How Do I Become a Private Detective?

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If you love the challenge of solving a mystery, it might be time to take the leap from books, movies and games to a career as a private investigator. Private detectives handle numerous types of cases, from solving crimes to performing background checks, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. What makes them private is that, not being a sworn officer of any law enforcement agency, these detectives have only the rights afforded to private citizens and not the legal authority to make arrests or conduct searches of a person of interest’s private property. If you want to become a private detective, you should first understand what employment in this career entails and then pursue the formal education, professional experience and deductive skills you need to succeed in this role.

Life and Employment as a Private Detective

Although private detective is a career path everyone has heard of, primarily through fiction, there are only around 33,000 Americans working in this occupation, according to the BLS. Investigation, guard and armored car services is the industry that employs the most private detectives, accounting for 35 percent of workers in the occupation. Another 10 percent work in finance and insurance. The government employs 8 percent of private investigators – but not as sworn law enforcement officers. The next largest share of the profession is self-employed workers, the BLS reported.

Understanding different employment situations can help you navigate the path to your intended career in private investigation. If you imagine starting your own private investigation firm in which you take on cases directly from individuals, then you’re most likely going to want to work for yourself. In this role, you are free to take on cases ranging from finding missing people whose disappearances show no sign of foul play to catching evidence of a cheating spouse’s infidelity, but the burden of obtaining paying clients, through advertising or word-of-mouth, is on you. Private investigator roles in investigation services, finance and insurance and government entities, on the other hand, assign you cases to work or problems to solve.

It is easier to become a private detective than a police detective, but many states require a license to call yourself a private investigator. Even self-employed detectives must have sufficient qualifications to attract clients to their business.

The Best Majors for Private Detectives

Having a breadth and depth of knowledge in a variety of subjects is valuable to private investigators, but even more important is having the skills to find and interpret new information. Acquiring a college education can help you build both this generalist foundation and these skills in research and logic. In fact, 38 percent of private detectives and investigators have a bachelor’s degree, and 16 percent have an associate’s degree.

Thinking about what kind of employment setting most appeals to you can help you narrow down your options for choosing a college major. A degree in criminal justice is one program of study that is popular with private investigators, specifically if you want to solve crimes rather than merely investigating personal, corporate or civil legal matters. Criminal justice degrees often focus on understanding the structures and operations of the criminal justice system, which can be valuable even if you aren’t the one making arrests. There are also many other options out there. If you want to work for the finance or insurance industry, a degree in business, accounting or finance may position you to do so effectively. As cybercrime becomes more prevalent, having a background in computer forensics specifically or in computer science and information technology, more generally, can equip you with a knowledge base not every detective has. Some colleges even offer private investigator training programs that emphasize the development of skills in handling all aspects of the investigative process and in gathering and analyzing evidence from a crime scene.

If you want to run a private investigation firm, taking at least a few business courses can help you handle challenges of strategic planning, budgeting, marketing, recruiting support staff and managing the operations of your firm.

Experience Needed to Become Private Detective

Experience is an important part of the path to becoming a private investigator. In fact, although the requirements to hold a license in this occupation vary by state, it is common for states to focus more on experience than on education. Many detectives gain this work experience by taking on investigative duties in other roles. Some are former police detectives or federal intelligence agents. Others built their body of investigative skills as they worked as a paralegal assisting attorneys with cases, an insurance claims adjuster gathering data or even a bill collector, the BLS reported.

Private investigator is a second career for many retired police officers and veterans, but you don’t need decades of experience. Focus on cultivating skills in deduction, reasoning and critical thinking while you work toward meeting your state’s experience requirements.

Related Resources: 

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Detective?

How Do I Become a Police Detective?

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Private Investigator?

For Further Reading:

Top 10 Graduate Degree Programs in Criminal Justice