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How to Become a Private Investigator: Career & Salary Information

Private investigators often play an unseen role. Whether in real life or on television, a big part of their role is to remain discreet. This is because they want to observe the true versions of people, not the masked versions that are often falsely portrayed. Their role goes beyond identifying information and often includes verifying already known information.

As indirect agents of the law, private investigators work with private individuals, companies, law firms, and other organizations to carry out legal investigations and uncover information from specific sources.

To become a private investigator, it is important to know that the requirements in each state differ. Once you know the requirements, you can pursue the appropriate degree, undergo training, pass several clearances and tests, and then you can assume the role of a private investigator.

While it often appears that the biggest role of an investigator is to uncover a secret affair or bring to light a child that a billionaire never knew they had, the reality is not quite as dramatized as we may think. Let us take a deeper look into the private investigator career and what you would need to do to pursue this lucrative career.

What Is A Private Investigator?

A private investigator assumes an important role in many organizations. They collect data and information related to people, places, and projects. While not actively part of law enforcement, they assume the role of civilians, but the information they gather and the cases they build can be used in court.

However, while they aren't active law enforcement agents, they cannot act outside the boundaries of the law, and all information they gather must meet strict standards. If the data and information they collect were obtained legally, these findings might not be upheld or used in court.

A private investigator must obtain information that can be used to a legal end, specifically relating to a criminal case or a person's personal information.

With the world also becoming increasingly digital, there is rarely a person in this world without some sort of digital footprint. While we may think of private investigators as slinking against a wall with the collar of their trench coat turned up, donning sunglasses and a hat to remain discreet, they do a lot of their investigations from a desk and using a computer or other forms of technology.

What Does A Private Investigator Do?

Being a private investigator means working for a lot of people, as well as working with a lot of people. In doing so, they carry out a wide array of duties to meet a specific end which will differ from client to client.

Before anything can be done, a case can be briefed, and duties can be assumed, the starting point for a private investigator would be to meet with the client to know the scope of the project they are about to endeavor on. This could be anything from searching for leads on a missing person or searching for background information on an individual who has applied for a job.

Depending on where each project may take, the private investigator may need to do legal research.

Once the investigation begins, the duties of a private investigator will range from researching an individual's background and personal information (information that otherwise wouldn't be easily accessible to the client), setting up surveillance operations, recording such information through photographs or videos, conducting interviews, and conducting verification checks on existing information.

In some cases, the private investigator's duty would be case-specific, and they could see themselves doing things such as delving into people's financial backgrounds, investigating different types of fraud such as financial fraud or identity theft, investigating digital crimes and physical crimes, compiling evidence and reports, and liaising with police detectives to pursue criminal cases.

Depending on the individual's strengths and skills, a private investigator may choose to specialize in a specific field within investigations, or they can provide expanded services that cover a range of services.

For example, some private investigators may focus solely on criminal investigations or missing persons, whereas others may focus on surveillance or computer fraud. On the other hand, others may provide varied services.

Steps To Become A Private Investigator

Becoming a private investigator takes a number of steps that require successful completion before you can be considered for this role. Let us have a look at the steps you'd need to take to become a private detective or investigator.

Step One: Do Your Research

Before you can start implementing any surveillance strategies, you need to do some research regarding a career path as a private investigator. The first thing you would need to find out is the specific state requirements you would need to meet before pursuing this career.

Step Two: Pursue your Education

To obtain a role as a private investigator, you would need to make sure you have the correct educational background before your career journey begins. This starts with obtaining a high school diploma or a GED and then furthering your studies.

For your success as a private investigator, you would need, at the very least, an associate or bachelor's degree in criminal justice, or any related field. This will propel you on your way towards success in this field as you will be equipped with the needed skills and knowledge.

However, suppose you wish to pursue your education even further. In that case, you can do some research to check which courses in a higher degree may benefit your progress towards becoming a private investigator. You can also then consider obtaining your master's degree in criminal justice.

