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Private Investigator: Career Guide

Private investigators, also known as private detectives, are often hired to locate missing people, to obtain confidential or deliberately hidden information, and to participate in solving crimes. Private investigators work for law enforcement agencies, private investigation agencies, or are self-employed and work directly for private clients.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

A private investigator, or PI, may conduct surveillance and background investigations on individuals, study crime scenes to search for clues, report information to the authorities, and occasionally testify in court. Some companies hire private investigators to complete undercover work, to conduct background checks and pre-employment verification, to escort valuable property from place to place, or to guard high profile individuals. PIs uncover facts about the legal, financial, and personal matters of people of interest. PIs use current technology to recover deleted emails and files and to conduct searches of databases for information about an individual. Private eyes may also conduct surveillance and interview people related to a case. Investigators must be assertive, unafraid of confrontation, and possess effective communication skills (including the ability to interrogate individuals). They must also pay close attention to detail to accurately document their activities for their clients and in some cases, for the courts.

Steps for Becoming a Private Investigator

While in most jurisdictions, there is no formal education requirement to become a private investigator, a degree in criminal justice may be beneficial. In fact, O*Net reports that most private investigators need a bachelor’s degree to be hired, though many jobs only require a high school diploma or equivalent.1 Former law enforcement officers sometimes take the experience they’ve gained in law enforcement and parlay it into a new career as a PI. Other aspiring PIs enter the profession after earning a college degree. Most states require private investigators to obtain a license to practice and some cities also have mandatory licensing for PIs. Only Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming do not currently require PIs to obtain a license to practice, according to Professional Investigator Magazine. Aspiring private detectives must be at least 18 years old (21 in select jurisdictions) and generally must have no criminal record. To become a private investigator, you can expect steps similar to these:

  1. Attend a degree program and/or gain experience in a related field.*
  2. Obtain a license from the state in which you plan to work.
  3. Obtain a concealed weapons license**.
  4. Interview with a private investigation agency.
  5. Be fingerprinted and submit to a background check.
  6. Get hired as a private investigator.
  7. Receive training on the job once hired.

*While it is not mandatory to obtain a degree or to gain experience in the field, both these steps can help prospective private investigators be more hirable.
**Check with your state for more details. If you plan to carry a weapon, you must apply for this license.

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

Private Investigator Job Training

Many private investigators learn the ins and outs of the business by training on the job. Aspiring private detectives may find entry-level positions within a private investigative service and learn from more seasoned PIs.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Successful private eyes possess common sense, sound judgment, and the ability to make decisions quickly. Aspiring investigators with previous law enforcement experience may find that experience beneficial when looking for employment. Former members of the military, actors, paralegals, photographers, and librarians may also find their experience advantageous when starting a career as an investigator. Professional investigators who specialize in specific areas may find it advantageous to obtain professional certification. A PI who works predominantly within the criminal defense specialization, for example, can earn certification through the National Association of Legal Investigators.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Private Detective
  • Private Eye
  • Private Investigator

Private Investigator Salary and Job Outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the annual median salary for private detectives and investigators was $45,610 per year as of 2015.2 The top 10% earn more than $85,190.1 Private investigators’ salaries vary according to the employer, the PI’s specialty, and the geographic area in which they work. The BLS projects job growth of 5% for private detectives and investigators between 2014 and 2024, which is about average for most professions.2 The projected job growth will result from the increased demand for security, the need to protect confidential information, and increased litigation.

Related Careers

If you’re interested in a career as a private investigator, you may also want to research more about these related jobs:

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What kind of hours do private eyes usually work?

Answer: Private detectives should be prepared to work long and irregular hours that may include nights, weekends, and holidays.

Question: How common is it for private investigators to be self-employed?

Answer: About one in four private eyes were self-employed in 2014, according to the BLS.2

Question: Can a private investigator make arrests?

Answer: No. Private detectives, even if they are employed by a law enforcement agency, only have the authority to make a citizen’s arrest. PIs do not have the same authority as police officers and others in law enforcement.

Question: What are some of the services a private eye may offer?

Answer: Private detectives may investigate accidents, suspicious fires, suspected child abuse, and wrongful death.

Additional Resources

References:
1. O*Net Online, Summary Report for: Private Detectives and Investigators: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-9021.00
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Private Detectives and Investigators: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/private-detectives-and-investigators.htm