Private Investigators Career Overview: Requirements, Duties, and Salary

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the U.S. economy to add 4,400 new private investigator jobs from 2020-2030. This growing field offers diverse job opportunities.

Many private investigators work for government bodies or investigation agencies. Others operate their own private investigation firms. Some may handle investigation and surveillance for financial companies, law firms, and families. These professionals tackle cases including fraud investigations and background checks, making private investigation an exciting career.

Private investigators (PIs) need a keen eye, strong analytical skills, and technology expertise. Depending on their state of residence, PIs may begin their careers with a high school diploma. However, an associate or bachelor's degree in legal studies or criminology can lead to higher salaries and more job opportunities.

Read the Specifics: Specializations | Salary | Requirements | FAQs


What Does a Private Investigator Do?

Private investigators conduct research and surveillance to uncover evidence for their clients or employers. Common job duties include tracking individuals and performing background checks. PIs must abide by the law at all times. While they may aid in criminal cases and carry firearms, PIs are not law enforcement officers.

Private investigators collaborate with professionals from several industries to discuss cases, conduct interviews, and gather information. Entry-level private investigators may also work with field experts or agencies. After gaining experience, a PI may open their own investigative business.

Each case presents a unique situation, so PIs must adapt research techniques and constantly problem-solve.


Key Soft Skills for a PI

Attention to Detail: Private investigators must note details that other people might miss. They need to stay focused when analyzing movements, images, online sources, and behaviors. Confidentiality: PIs often handle sensitive cases, including fraud accusations, missing persons, and infidelity. They must keep all information confidential and store evidence safely. Patience: Many cases entail extensive research, dead ends, and false leads. Private investigators need patience to continue investigating despite such setbacks.

Key Hard Skills for a PI

Technology: Private investigators need tech skills, even if they don't specialize in computer forensics. PIs use computers to complete background checks, perform research, and conduct tracking. Interviewing Techniques: Interviewing is a crucial part of investigation, especially since private investigators do not hold the same authority as police officers. PIs should understand how to ask the right questions and get the information they need. Legal Understanding: Private investigators cannot break laws and therefore must know the limits of the law.

A Day in the Life of a Private Detective

For private detectives, every case is unique. PIs must adapt their investigative techniques accordingly. Aspiring private investigators should expect to conduct extensive research, fact-checking, and communication on a daily basis.

  • Giving a Quote: Prospective clients must discuss the potential case so the PI can determine whether to take it and provide an estimated cost.
  • Completing Background Checks: PIs commonly perform background checks. This process involves reviewing information such as financial records, past employment, and criminal records.
  • Conducting Online Research: No matter the type of investigation, PIs conduct extensive online investigations. They review databases, examine photographs, and track social media presence.
  • Tracking Down Individuals: Private investigators may need to find individuals to complete surveillance or conduct interviews.
  • Surveilling Individuals: Domestic and fraud cases often involve surveillance. PIs conducting surveillance may capture video, audio, or photographic evidence.
  • Fact-Checking Data: Before giving evidence to clients, PIs must fact-check all information.
  • Presenting Information: At the end of a case, investigators present organized data to their clients.



Areas of Specialization for Private Investigators

Specialization Description Recommended Education Licensure and Certification Requirements Career Titles Within This Specialization
Fraud Large corporations and insurance companies often hire private investigators to uncover evidence of fraud. PIs working for insurance companies may complete surveillance to prove or disprove a claim. Corporate investigators usually focus on financial documents. High school diploma required; associate or bachelor's degree in legal studies, business administration, or similar field recommended State licensure usually required, certification optional Financial fraud investigator, corporate investigator, insurance fraud investigator
Computer Forensics Computer forensic investigators use their technology skills to complete background checks, uncover fraud, and track down identity thieves. High school diploma required; associate or bachelor's degree in criminology, computer science, or similar field recommended State licensure usually required, certification optional Computer forensic investigator, information systems investigator, IT security specialist
Legal Legal investigators work closely with attorneys, collecting necessary evidence for a case. These private investigators often work on personal injury and criminal defense cases. High school diploma required; associate or bachelor's degree in legal studies, criminal justice, or similar field recommended State licensure usually required, certification optional Legal investigator
Domestic Private investigators often provide evidence in child custody disputes and divorce proceedings. High school diploma required; associate or bachelor's degree in legal studies, psychology, or similar field recommended State licensure usually required, certification optional Domestic investigator, civil investigator, marital investigators
Government Local governments employ the second-most private investigators, according to the BLS. PIs in this sector may work cases involving fraud, background checks, and court-mandated investigations. High school diploma required; associate or bachelor's degree in legal studies, criminal justice, or similar field recommended State licensure usually required, certification optional Fraud investigator, financial investigator, legal investigator
Missing Persons In missing persons cases, private investigators may pick up where law enforcement officers left off. PIs study the person's habits, interview their friends and family, and complete online research to find clues to their whereabouts. High school diploma required; associate or bachelor's degree in psychology, criminal justice, or similar field recommended State licensure usually required, certification optional Missing persons investigator

Private Investigator Salary and Career Outlook

High demand for private investigators may make this field attractive to recent graduates and professionals seeking a career change. The BLS projects a 13% job growth for PIs from 2020-2030. Aside from this positive outlook, PIs and detectives earn a median annual salary of $53,320. Higher-end salaries reach $96,950 per year.

