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Private Investigators

Private Detectives


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What's Needed:

  • Private investigators and detectives aren't typically required to obtain any sort of formal degree. However, many individuals who enter the industry after working as police officers or in other fields may already have some post-secondary education under their belts.
  • Those who wish to enter this field must be prepared for rigorous on-the-job training that involves plenty of trial and error.
  • Many organizations that hire private investigators prefer to hire individuals who have worked as researchers, analysts or law enforcement officers.
  • Analysts who do have post-secondary associate's or bachelor's degrees tend to major in criminal justice or related fields.

What you study:

You'll need to study the following subjects to be successful as a private investigator:

  • Basic legal principles
  • Forensics
  • Political science
  • Psychology
  • Accounting
  • Business
  • Computer science


Video Overview

Recaps private detective careers. Created for the US Dept. of Labor.


A Day in the Life

When you decided to become a private detective, you imagined that you would be spending your days on the trail of cold-blooded killers or sophisticated networks of bank robbers.

When you decided to become a private detective, you imagined that you would be spending your days on the trail of cold-blooded killers or sophisticated networks of bank robbers. While this hasn't quite worked out as anticipated, your job is still extremely exciting and rewarding. What's more, you've made valuable contributions to a number of important investigations during your time as a private investigator.

Although many private investigators are self-employed or operate their own businesses, you're relatively new to the business and haven't yet been able to strike out on your own. Nevertheless, you're confident that your hard work will eventually pay off and enable you to open your own investigative agency.

Nevertheless, you're confident that your hard work will eventually pay off and enable you to open your own investigative agency.

For now, you work for a major law firm that maintains a small team of private investigators at each of its offices. Your job duties are quite varied, but you're often called upon to pore over financial records, phone bills and email correspondence. You even occasionally conduct surveillance on behalf of one of your firm's clients.

Today, you arrive at the office after lunchtime. You usually stick to regular business hours, but your employer has asked you to take on a special assignment in the evening. You're simultaneously excited and apprehensive.

After greeting a few of your colleagues, you sit down at your desk and begin reviewing a stack of bank statements. You're looking for large withdrawals from an account that belongs to the ex-husband of one of your firm's clients. She alleges that he's been hiding some of his income to avoid making his court-ordered child support payments, and you're checking for obvious evidence of wrongdoing. After about an hour of looking, you haven't yet found a smoking gun.

While this is good news for your client, you were hoping to find something a bit juicier.

You fire off a quick email to the attorney on the case to let him know that you didn't find anything out of the ordinary. Next, you switch gears and begin reviewing the contents of a flash drive that was recovered from the premises of one of your firm's defendants. The prosecution turned it over to your firm as part of the discovery process, and you're checking to see if it contains anything that might incriminate your client.

You don't find anything on the flash drive, either. While this is good news for your client, you were hoping to find something a bit juicier.

You leave the office at 5:30 p.m. and get in your car. You're checking out a philandering ex-spouse's alibi, and you want to see exactly how long it takes to drive from his workplace to his former family home in rush-hour traffic. Your firm will use this as evidence in pending divorce proceedings.

Once you complete the drive, you make some notes about what you've found and head home. Tomorrow, you'll return to the ex-spouse's office before he arrives there to confirm another piece of his story. In the meantime, you'll need a good night's sleep.


Certifications and Licensing

Private investigators generally must hold state-specific licenses. However, requirements vary widely from state to state, so aspiring private detectives should contact the licensing board of the state in which they want to practice. In most states, detectives who wish to carry concealed weapons or engage in certain types of forensic activity must obtain additional licenses or endorsements.

In addition, it's important to note that private detectives and investigators must be well-versed in the latest investigation technologies and forensic methods. As such, they must be willing to complete regular continuing education courses and attend industry seminars on an annual or semi-annual basis. Finally, there are two certifications that confer some prestige on experienced investigators. Those who focus on security services and protection-related investigations can obtain a Professional Certified Investigator endorsement from ASIS International. Those who deal with pre-litigation criminal or tort investigations can opt for the Certified Legal Investigator certification from NALI.


Job Flexibility

Full-time versus part-time:

Most individuals in this field work on a full-time or overtime basis. Depending on their specialty, private investigators may need to work long or irregular hours to perform surveillance, reconnaissance or other "clandestine" activities. They may also need to meet filing deadlines and face other practical impediments to a 40-hour workweek. As such, private investigators may be required to make trade-offs in their personal lives.

