Requirements to Be a Detective
There are no education requirements for a private detective. Many have a background in the military or law enforcement. Lots of cops put in their twenty years on the force and then “go private.” This is true in the movies and in real life. The fictional detective is often a former policeman who was a lone wolf and did not take orders well from “the brass.” People rarely go right from school to being a private detective. They usually have worked at other types of jobs.
Do not let a lack of previous law enforcement experience deter you if you really want to be a private detective. Like most careers, you can start at the bottom with the hope of advancement. You can inquire about an office job in a large detective agency. There might also be low-level operative work available, such as computer research and maybe even surveillance duties. There is a possibility that something in your work history can be of use in detective work. In addition to law enforcement experience, people enter the private investigation game from occupations such as insurance, credit and collections, journalism, and other diverse careers. Every once in a while a college graduate with a degree in criminal justice may go right from the classroom to the detective agency, but this is rare.
The Global School of Investigation (
A private detective must have a license of some kind, with some exceptions. There are six states in the union that have no licensing requirements. In Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota, a person can simply call himself a private detective and hang out a shingle. In most states, however, the rules are pretty strict. More and more states are making training programs mandatory.
In California, the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services of the Department of Consumer Affairs requires that private detectives be eighteen years of age or older and have an educational background that includes criminal justice and police science and 6,000 hours of previous investigative experience. They also have to be evaluated by the U.S. Department of Justice, submit to a detailed background check, and take a two-hour written exam. This does not include the added process of getting a license to carry a weapon. Convicted felons will be denied a license.
A qualified private investigator needs to have excellent interviewing and interrogation skills, not be afraid of the possible physical confrontation and have a persistence and dogged determination to see a case to its conclusion. They must be able to think quickly and adapt to any situation and be good communicators, since they will at times be called upon to explain themselves to the police and to testify in court.
How realistic are TV detective shows?
On the whole, not very. For example, Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files is an ex-con who went on to become a private eye in sunny California. But in the real world, being a convicted felon would have precluded him from getting licensed.
Schooling for Sleuths
If you are considering this field, it would be a good idea to take some courses in criminal justice. There are schools specifically for investigators, but you need to check these out carefully. Make sure the school is accredited and not some fly-by-night operation that will take your money and run. If you are a college graduate who has been in the workforce for awhile, and you are thinking of switching careers, a degree in business or accounting can help you secure a position as a corporate investigator.
Some professional organizations confer certifications that will come in handy when looking for work. Through the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI), you can become a certified legal investigator. This will help you find work as a legal investigator where you will primarily work with lawyers in civil and criminal investigations.
You will find a lot of competition when you begin looking for work as an investigator. Odds will favor candidates with a law enforcement background. A retired cop can still be a vigorous forty-something person who wants to supplement their pension and keep busy. Entry-level positions will be available usually on a part-time basis. If you prove your mettle, you will be given more work and more responsibilities (and of course, more money). Another entry-level route is that of the department-store detective. While this may seem nothing more than a security guard position, you have to start somewhere and build credentials in order to advance.