The BLS projects a 13% job growth for PIs from 2020-2030.

Pay depends on experience, education, and specialization. For example, PIs working in electric power generation, transmission, and distribution make more on average ($92,900) than those in other industries, according to the BLS.

Median Annual Salary: $53,320

Source: BLS


Next Steps on the Career Path

After a few years in the field, private investigators can pursue management positions or open their own practices. Experience, continuing education, and certification can also create career opportunities, such as the following:


Where Can I Work as a Private Investigator?

According to the BLS, the investigation and security services industry hires the most private investigators, followed by local government and legal services. Most PIs work in urban areas.

Metropolitan hubs like Washington, D.C.; New York; and Philadelphia employ the most PIs. The top-employing states for PIs include California, Virginia, and Texas.

When deciding where to work, private investigators must also consider licensure. If a PI holds a license in their home state, they cannot move to another state and begin working immediately. The private detective would need to meet their new state's requirements and sit for another license exam.


How to Become a Private Detective

The path to becoming a private detective varies by state. Many states do not require higher education for licensure. Others expect a bachelor's or associate degree or years of experience in the field.

Most states require PIs to be 18-25 years old, hold U.S. citizenship, have a clean criminal record, and be of respectable character. PIs must present no history of substance addiction or mental illness. Not all states require licensure to practice as a private investigator.

  1. Research State Licensure Requirements: Each state sets its own requirements for licensure. Make sure to learn about your state's requirements before pursuing higher education or taking the licensure exam.
  2. Consider Courses or Degrees in Private Investigation: Some states allow private investigators fulfill experience requirements for licensure by earning certificates or degrees. Degrees can also help aspiring PIs increase job security and potential salary.
  3. Fulfill Required Experience: Many states expect individuals to hold years of experience in law enforcement, security, or investigation before applying for a PI license.
  4. Take License Exam: Though not needed everywhere, several states require applicants to pass exams to gain licensure.
  5. Complete Weapons Training: In states that allow private investigators to carry firearms, PIs should hold necessary permits and complete training with approved organizations.
  6. Submit State License Application: After meeting requirements for experience, education, and exams, individuals can apply for licensure. Applicants should include references, fingerprints, proof of experience and education, application fees, and a surety bond.

Private Investigator Requirements in Education

Education requirements for private investigators vary across the United States. According to the BLS, private investigators need at least a high school diploma. Some states, like New York, do not require education for licensure. Other states, such as Nevada, accept higher education as part of experience prerequisites.

State licensure requirements often prioritize experience over education. However, some employers and clients may prefer formally educated PI candidates. A degree in criminal justice or legal studies can widen employment opportunities and increase starting salary. Many PIs also hold backgrounds in psychology, law enforcement, or business administration.

Individuals hoping to work with criminal cases may benefit from crime scene investigation programs. PIs hoping to open their own practice may consider degrees in business administration. PI certificate programs can also demonstrate initiative and experience to potential clients.

Learn more about degree programs for PIs:


License and Certification Requirements for Private Investigators

Most U.S. states require private investigators to hold state licensure. In jurisdictions without statewide licensure requirements, individual communities may maintain local licensure standards. PIs can also join state associations to ensure quality practices.

Steps to licensure may include an exam, a surety bond, and a background check. Applicants must also fulfill experience requirements and pay necessary fees.

In addition to licensure, private detectives can pursue certification. Voluntary certification can show credibility and expertise to clients and employers, thereby increasing salary potential. Explore two common certifications below:

ASIS International provides the PCI certification to investigators who have worked in security. Applicants must hold 3-5 years of investigative experience with two years of case management. They must also pass a 140-question exam. This credential proves mastery of case management, information gathering, and case presentation.

The National Association of Legal Investigators offers this credential to private investigators working in the legal field. Candidates must take an exam, submit a white paper, and commit to pursuing continuing education credits. Applicants need five years of legal investigative experience or a combination of professional experience and college education.


Private Investigator Training

Experience forms a crucial part of private investigator training. Many states require aspiring investigators to complete 3-5 years in the field before taking the licensure exam. Other qualifying experience may include working as a police officer, claims investigator, or security director. Some states count associate or bachelor's degrees toward experience requirements.

Many states require aspiring investigators to complete 3-5 years in the field before taking the licensure exam.

Certain states mandate private investigator training courses for licensure as well. Private investigators who wish to carry firearms in states that allow them to do so may need to complete additional training courses.


Frequently Asked Questions

true How do you become a private investigator/private detective/PI?

Each state maintains its own education, experience, and licensure requirements. Most states require a license to work as a private investigator. Employers and clients often prefer certifications, higher education, and experience, even when not required by law.

true What does a private investigator do?

Private investigators are not part of the police force. These professionals work for individual clients, government bodies, attorneys, and businesses. Typical PI duties include completing background checks, helping in criminal cases, and gathering evidence for contested divorces.

How much do private investigators cost?

Private investigators' rates depend on location, experience, and case. As of October 2021, PayScale reported that PIs earned an average hourly rate of $24.31. Private investigators may charge higher rates for more complex or dangerous jobs.

What are private investigator tools?

Essential tools for private investigators include cameras, computers, and background check databases. Other helpful tech tools include surveillance drones, spyware, tracking devices, and layered voice analysis software.


Featured Image: Martinns / E+ / Getty Images

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