There are two types of detectives, police detectives and private detective or private investigators (PI). Depending upon which type of detective you chose to become, will determine your educational and training requirements, job responsibilities, career path, salary prospects and job growth. If you are interested in becoming either a police detective or a private investigator, here is the information you need.

How to Become a Police Detective ?

Before you gather information on how to become a police detective, you must first know what they do.

What do Police Detectives do – Police detectives are either uniformed or perform their duties in plainclothes. They make arrests, conduct raids, observe suspicious activities and individuals, examine records, conduct interviews and investigate cases. These professionals usually work on criminal, fraud and missing person’s cases. Detectives are assigned cases on rotation basis. A case is assigned to a police detective till an arrest is made, trial is completed or the case is closed for any number of reasons.

Educational requirements – To be considered for appointment, police detectives must at least have a high school diploma or a GED. However, nowadays, more and more police departments and federal agencies are looking for applicants with post-high school qualifications such as college credits or degrees in criminal justice.

Police officers are also encouraged to pursue college-level studies in law enforcement and particularly in criminal justice. Many police departments across the country offer financial assistance to employees to complete their education. With an ever expanding diverse landscape, college level education in foreign languages can also come in handy for police officers looking to move up to a detective’s position.

Is a career as a police officer really for me?
How to Become Detective

Training –You cannot be hired as a police detective straight out of the academy. Police officers need to pass a battery of theoretical exams to be promoted as police detectives.

All police officers begin their career by attending a training academy. The duration will vary, but on the whole all police training academies offer curriculum in theory and hands-on training. Courses on constitutional law, local and state laws, police ethics and civil rights are offered in-class. As far as hands on training goes, it includes firearm use, traffic control, patrol, emergency response, first aid and self-defense.

To become a police officer, the following requirements must be met.

Requirements to Become a Police Officer::

  • Must be a US citizen
  • Must be at least 21 years of age
  • Have a valid driver´s license
  • Never been convicted of a felony
  • High school diploma/60 college credits/2-years of military experience with an honorable discharge
  • Pass background and character investigation, physical agility exam, psychological tests, and medical exam
  • Applicant may need to be a resident of the state they´re applying in

Under what conditions do Police Detectives Work?

The working conditions of a Police detective depends on the crimes or infractions they investigate. Criminal investigations such homicide, burglaries, thefts and missing person’s cases require detectives to visit crime scenes which can be disturbing, emotionally distressing and sometimes physically threatening.

How to Become a Private Investigator (PI)

A fundamental difference between police and private investigators is that the latter do not wear a badge issued by a local or federal law enforcement agency. Furthermore, unlike police investigators, private investigators offer their services in personal, financial and in legal matters. Also, there are more specialized tracks within this realm as compared to police detectives. Private investigators can specialize in:

  • Financial investigations
  • Corporate investigations
  • Legal investigations
  • Computer forensics investigations

This is, however, not to suggest that there are no similarities between police and private investigators. They both:

  • Collect evidence to present in court or to a client
  • Conduct surveillance
  • Interview eye witnesses to gather information

Educational requirements – Like police investigators, private investigators, too, must hold a high school diploma. Furthermore, depending upon their field, they may need college-level courses or even a degree. For instance, if you want to become a corporate investigator, an undergraduate degree in business, accounting or finance would be preferred. Corporate investigators may also need to be certified public accountants (CPAs).

Similarly, if you want to become a computer forensics investigator, then an undergraduate degree in computer science would be beneficial.

Training – Private investigators typically have a law enforcement or military background. Others may have previous work experience as collection agents, paralegal work, accounting and finance. Irrespective of their background, all private detectives undergo hands-on training. Retired police officers, federal agents, military and intelligence officials may not require as extensive hands-on training as the ones with no experience.

Where do Private Investigators work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the sectors mentioned below employed the following percentage of private investigators.

Retail trade 6%
Finance and Insurance 6%
Government 7%
Investigation, guard, and armored car services 30%
Self Employed 1 in 4 private investigators are self employed

Licenses –This is another big difference between a police detective and a private detective; the latter needs to be licensed. Almost all the states require such professionals to be licensed. State requirements for private investigator licensure will vary and therefore you should check with Professional Investigator Magazine for your state’s requirements. If you carry a handgun, you may need to meet further requirements. Certifications are however not required in this career, however certifications can improve your chances of employment.

What is the work schedule like?

A private detective’s work is grueling, since it involves working odd hours, nights, weekends and holidays. This is also an all-weather job where detectives are required to work rain or shine, night or day.

What Skills should you have to become a Detective?

Irrespective of the nature of your employment, all good detectives possess the following qualities and skills:

  • Good judgment & Leadership skills
  • Communication skills
  • Physical strength & stamina
  • Perceptiveness
  • Resourcefulness
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Analytical Skills

If you possess these, then perhaps a detective’s career is for you.

Salary Data and Job Prospects

Job Title 2015 Median Salary Job Growth
Police Detectives $60,270 4%
Private Detectives/Investigators $45,610 5%
Financial Examiners $78,010 10%

The abovementioned figures are taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The job growth figures reflect the period between 2014-24.

Which investigator should you become?

Both careers have their pros and cons. Unlike police detectives, private detectives could be self-employed, be their own boss, but they make less than the police detectives. Police detectives, on the other hand, may earn more, but their freedom to choose a case is limited as tasks are assigned to them. All in all, both careers require strong decision making and analytical skills, hard work and dedication.