Work location:

Investigators who work for a law firm or within the in-house security department of a major corporation spend the bulk of their time in an office setting. Those who perform more dangerous or irregular tasks may spend large amounts of time in the field. In either case, this is not regarded as a job that can be done from home.


Recommended Websites

These websites all contain useful resources for individuals who wish to become private detectives or investigators:

  • ASIS International -- ASIS International is a broad-based trade organization that serves workers in the security and detection industries. Its website offers a range of professional development services as well as advocacy, continuing education resources and general career information. ASIS International also maintains a robust network of security and investigation employers and can help self-employed investigators make contact with potential clients.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics -- The U.S. Labor Department publishes a detailed fact sheet on private detective careers. Its highlights include information about salary expectations, job-growth outlook, professional associations, and education and training requirements. While this is a great starting resource for prospective investigators, the site doesn't contain a dedicated job listing service.
  • National Association of Legal Investigators -- Like ASIS International, NALI offers a full range of resources for aspiring and established private investigators. In addition to basic information about working hours, salary expectations and education requirements, its site offers advocacy and professional development services. Established investigators can also use NALI to obtain reputation-enhancing certifications and connect with prospective clients.
  • Private Investigators Association of Virginia -- The Private Investigators Association of Virginia is one of many state-level associations that caters to the needs of registered private investigators. The PIAVA doesn't limit its membership or resources to investigators who are licensed to practice in Virginia, so all aspiring investigators have access to its continuing education and professional development resources. It also offers information about training programs, prospective employers, and job-growth outlook.


Salaries by City

See typical salaries and ranges for this career below*. Shift click to sort by more than one column -- for example first shift-click on state and then shift-click on salary to find best and worst salaries in each state.

