Solving heinous crimes and bringing their perpetrators to justice is, literally, the stuff of movies and television. It’s also an apt description of a day in the life of a police detective. Although a career as a police detective is not quite as glamorous in real life as it is on the big or small screen, the occupation appeals to so many people because it combines service to your community with the challenge of solving real-life mysteries. If you want to become a police detective, you should plan on furthering your education, acquiring experience as an officer and cultivating your skills of deduction.

police detective

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Education Options for Police Detectives

If you want to be a police detective, you usually have to start out in an entry-level officer position and work your way up to an investigator role. Because these starting positions often require only a high school education, you may think that going to college isn’t worthwhile. This common mistake could hold you back from ever becoming a police detective. That’s because, when you get to the level of detective, most police departments prefer to promote candidates who have at least some college studies under their belts, even if they don’t have a degree.

If you’re working in a jurisdiction where the competition to become a detective is particularly strong, or if you aspire to be a lead detective of a popular unit like homicide investigation, you will likely fare better by earning a bachelor’s degree early on in your career. Another benefit of starting your police career with a bachelor’s degree is the potential to earn an education bonus during each year of your service, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported.

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Once you decide that a college degree is worth the investment, you need to choose your program of study. Two perennially popular majors among established and aspiring police officers are law enforcement and criminal justice. These programs are clearly relevant to your career path, focusing on the concepts, practices and institutions that compose the criminal justice system and law enforcement’s role and responsibilities within that system.

You can also choose to major in something other than criminal justice or law enforcement – ideally, a subject of study that will offer you specialized knowledge that can help you solve crimes. You may decide to learn about human behavior patterns by studying psychology or develop a foundation for understanding the science behind crimes as a student of biology or chemistry. A background in computer science can help you solve digital crimes, while earning a bachelor’s degree in a business field can prepare you for forensic auditing tasks. Even a major in philosophy is not a waste, since it will strengthen your skills in logic and reasoning.

It is important to choose a major your department sees as relevant, but your core courses aren’t the only ones that assist in your detective work. Communication and liberal arts classes in a general education curriculum help you develop valuable critical-thinking skills.

Experience Needed to Become a Detective

Ultimately, a college degree can only get you so far in your quest to become a detective. Your experience as a police officer and the impression you make upon your superior officers through your work is what will land you a promotion to police detective. You should expect to spend at least a couple of years in generalist positions like patrol officer before you are considered qualified for advancement to a specialist position like investigator.

Aspiring detectives get started in law enforcement in the same way as other police officers. Once they meet eligibility requirements such as age, citizenship status and a clean criminal record, applicants can apply for available law enforcement positions. Once hired, they become cadets at a police academy. Academy complete training can last for up to several months and cover areas such as emergency response, patrol, traffic control, first aid and firearm and self-defense techniques, the BLS reported.

Although there’s no substitute for years of hard work as a patrol officer, building relationships with and learning new skills from the police detectives you work with can help you prepare for advancement to a police detective role faster.

The Most Crucial Skills for Police Detectives to Have

What does it take to become a police detective? Criminal investigators must possess all of the traits expected of police officers, such as leadership skills, physical strength and empathy, but they also need many more qualities. The best police detectives develop their skills in active listening, critical thinking, problem-solving and negotiating. Both deductive and inductive reasoning skills are crucial to solving crimes, as they are to solving other mysteries. In addition to being able to figure out the answers to a conundrum, good detectives must also be able to communicate what they have discovered – including the evidence that is compelling enough to secure a conviction in a criminal trial.

Communication skills aren’t just important at the end of an investigation. How well you communicate with, build a rapport with and persuade the witnesses and suspects you speak with as you investigate a crime is what helps you get the information you need to solve the case.

Additional Resources

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Detective?

How Do I Become a Private Detective?

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Private Investigator?