The term “detective” may summon images of the fast-moving, smartly dressed characters of James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo “Rico” Thomas (Philip Michael Thomas) from Miami Vice or the supernaturally adept Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) from the eponymous TV show.
Real detective work is far removed from the glamorous media portrayals, requiring incredible patience, investigative rigor, and ironclad ethics. In addition to being exposed to potentially dangerous individuals and situations, the process of solving cases can take months or even years, much of it spent poring over documents, photographs, and files. Despite the challenges, however, becoming a detective can be rewarding, providing the deep personal satisfaction that comes from solving crimes and bringing resolution to victims.
First, there’s a difference between police detectives and private investigators (PIs), although the two fields have overlapping competencies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022), police detectives typically garner investigative experience through their work in law enforcement and have become detectives as a promotion through the agency.
On the job, they may conduct interviews with witnesses or suspects; examine records; collect and carefully document evidence; prepare reports; observe the activity of subjects; secure scenes of crimes; get arrest warrants; participate in the apprehension of criminals; and serve as expert witnesses in court.
By contrast, PIs are citizens who typically need state licensure and cut their teeth gathering clients’ legal, financial, and personal information by conducting surveillance; performing background checks; tracking missing people; searching records for clues; and interviewing people of interest. Detectives may specialize in homicide (police detectives only), computer forensics, corporate malpractice, insurance fraud, and other fields.
Read on to discover the typical salary detectives earn and the required personality, education, and credentials necessary to join this exciting profession.
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As mentioned above, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022) differentiates between private investigators (PIs) and police detectives.
First, the 32,050 private detectives and PIs across the US reported the following salary ranges:
By contrast, police detectives and criminal investigators reported substantially higher salary ranges (BLS May 2022):
Also, good news for those interested in becoming federal agents across the United States: the top-paying states for detectives and criminal investigators are spread out among coastal states (BLS May 2022):
It’s important to note that four of the top-paying states are also states with the highest cost of living in the US. As proof of point, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2023) found that Alaska, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Hawaii, and Washington are among the top fifteen most expensive states. By contrast, the five most affordable states were Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Alabama.
Finally, both PIs and police detectives are expected to have similar growth rates in job openings during the coming decade. For illustration, in 2022, the BLS anticipated that between 2021 and 2031, openings for PIs will grow 6 percent and 3 percent for police detectives (BLS), which is nearly equal to the average growth projected for all occupations during that time (5 percent).
Most successful detectives are curious, attentive to detail, and hard-working. Additionally, perseverance may be important, as crime-solving doesn’t always happen linearly or quickly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, important skills for successful detectives include:
As previously mentioned, police detectives may be able to select a specialization within their detective division, which will vary by county and state. In addition, continuous training may be necessary due to technological advances and compliance regulations. Some departments may also regularly research, develop, and implement improvement strategies to enhance the quality of investigation procedures and techniques.
The following list outlines some of these specializations or divisions that are generally led by commanders, captains, or lieutenants:
While the path toward becoming a police detective may vary, generally, after obtaining a high school diploma or GED, it can take anywhere from five to eight years to be promoted from a police officer to a detective.
In fact, according to the BLS (2022), prospective detectives will need to graduate high school (or obtain their GED), and most will complete an associate’s (two-year) or bachelor’s (four-year) degree in criminal justice, psychology, criminology, sociology, or a related field.
In addition, to be a competitive applicant for the police department, prospective officers must pass physical exams, background checks, and other requirements. In some cases, once hired as a police officer, candidates will attend a police academy for further training. The length of academies varies by department, city, and state. In Portland, OR, basic police training lasts 16 weeks, whereas in San Jose, CA, training lasts 30 weeks.
Additionally, after graduating from a police academy, aspiring detectives must continue developing an experience of at least three years as a police officer before being promoted to detective. To be promoted, officers must complete an exam, and/or they will be evaluated based on their service within the police department.
There are varied paths to becoming a private investigator (PI) or detective, although all paths require a steady combination of didactic instruction and on-the-job investigative experience. Here is one possible path to becoming a detective:
Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years)
Aspiring detectives are encouraged to foster critical thinking, deductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning at this stage.
Some students may seek volunteer opportunities through local police departments, civic organizations, or federal agencies to get hands-on training in the field. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) offers the weeklong Future Agents in Training (FAIT) program to interested high school students. Similarly, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) provides the Pathways Internship Program to qualified high school and college students. Students are encouraged to contact local agencies for available opportunities.
Step 2: Get a degree in criminal justice, criminology, sociology, or a related discipline (2-4 years)
Some prospective police detectives may be eligible to enroll directly in a police academy, but many police academies require at least some college to qualify. By illustration, Eileen Carlin—a 20-year veteran in law enforcement and state coordinator with Rasmussen College’s School of Justice Studies—reports that most departments want detectives with two- to four-year college degrees.