StateCity / RegionTypical SalarySalary RangeJob Count% of All Jobs
ALBirmingham - Hoover$77,510$42K - $132K500.01%
AZPhoenix - Mesa - Glendale$49,910$27K - $79K2000.01%
CALos Angeles - Long Beach - Glendale (Metro Area)$60,970$36K - $100K8000.02%
CAOakland - Fremont - Hayward (Metro Area)$58,890$41K - $111K1300.01%
CARiverside - San Bernardino - Ontario$65,480$42K - $77K1200.01%
CASacramento - Arden - Arcade - Roseville$44,520$34K - $76K1300.02%
CASan Diego - Carlsbad - San Marcos$75,490$38K - $96K1300.01%
CASan Francisco - San Mateo - Redwood City (Metro Area)$72,130$40K - $156K1900.02%
CASan Jose - Sunnyvale - Santa Clara$79,700$55K - $108K900.01%
COColorado Springs$41,130$27K - $85K300.01%
CODenver - Aurora - Broomfield$65,690$34K - $105K1100.01%
COFort Collins - Loveland$30,520$26K - $47KN/AN/A
CTHartford - West Hartford - East Hartford$32,270$22K - $69KN/AN/A
CTNew Haven$41,950$24K - $69K1500.06%
CTNorwich - New London$36,750$29K - $79KN/AN/A
DCWashington - Arlington - Alexandria (Metro Area)$38,550$27K - $91K1,0800.05%
FLDeltona - Daytona Beach - Ormond Beach$36,150$21K - $71KN/AN/A
FLFort Lauderdale - Pompano Beach - Deerfield Beach (Metro Area)$49,680$33K - $71K1800.02%
FLGainesville$33,330$21K - $53K500.04%
FLJacksonville$42,920$33K - $57KN/AN/A
FLLakeland - Winter Haven$34,080$22K - $54K600.03%
FLMiami - Miami Beach - Kendall (Metro Area)$45,060$26K - $89K1900.02%
FLNorth Port - Bradenton - Sarasota$55,520$37K - $69KN/AN/A
FLOcala$32,480$26K - $39KN/AN/A
FLOrlando - Kissimmee - Sanford$40,710$31K - $72K2000.02%
FLPort St. Lucie$35,350$27K - $67KN/AN/A
FLTallahassee$33,330$26K - $44K1200.08%
FLTampa - St. Petersburg - Clearwater$40,020$32K - $56K3600.03%
FLWest Palm Beach - Boca Raton - Boynton Beach (Metro Area)$43,270$36K - $48KN/AN/A
GAAtlanta - Sandy Springs - Marietta$41,570$24K - $71K4400.02%
GAAugusta - Richmond County$42,820$33K - $57K400.02%
HIHonolulu$48,110$33K - $93K300.01%
ILChicago - Joliet - Naperville (Metro Area)$36,800$32K - $71K6900.02%
ILLake County - Kenosha County (Metro Area)$54,320$34K - $65KN/AN/A
INIndianapolis - Carmel$36,430$22K - $70K900.01%
KYLouisville - Jefferson County$36,360$27K - $56KN/AN/A
LALafayette$36,610$32K - $71K400.02%
MABoston - Cambridge - Quincy (Metro Area)N/AN/A - N/A700.00%
MABrockton - Bridgewater - Easton (Metro Area)$33,650$26K - $74KN/AN/A
MAFramingham (Metro Area)$43,250$37K - $48K1100.07%
MALowell - Billerica - Chelmsford (Metro Area)$50,520$31K - $72KN/AN/A
MAWorcester$53,980$39K - $69K1000.04%
MDBaltimore - Towson$47,780$40K - $73K4500.04%
MIDetroit - Livonia - Dearborn (Metro Area)$42,820$32K - $85K700.01%
MNMinneapolis - St. Paul - Bloomington$42,720$30K - $76K1100.01%
MOKansas City$33,990$26K - $56K2400.03%
MOSt. Louis$55,730$27K - $85K3900.03%
MSJackson$22,010$20K - $24K1100.05%
NCCharlotte - Gastonia - Rock HillN/AN/A - N/A900.01%
NCFayetteville$48,240$28K - $91K700.05%
NCRaleigh - Cary$44,340$26K - $73K300.01%
NEOmaha - Council Bluffs$64,820$42K - $79K2500.05%
NHNashua (Metro Area)$49,260$32K - $61KN/AN/A
NJEdison - New Brunswick (Metro Area)$42,630$32K - $87K700.01%
NJNewark - Union (Metro Area)$53,860$31K - $85KN/AN/A
NMAlbuquerque$48,770$27K - $70K1100.03%
NVLas Vegas - Paradise$47,510$31K - $74K1600.02%
NYAlbany - Schenectady - Troy$62,920$33K - $73KN/AN/A
NYBuffalo - Niagara Falls$38,790$28K - $71K1000.02%
NYNassau - Suffolk (Metro Area)$59,440$48K - $73KN/AN/A
NYNew York - White Plains - Wayne (Metro Area)$51,180$40K - $67KN/AN/A
NYPoughkeepsie - Newburgh - Middletown$65,810$41K - $74K700.03%
NYSyracuse$52,740$27K - $72K800.03%
OHCincinnati - Middletown$50,740$24K - $84K500.01%
OHCleveland - Elyria - Mentor$41,740$24K - $59K1100.01%
OHColumbus$43,470$24K - $83K1100.01%
ORPortland - Vancouver - Hillsboro$35,050$26K - $65K1600.02%
PAAllentown - Bethlehem - Easton$56,800$38K - $79K1100.03%
PAHarrisburg - Carlisle$53,670$33K - $82K800.03%
PAPhiladelphia (Metro Area)$35,540$26K - $85K9500.05%
PAPittsburgh$44,300$33K - $72K3900.03%
PRSan Juan - Caguas - Guaynabo$26,550$19K - $30KN/AN/A
RIProvidence - Fall River - WarwickN/AN/A - N/A400.01%
SCColumbia$52,450$34K - $60K700.02%
TNMemphis$66,420$38K - $79K700.01%
TNNashville - Davidson - Murfreesboro - Franklin$54,050$33K - $72K900.01%
TXAustin - Round Rock - San MarcosN/AN/A - N/A1300.02%
TXDallas - Plano - Irving (Metro Area)$47,950$23K - $114K6900.03%
TXHouston - Sugar Land - Baytown$65,610$33K - $112K1300.00%
UTProvo - Orem$66,640$55K - $74KN/AN/A
UTSalt Lake City$33,580$27K - $80KN/AN/A
VARichmond$48,440$39K - $73K900.02%
VAVirginia Beach - Norfolk - Newport News$38,150$21K - $66K800.01%
WASeattle - Bellevue - Everett (Metro Area)$67,180$48K - $90K1600.01%
WIMilwaukee - Waukesha - West Allis$32,330$18K - $45K700.01%
WVParkersburg - Marietta - Vienna$27,330$18K - $37KN/AN/A