Step Three: Minimum Requirements

Being a private investigator will require you to meet a number of interlinking requirements to successfully pursue this role. You must be over the age of 18 or 21, depending on the state in which you are located, you must be a U.S. citizen, and you must possess the appropriate licenses, such as gun and driver's licenses to successfully be considered for a private investigator's role.

You will also need to work a number of hours that will provide you with the training needed for you to be considered for the role of a private investigator. Being a private investigator needs practical experience, and while you are trained theoretically in your courses, it is advised that you take up an internship or apprenticeship whereby you work hand in hand with another, more experienced private investigator.

Through collaborative training and on-the-job training, you will learn certain things that you may not learn from a textbook. This will include things like learning different surveillance and monitoring techniques and learning from the experience of others.

In such cases where you are required to have completed a certain number of hours of practical training, certain courses can contribute to this time, so be sure to do your research and choose the courses that will provide you with the most benefit.

Additionally, having either military training or having previously worked in law enforcement as a police officer or as a police detective will prove to be beneficial in your job seeking.

Step Four: Obtain Your License

In many states, it is a minimum requirement to obtain a license to operate as a private investigator. This would mean taking an examination that tests your knowledge of legal protocols, procedures, the behavior of a private investigator, gathering information, and presenting the information to a court or the client.

Once you have obtained your license and begin working in a role as a private investigator, you will still be required to maintain your license after that for as long as you are going to be actively practicing in the role.

What Degree Do You Need To Be A Private Investigator?

At the very least, you would be required to have an associate degree, a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, or a related field. You can also choose to further your education and pursue a master's degree in a relevant field. This will open up opportunities for you and greater financial prospects.

What Is The Average Salary For A Private Investigator?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), private detectives and investigators can expect to earn a median annual salary of about $59,380. This is in accordance with data obtained in May 2021.

Annual salaries for private investigators can range anywhere from $32,130 to $98,070, depending on the experience, education, and training one might possess.

The salary for a private investigator would have to compensate for the hours they work, which is not your average 9-5 role. Because they conduct surveillance and in-depth investigations, they may need to work during somewhat strange hours, and they may even need to work shifts that exceed 24 hours.

What Makes A Good Private Investigator?

For the right reasons, superior observation skills and a natural inclination towards being extremely inquisitive will prove to be beneficial in a role as a private investigator. Additionally, it is extremely important to have a sound understanding of legal requirements to ensure that you don't infringe on any laws when carrying out your duties.

You must have outstanding communication skills as you will be communicating with clients, conducting witness interviews, and presenting cases in court.


How Do You Get Started As A Private Investigator?

Aside from meeting the basic education and personal requirements, you would need some form of industry-related experience, whether from working in law enforcement or completing an apprenticeship. This serves to create a practical knowledge and understanding of the skills you will be required to use as a private investigator.

What Does A Private Investigator Do?

At the most basic level, a private investigator seeks to solve a problem or to find a solution to a problem. From crime investigations to background checks and information verification, the tasks a private investigator may perform vary.

What Education Is Required To Be A Private Investigator?

A minimum requirement of a criminal justice qualification, or a qualification in a related field, is required for a career as a private investigator. This qualification would need to be, at the very least, an associate's or bachelor's degree.

How Do Private Investigators Get Clients?

Some corporations and large companies may hire private investigators to be employed permanently at the company. Additionally, you may market yourself at trade shows.

But a lot of the time, your reputation is what will carry you. Others may refer private investigators, even within law enforcement and private organizations. Therefore, you must always do the best job possible so that your reputation can speak for itself.

Do Private Investigators Earn Well?

According to the BLS, a private investigator may earn a median salary of $59,380 per year, or $28.55 per hour, almost four times the minimum wage. This would be considered 'earning well,' but it is extremely objective and may be considered good by some and not so great by others.


The combination of innate and acquired skills to be a private investigator will set you on your road to success in a specific and unique form of criminal justice. If this is the role you are hoping to pursue, you better get your magnifying glass ready as you venture down the path of this sought-after career that has seen a 13% growth in the last 10 years, according to the BLS.

find criminal justice degrees near you

find criminal justice degrees near you