How to Become a Private Investigator: Career Guide

Written By Kathleen Swed


Private investigators, also known as private detectives, work for organizations and individuals to find information. They may engage in different types of cases, finding legal, personal, or financial information; performing background checks; interviewing people; and engaging in surveillance activities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for private investigators to grow 8% between 2018 and 2028. In 2018, private investigators made a median annual salary of $50,090, or $24.08 per hour. Depending on experience, education, industry, and licensure, private investigators can seek out higher salaries and opportunities for advancement in the field.

On this page, aspiring private investigators can learn about common duties and tasks in the profession, steps for how to become a private investigator, and other information about private investigator jobs.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Private Investigator

Often working for corporations, law firms, or individuals, private investigators find and verify information, assemble evidence, search for missing persons, and look for potential criminal activity. Acting as private citizens rather than official law enforcement, they must understand the legal parameters required by their local jurisdiction. Courts reject evidence that private investigators collect unlawfully, making it irrelevant.

A private investigator may perform a variety of daily tasks. Some assignments may require surveillance, where the investigator follows a subject and reports on their activities. Depending on their expertise or the particular assignment, they might watch the person's home or business, follow their movements, and collect evidence by taking photographs.

Private investigators also spend plenty of time behind a desk, researching people from a computer. They may dive into a person's social media networks, studying contacts, finding information on any criminal activity, and making notes on what types of activity someone engages in online. They also spend time making calls to assist clients with background checks and confirmation of reported facts.

Other daily activities for private investigators may include meeting with clients, conducting interviews, and studying court records.

Steps to Become a Private Investigator

Private investigators can take a variety of paths into the profession. Typically, experience counts as the primary qualifier. The list below outlines how prospective private investigators can increase their employability in the field.

  • Obtain a high school diploma or equivalent

    At minimum, most employers require a high school diploma or equivalent before hiring someone to work as a private investigator.

  • Consider pursuing an associate or bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field

    Some employers prefer -- or even require -- applicants with an associate or bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field. Those interested in working as private investigators may qualify for a wider variety of job opportunities if they obtain a higher degree.

  • Consider obtaining work experience in the military or as a police officer

    Many private investigators work in law enforcement before becoming private investigators. Because law enforcement personnel often retire after 20 or 25 years, private investigation work can be an attractive line of work post-retirement. Paralegals, process servers, and collections agents may also choose second careers as private investigators.

  • Obtain licensure according to state guidelines

    Most states require private investigators to obtain official credentials before they may operate.

Private Investigator Job Training

Largely an apprenticeship-based career, private investigation typically requires new employees to undergo on-the-job training. The profession offers official apprentice programs and informal arrangements. Private investigators may work closely with seasoned professionals, partnering with them on tasks and performing hands-on learning.

Required training for private investigators depends on previous experience. Employers may arm new private investigators with surveillance techniques, accident scene reconstruction methods, and strategies for collecting evidence and information.

Those working in a larger business environment, potentially investigating issues such as computer-based fraud, theft within the company, or insurance scams, may need other types of training. Such corporations may train private investigators to understand business practices, company structure, finance, and tools related to computer forensics.

To gain further experience, aspiring private investigators may enroll in a criminal justice degree program. Some degree programs offer internship opportunities that help students gain hands-on experience in the field.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Private investigators need certain qualities to succeed in their roles. Various soft skills can positively influence how well a private investigator works. For instance, private investigators must maintain good communication skills. They need to ask clear questions and actively listen to the answers, paying careful attention to details.

Problem-solving, decision-making, and critical thinking skills are also crucial, as private investigators frequently need to think quickly and take advantage of resources. Because surveillance can require long hours with very little activity, patience is also a necessary skill in the profession.

Private investigators must demonstrate self-direction and initiative. They also need computer skills to perform investigations online and through databases. Clerical skills help keep these professionals organized.

Previous experience in law enforcement can help aspiring private investigators hone the skills they need. Some of these professionals also obtain skills through higher education programs.

Salary and Career Outlook

According to the BLS, private investigators earned a national median salary of $50,090 in 2018. By completing a criminal justice degree, aspiring private investigators may qualify for a wider variety of positions with higher earning potential.

PayScale reports that hourly rates for private investigators increase significantly with experience. Location and industry can also affect salary opportunities.

Aspiring private investigators can expect to enter a job market with growing demand. The BLS projects jobs for private investigators to grow 8% between 2018 and 2028, faster than the national average for all occupations.

Lawsuits between individuals and corporations often require assistance from private investigators. For example, companies need private investigators to suss out fraud, perform in-depth background checks, and assist legal departments.

While the job market remains strong, aspiring private investigators can also expect to encounter some competition. Many law enforcement and military personnel retire at fairly young ages when they still want or need to work. Strong experience, computer know-how, and law enforcement degrees can set an aspiring private investigator apart from the competition.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Type of Hours Do Private Investigators Typically Work?
Private investigators work at all hours. They may work typical hours when engaging in research or making phone calls from a desk. When working on a case, they may conduct surveillance at all hours, including nights, weekends, and holidays. They may also conduct field interviews, which can occur at the convenience of the interviewee. Expected hours depend on a particular case and on the investigator's position and field of expertise.
How Common Is It for Private Investigators to Be Self-employed?

According to the BLS, only 6% of private investigators are self-employed. The investigation, guard, and armored car services industry makes up 35% of the workforce. Finance and insurance follow at 10%, while government-employed private investigators account for 8% of the field. Top industries for private investigation work include investigation and security services, credit intermediation and related activities, and management of companies and enterprises.

Can a Private Investigator Make Arrests?
Private investigators cannot make legal arrests in the United States. However, some states allow for citizen's arrests. Parameters vary but may include prior written consent from the state or the detainee's involvement in a federal crime or public endangerment. However, citizen's arrests by private investigators are rare. Private investigators must operate with a license, which most states require, and they must also understand and adhere to the regulations where they practice.
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