California State University in San Bernardino (CSUSB) also provides a bachelor of arts (BA) in criminal justice, combining valuable research and internship opportunities with structured coursework in criminal law, statistics in criminal justice, and correctional counseling. Graduates of this program will have a detailed understanding of the criminal justice system, its operation, and the impact of law enforcement and laws on society.
Consisting of 120 credits, the program includes courses such as introduction to the criminal justice system; criminal law; research methods in criminal justice; statistics in criminal justice; theories of crime and delinquency; correctional theory and institutions; police and police systems; integrative studies in criminal justice; and criminal investigations, among others.
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York (CUNY) provides several reputable undergraduate degrees with majors in criminology, criminal justice, and criminal justice management. In its bachelor of science (BS) in criminal justice program, students focus on institutional theory and practice with specialized training in law and politics of race relations; police and community relations; and constitutional law.
Comprising 120 credits, the program includes courses such as introduction to the American criminal justice system; research methods and statistics for criminal justice; introduction to corrections; introduction to police studies; criminology; police and urban communities; community-based approaches to justice; and drugs, crime, and law in Latin America.
Pennsylvania State University offers an online associate in science (AS) degree in criminal justice, delivered through a partnership between the Penn State Harrisburg School of Public Affairs and Penn State World Campus. Students in this program will gain the skills and knowledge needed to enter or advance in a wide range of social services and criminal justice careers.
Made up of 64 credits, the program includes courses such as criminology; introduction to criminal justice; policing in America; courts and the prosecution process; corrections in America; introduction to ethics; race, ethnicity, and culture; statistical analysis for the social sciences; and research methods in criminal justice.
Graduates of this program will have the knowledge and skills needed for serving private and public interests in law and corrections, protective services, security management, crime prevention, social services, court administration, and other related professions.
Step 3A: Police detectives: enroll in a police academy and get investigative experience (1-3 years)
For those looking to become police detectives—an option that can be more lucrative than becoming a private investigator (PI)—enrolling in a police academy is the next step.
Although requirements vary by department and region, to qualify for a police academy, candidates must be US citizens; be at least 18 years old; possess a driver’s license; have no felony convictions; and have some college experience.
Please note that state and federal agencies typically require at least four years of undergraduate education. Police academy programs generally last six to eight months with specialized training in firearm use, patrol procedures, ethics, self-defense, report-writing, CPR and first aid, physical fitness, and emergency response.
After the academy, aspiring detectives are urged to take on advanced training and responsibilities in investigative units to build their resumes. Various investigation branches include homicide, surveillance, fraud, computer crimes, financial crimes, and missing people.
Step 3B: Private investigators (PIs): pursue on-the-job investigative experience and state licensure (timeline varies)
Private investigators commonly require on-the-job investigative experience to guide their professional development before becoming licensed. After completing a required number of hours, regulated per state, an aspiring PI must meet the eligibility requirements for their state of residence, pass an exam, and complete other state-mandated requirements before they can be granted a license to operate.
Once fully licensed, the PI may specialize in particular areas of investigations, including criminal investigations, insurance claims, cybersecurity, and litigation support, among others. Pursuit Magazine (2022), an online resource for investigators, reports that licensure is necessary for practice in 46 states (in addition to some cities) and provides a convenient table of PI licensure policies by state.
Step 4A: Police detectives: take the police detective test or get professionally certified (timeline varies)
There are certifications available for police detectives and private investigators.
The National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) offers the certified legal investigator (CLI) certification for investigators specializing in negligence or criminal defense investigation. CLI candidates must have at least five years of full-time experience (or qualifying academic coursework); complete a 1,000-word research paper on investigations; and pass an examination with a score of at least 70 percent. To maintain the certification, CLIs must complete 50 hours of continuing education (CE) every three years.
ASIS International offers Professional Certified Investigator (PCI) certification for investigators specializing in security. To qualify, candidates must have a high school diploma and five years of investigative experience (with two years in case management). The 140-question exam tests people’s knowledge in case management, investigative techniques & procedures, and case presentation.
4B: Private investigators: take a PI licensing exam (timeline varies)
For civilian PIs, requirements vary by state, but many require a licensure exam.
For example, California’s Bureau of Security & Investigative Services (2023) reports that to qualify for licensure, PIs must be at least 18 years old; undergo a criminal background check; and have proof of experience in one of three capacities. They either must have 6,000 hours of paid investigative work, a law degree plus 4,000 hours of experience, or an associate degree and 5,000 hours of experience.
Additionally, candidates must pass a two-hour multiple-choice test on laws & regulations, terminology, evidence handling, undercover investigations, and other cornerstones of the field.
Step 5: Fulfill local credentialing requirements (timeline varies)
Requirements to become a detective can vary by state. Since most states have different requirements to become a police officer, the steps to join the state’s detective division may also vary.
Overall, some police departments require prospective detectives to hold only a high school diploma or GED, while others require some college courses or a two- or four-year college degree.
In short, the requirements to become a detective vary widely by state. Aspiring candidates are encouraged to contact their local government offices for eligibility.
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.