions and search for the truth.
Patience. Private detectives and investigators may have to spend long periods on surveillance, while waiting for an event to occur. Investigations may take a long time and they may not provide a resolution quickly—or at all.
Resourcefulness. Detectives and investigators must work persistently with whatever leads they have, no matter how limited, to determine the next step toward their goal. They sometimes need to anticipate what a person of interest will do next.