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 typically need several years of work experience in law enforcement or the military. 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 with the job, but most jobs require a high school diploma. Some, though, may require a 2- or 4-year degree in a field such as criminal justice or police science.
Corporate investigators typically need a bachelor’s degree. Often, coursework in finance, accounting, and business is preferred. Because many financial investigators have an accounting 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. Some 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 on the job how to recognize insurance fraud. 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 to both use computers and possess investigative skills, extensive training may be required. Many learn their trade while working for a law enforcement agency for several years. At work, they are taught how to gather evidence and spot computer-related crimes.
Continuing education is important for computer forensics investigators because they work with changing technologies. Investigators must learn the latest methods of fraud detection and new software programs. Many accomplish this task 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. Those in such jobs, who are frequently able to retire after 20 or 25 years of service, may become private detectives or investigators in a second career.
Other private detectives and investigators previously may have worked for insurance or collections companies, as paralegals, in finance, or in accounting.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
The vast majority of states require private detectives and investigators to have a license. Requirements vary with 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.
Although there are no licenses specific to computer forensics investigators, some states require them to be licensed private investigators. Even in states and localities where they are not required to be licensed, having a private investigator license is useful because it allows computer forensics investigators to perform related investigative work.
Candidates may also obtain certification, although it is not required for employment. Still, becoming certified through professional organizations can demonstrate competence and 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. Private detectives and investigators must listen carefully and ask appropriate questions when interviewing a person of interest.
Decisionmaking skills. Private detectives and investigators must be able to think on their feet and make quick decisions, based on the limited 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 conducting 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. Private 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.