How to Become a Private Investigator
Private Investigator Careers & Degrees

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If you are an observational person with an eye for detail and a knack for research you might like to become a private investigator.

A private investigator (also known as a PI) researches a person, company, or sometimes an event on behalf of a client.

They use a wide range of resources to find information, such as database searches, records, and sometimes surveillance.

When you become a private investigator, your role goes far beyond catching out a cheating spouse.

Private investigators are hired by companies, lawyers, and even government departments to find out the truth about something.

Often the evidence found is used in courts of law, or as justification for certain actions in a company.

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Education Requirements to Become a Private Investigator

The one thing that private investigators have in common is that they have a lot of life experience.

Many have college degrees or an impressive professional background.

This is not to say that if you don’t have this kind of experience that you can’t become a private investigator, just that you might need to take some extra measures to do so.

If you would like to become a private investigator, you should be aware that much of your competition comes from an experienced background.

They have worked in law enforcement, criminal justice, or the military for sometime before switching over to a career as a private investigator.

If you are in high school and considering becoming a PI, you might want to complete a college degree.

A four year bachelors degree in law enforcement or criminal justice would give you an excellent background.

Another option is to work in law enforcement or security for a few years to gain some experience this way.

If you come from a different career path, you might like to enroll in a private investigator course.

This will give you the background knowledge you need in how private investigation works.

This is where you will learn how to complete a background check, run credit reports, complete surveillance, as well as gain other research skills.

The requirements to become a private investigator can vary.

In some states you will be required to be licensed to work as a private investigator involving a state exam.

In some states you must have a college degree to become a private investigator, while there are additional requirements for investigators who carry guns.

Private Investigator Job Description

A private investigator works to uncover information.

They are employed by companies, attorneys, and individuals.

Their job could be performing surveillance on a spouse, investigating a company for fraud, or analyzing a computer for records.

A lot of a private investigators work is done via a computer.

A private investigator uses a wide range of detection methods to gain information.

They may use surveillance to find out more on an individual, use background and credit checks while also seeking out criminal records.

A private investigator must always follow the law.

The information they collect must be done in the right way, especially if it is to be used in court.

Many private investigators work within a specific niche:

Computer forensic investigators – analyze computer records, retrieve deleted documents, and analyze findings

Legal investigators – help to form a legal case for or against someone, they may locate a missing witness, research a case, or analyze police reports

Corporate investigators – detect misconduct in the workplace.

For instance, false worker’s compensation claims, theft, fraud and embezzlement.

Private Investigator Salary and Career Path

It’s likely that when you first become a private investigator you will work under the guidance of someone more experienced since this is a good way to learn the business.

Those who have previous experience in law enforcement however, may not need this additional guidance.

Many private investigators are employed by companies while about 20% are self-employed.

Expect to work out of business hours, particularly if you are completing surveillance work.

Legal detective work comes with strict deadlines which may require you to work overtime.

The median salary of a private investigator is $41,000 a year.

The middle 50% earn between $30,000 and $50,000 a year.

Some similar roles to private investigator that you might be interested in include:

  • Police detective
  • Debt collector
  • Police officer
  • Security guard
  • Forensic accountant

If you are great at research and think you would enjoy detective work, then you might like to become a private investigator.

While entry is competitive, this role can be very stimulating and exciting.

The below information is based on the 2019 BLS national averages.
  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

National Average Salary

$57,000
$30K
$37K
$57K
$67K
$89K
10%
25%
50%
75%
90%

Average Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
Alabama$57,140
Alaska$58,820
Arizona$54,830
Arkansas$55,720
California$68,570
Colorado$53,670
Connecticut$58,010
Delaware$65,610
District of Columbia$69,790
Florida$41,750
Georgia$52,630
Idaho$60,130
Illinois$58,710
Indiana$42,430
Iowa- NA -
Kansas$55,380
Kentucky$51,050
Louisiana$49,270
Maine$53,080
Maryland$61,730
Massachusetts$52,140
Michigan$48,040
Mississippi$54,350
Missouri$60,890
Nebraska$45,040
Nevada$64,200
New Hampshire$58,110
New Jersey$63,970
New Mexico$57,200
New York$59,100
North Carolina$52,530
Ohio$49,470
Oklahoma$44,180
Oregon$57,380
Pennsylvania$47,940
Rhode Island$58,900
South Carolina$54,410
South Dakota$46,200
Tennessee$57,960
Texas$56,190
Utah$64,440
Virginia$55,610
Washington$63,750
West Virginia- NA -
Wisconsin$44,480
Puerto Rico$40,850

The top earning state in the field is District of Columbia, where the average salary is $69,790.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

District of Columbia - $69,790
California - $68,570
Delaware - $65,610
Utah - $64,440
Nevada - $64,200
* Salary information based on the May 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey for Private Detectives and Investigators, OCC Code 33-9021, BLS.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Frequently Asked Questions

QuestionWhat is a Private Investigator?

Private investigators, sometimes also called PIs, are professionals who can be hired to locate missing people, to obtain information or to participate in solving crimes.

PIs can also be hired by companies to conduct background checks, conduct surveillance or to guard high-profile individuals.

In order to be a successful Private Eye, you need a variety of skills, including patience and the ability to make decisions quickly.

Private Investigators often have to interview people in order to obtain information, therefore communication skills are very important.

In most states, you need a license to practice as a private investigator.

Private Investigators must be over 18 or 21 years of age, depending on the jurisdiction, and must have a clean criminal record.

Some Private Investigators work on computers, spending most of the time in offices, while others work mostly on the field.

Most PIs work irregular hours, they may work evening, weekends or even holidays.

QuestionHow much does a Private Investigator make?

According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, Private Investigators earn, on average, around $50,000 per year.

The median hourly rate is approximately $24.

The salary varies depending on the employer, geographical area, and the private investigator’s expertise.

QuestionHow much does it cost to become a Private Investigator?

The answer to this question depends on the employer’s requirements.

While a high school diploma and a state license could be enough to obtain entry-level employment in the field, some employers also require a degree in criminal justice.

Additional training can also be required by some firms.

A tw0-year Associate Degree program costs around $21,000 per year.

Professional experience, preferably in law enforcement, is required most of the time.

QuestionWhat is the demand for Private Investigators?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for Private Investigators is expected to grow by 8% over the next 10 years.

The BLS also expects the competition for this profession to grow as a career as a private investigator attracts many qualified people, including retired law enforcement professionals who have 20-25 years of experience in the field.

QuestionHow long does it take to become a Private Investigator?

In order to become a Private Investigator, you usually need a high school diploma or equivalent.

Most states require Private Eyes to have a license.

While most PIs learn through on-the-job training, some employers can require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

While an associate degree program can usually be completed in two years, most bachelor’s degree programs are designed to be completed in four years.

PIs also need to have a good understanding of federal, state and local laws in order to ensure that the evidence they obtain can be used in court.

Several years of experience in law enforcement can also be required, depending on the certification and position you are pursuing.

For example, in order to become a Certified Federal Background Investigator directly contracted with a federal agency, you need 3-5 years of federal, military or law enforcement investigation experience.

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