Criminal Investigator: Career Guide

One job in the field of criminal justice that offers a great deal of variety is that of criminal investigators (CI). The work of criminal investigators has been glamorized on television and in the movies; on television shows, the crime is always solved within an hour, but that is not the case in real life. The job of a CI is to attempt to solve each case that comes his or her way. The nature of the work tends to be specialized based on the CI's education and experience and the needs of the organization for which he or she works. Criminal investigators generally work for local, state, and federal government agencies, such as state police, the US Forestry Department, the Inspector General, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the FBI. Investigators with extensive experience may earn promotions to special units or to high-ranking administrative positions. An advanced degree also benefits those seeking a promotion.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Criminal investigators may begin their career doing entry-level tasks, including examining written records, helping to prepare evidence for trial, investigating felony and misdemeanor crimes, and offering testimony in court about the gathered evidence. One of the main contexts in which an investigator works are crime scenes. The investigator is charged with studying the scene and determining what may have occurred based on the evidence observed and collected at the scene. A criminal investigator then turns evidence over to a forensics specialist for evaluation. An investigator often interviews people who are related to the case to gain more information. This might include witnesses and family and friends of the suspect. CIs study records, observe suspicious activities and suspects, and help with raids and arrests. As an investigator gains experience his or her responsibilities increase, which may include promotion to a supervisory position.

Detectives, who are also CIs, typically investigate a particular class of crime, such as homicide. Cases are typically assigned to detectives on a rotating basis, and detectives work on these cases until the perpetrator is arrested and convicted or the case is dropped. The work of police detectives can be extremely dangerous. Police detectives have to practice constant vigilance so that they are ready to confront dangerous situations quickly. They are often exposed to death and suffering and this type of emotional trauma can take a toll. Police detectives often work overtime and frequent weekends, holidays, and nights. They usually work long hours during an active investigation.

Steps for Becoming a Criminal Investigator

Criminal investigators can technically secure employment with only a high school degree or equivalent. However, aspiring investigators who hold an associate's or bachelor's degree in criminal investigations or another area of criminal justice can increase their chances of finding a position. It may also be helpful to pursue courses in crime scene investigation, forensics, psychology, and sociology. Positions with federal agencies typically require a minimum of a bachelor's degree.

To become a criminal investigator, you should:

  1. Acquire the education and/or experience needed for the criminal investigator job you are targeting.
  2. Apply for a job as a criminal investigator.
  3. Undergo a background check.
  4. Pass a drug test.
  5. Be interviewed.
  6. Be hired as a criminal investigator.
  7. Receive training on-the-job once hired.

Please note that a degree cannot guarantee employment or career advancement. Additional academy training or education may be required for law enforcement jobs.

Criminal Investigator Training

The required training for investigators will depend on the agency with which the individual works. Federal agencies, such as the FBI, generally provide training within the organization. Some agencies also offer internship programs for aspiring investigators that provide real-world experience that can enhance employment prospects.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

A criminal investigator must possess such traits as the ability to pay careful attention to even the smallest of details and to conduct independent research. The investigator must carefully examine and evaluate every piece of evidence (including physical evidence and information gained from interviews) to uncover motives and suspects. Therefore, an investigator must have strong interpersonal skills and well-developed reasoning and critical-thinking skills. Criminal investigators must be problem solvers, be able to effectively interact with and educate people, and be active listeners. A college degree in criminal justice or a related field and experience in law enforcement are both benefits when looking for employment.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Criminal Investigator
  • Detective
  • Special Agent

Criminal Investigator Salary and Job Outlook

The annual salary for investigators depends on education, experience, and geographic location. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that detectives and criminal investigators earned an average annual salary of $81,920 as of 2018.1 The largest number of jobs are typically found in states with larger populations, including Texas, California, New York, Florida, and Arizona.1 Specialized jobs in criminal investigations include fraud investigators and police detectives.

Related Careers

Interested in a career similar criminal investigation? Check out these related careers:

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What kind of schedule does an investigator work?

Answer: Investigators usually work at least 40 hours a week and must be willing to work various shifts, including holidays, nights, and weekends. Overtime is common, as is being relocated. Travel may be required with little advance notice.

Question: Are there any continuing education requirements for criminal investigators?

Answer: Because technology constantly evolves, CIs must keep up with the latest industry news and developments. However, the continuing education or training required generally depends upon the organization for which the investigator works.

Question: What kind of tools do investigators use?

Answer: Some common tools within the criminal investigation field include polygraph machines, wiretapping equipment, and surveillance equipment. Investigators should be prepared to carry a gun.

Additional Resources

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2018, Detectives and Criminal Investigators:

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