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How to Become a Detective?

how to become a detective

Becoming a private detective has always held a certain appeal thanks to the seemingly wide range of perks involved. There’s professional independence for one, plus you can choose your hours, clients, etc. The financial benefits seem to be ever-increasing as well, with many PIs going on to start agencies or security companies of their own.

Requirements for becoming a legally licensed Private Detective vary from state to state. In some cases, the scope of academic qualifications that satisfy the needs of the licensing body will be much wider than in others.

The potential salary will vary just as widely as the requirements depending on the state you’re in. If you’re a long time state employee, thinking of going private, or perhaps have wanted to do so for a long time and find yourself in the “now is the time” frame of mind, you’ve got to answer some big questions before you can take action:

  • What does the job entail?
  • What are the requirements?
  • How much money can you expect to earn?
  • And finally, what is the actual process of becoming a licensed Private Detective.

The following article aims to serve as an in-depth guideline of what it takes and how to become a detective.

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What Does a 21st-century Detective Do?

Thanks to advancing technology, recent years have seen the emergence of new fields where investigators are required. Corporate and cybersecurity have become paramount to large entities in state and private sectors and thus, have opened many new avenues for investigators to find work.

Aside from that, Private Investigators do a number of the same things that state investigators do, often in collaboration with the state in serious matters as jurisdiction is limited when you’re a PI. The types of cases you are likely to investigate can vary greatly in their area, scope, and depth. They may include:

  • Missing persons
  • Fire investigations
  • Recovery of stolen goods
  • Identity theft
  • Kidnappings
  • Fraud of in all its forms

How do PIs do their investigating?

During the course of an investigation, a PI is likely to undertake a number of tasks in order to obtain information. This is likely to include interviewing witnesses, performing surveillance, and reviewing public government records.

Who do they work for/with?

Private investigators may be self-employed or part of an agency. It is also common for private investigators or agencies to work for the government on a sub-contracting basis.

What Kind of Work Are We Talking About?

Insurance Investigators

These mostly uncover insurance fraud and investigate dubious claims. They may interview witnesses, conduct surveillance, review public records, and gather evidence. The cases can cover life insurance, auto insurance, worker’s compensation, and health insurance.

Legal Investigators

These help with the collection of evidence and preparing a case for litigation. They may interview witnesses, serve legal documents and review public documents to verify information in a legal proceeding.

Financial Investigators

These usually work with the government or corporations to uncover tax evasion. They examine financial records for attorneys and have skills in computer forensics and accounting. They help to map the movement of money. Other areas where they may offer services include asset tracing, corruption, bribery, money laundering, and accounting fraud.

Corporate Investigators

These usually handle issues specific to the workplace. Things like theft, fraud, workplace disputes or violence, as well as embezzlement. Intellectual property theft may also be handled by a corporate investigator. They may also be called upon to monitor financial records, employee screening, risk analyses, and sexual harassment.

Computer Forensics

This requires special training and therefore can demand high payment for services. The analysis of digital data for use as evidence in court proceedings is a bulk of their work. Investigations can be criminal or corporate in nature.

What Are the Requirements of Becoming a Detective?

As far as the regulation of requirements for becoming a licensed PI is concerned, these are determined at state level. This means that criteria for obtaining a license can vary greatly depending on the state or states that you’re planning on operating in.

There are, however, some common regulations you can expect to find everywhere:

  • You must be at least 18 years old
  • Must have a clean criminal record
  • You must meet the required training and academic requirements
  • Have to clear a background check
  • You must pass a licensing examination

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What Kind of Qualifications Should I Look At?

There are plenty of avenues for acquiring the academic knowledge and qualifications that are required to become a PI. Most states will accept military or police qualifications as sufficient to meet standards. Many private institutions and individuals can help with gaining any necessary qualifications as well.


These are gained by completing short-term programs that cover the basic foundational knowledge required by a PI. Some can be as short as two or three sessions and an examination, while others can be elaborate multi-semester programs with multiple tests. You can use these as a means to gain an understanding of the criminal justice system as well as legal and law enforcement proceedings.

Associate Degrees

These usually run for two years and cover much more ground than certificate programs do. They also cover topics in much more in-depth. These qualifications usually mean that you obtain skills and knowledge that can help you find work not only as a PI but in other fields as well.

You will learn how the relationship between elements in the law functions, as well as study modern methods of maintaining justice. They also normally cover the relationship between the law and private investigations as a whole. Furthermore, you will study civil investigations and detective techniques and strategies for achieving certain goals.

Skills and knowledge gained will include the handling of evidence, surveillance techniques and protocols, providing court testimony, and analyzing forensic information, as well as a basic understanding of crime scene investigation.

Bachelor’s Degrees

These are obtained by individuals after they have finished high school, or by seasoned professionals who seek to improve their knowledge and skill set. You begin with an in-depth study of the theory of criminal justice as well as law enforcement in order to obtain a solid foundation.

You will study the role of the court and law in society, which will equip you for a myriad of different jobs in the industry. Skills and knowledge gained will include an understanding of the behavioral aspects of crime, evidence preservation, and personnel and facility protection.

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Masters Degrees

These are for individuals seeking to occupy administrative or leadership positions in the field of detection or investigation. Programs are usually two years long and seek to introduce the student to a specific aspect of the criminal justice system. Many times the program will allow a student to specialize in a certain field like criminal justice or community corrections and juvenile justice.

What Kind of Skills or Experience Will Be Beneficial?

Since this is an industry that is constantly expanding thanks to the exponential changing of society, you can never really know what skills will be useful. That being said, if you’re planning on making a living as a detective, you’ll need to be able to handle regular work.

The majority of cases for PIs have to do with the money in one way or another; therefore, experience as any of the following fields will definitely be to your advantage:

  • Any investigative arm of the armed forces
  • Any investigative branch of the federal government
  • Insurance adjuster
  • Military police
  • Arson investigator
  • Licensed repossession
  • Law enforcement
  • Any form of cybersecurity

However, it is imperative that you do your research and check the specific regulations as they pertain to the state that you’re planning on operating in.

The Perks and The Pay?

To paint a picture of how rapidly the industry has expanded in recent years, consider the following.

Less than ten years ago, the salary range for PIs was $18,000 to $45,000. As of 2023, the average salary for a PI is $45,000, with some of the highest earners reaching more than $80,000 or even $100,000. This growth is thanks in part to the fact that cybersecurity has become so much more important. If you can secure someone’s data, they’ll be willing to pay for your time and the peace of mind.

As for the perks…

The biggest one would be that you get to choose your own clients and set your own rates. Unfortunately, this can be a double-edged sword because sometimes you won’t be able to afford the luxury. You are also afforded the choice of determining your own caseload and, therefore, the hours you need to put in.

Finally, should you be in a position to expand your business, you’ll get to choose who you employ. You aren’t always guaranteed exclusivity of the case, though, because many investigators may work on the same case for one client.

The Process of Becoming a PI

I stress again the importance of doing your research before starting anything. The variations in regulations across state lines mean every state is different, however generally, there are six major parts to becoming a detective.

1 Academic Training

Whether you do a course to obtain a certificate, do a three-year course and get a bachelor’s degree, or get trained by the United States government, you need to have the academic credentials in one form or another.

The requirements can vary greatly from state to state, and you will need to fulfill the specifications. However, almost all states will accept time served in the army or the police, as well as the FBI, CIA, and similar institutions as adequate academic training, but again it is important to do your research and find out.

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2 Professional Experience

Having some experience in the field of investigation you’re planning on entering is vital. Again the requirements will vary from state to state, but you will need to meet a minimum number of years of experience.

3 Firearms Training (Optional)

Normally, you will require a firearm during the course of your work; therefore, if you have not already undergone firearms training, then this will also be a must. However, there are some forms of investigative work that won’t require you to carry a weapon, such as cybersecurity and investigative research. Therefore this is an optional step if that is the case.

4 Licensing Exam

Each state will perhaps have its own form of licensing exam. Furthermore, the type of work you’re interested in may require further exams to be undertaken, once more it is important to check your facts. Passing the licensing exam will be the last step in becoming a legalized PI, but you are not out of the woods yet.

5 File for Insurance policies

Most states require private investigators to carry insurance policies in order to conduct investigations. These are filed with the licensing state agency. Furthermore, if you are armed, you may need to carry additional policies for bodily harm, etc.

6 Start looking for work

Once the licensing process is over and done with (around three months), you can legally start offering your services to individuals, companies, and the government. You may also be approached to do sub-contracting work if your qualifications meet the requirements.

Looking for Career Paths into Becoming a Detective?

Then check out our informative Police Officer Job Description, our Crime Scene Investigator Job Description, and the most common Police Officer Interview Questions you could well be asked in 2023.

You may also be interested in knowing the Steps to Land a US Federal Government Job or the Government Agencies with Remote Jobs and Flexible Work.

There are also some great resources that will help you on your journey to becoming a detective. So check out The Everything Private Investigation Book: Master the techniques of the pros to examine evidence, trace down people, and discover the truth, Private Investigation: A Step-By-Step Guide On How To Become A Skillful Private Detective: Private Detective Training Books, PI School: How to Become a Private Detective, or if, you’re just starting out How to become a private investigator: Break into the industry with little or no experience.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing when you’re thinking of becoming a detective is to do your research. Regulations vary greatly across state lines and change often. This is thanks to the exponential growth of technology and, therefore, how information is handled and verified.

If you lack any skills or qualifications, there are a number of great options available to obtain them, so make sure you look at as many options as possible. Yes, there are plenty of perks and good pay if you’re willing to work for it, so what’s stopping you? Nothing, So, start your journey today.

All the very best with your career as a Detective.

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