Private Investigator Career Information

Job Duties, Education Requirements and Salary Outlook for Private Investigators

Christopher Plummer (right), as Sherlock Holmes, and James Mason as Dr Watson in 'Murder By Decree', directed by Bob Clark, 1979
Christopher Plummer (right), as Sherlock Holmes, and James Mason as Dr Watson in 'Murder By Decree', directed by Bob Clark, 1979. Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty Images

They're the stuff of legends, subjects of romance and heroes of the silver screen, the small screen, and the radio. They've been glorified by the likes of Magnum, PI, Sherlock Holmes, Jake Gittes and Sam Spade. More practically speaking, though, private investigators represent a great job choice for those looking for careers in criminology and criminal justice.

History of Private Investigation

The early history of criminology is also largely a history of people taking matters into their own hands.

It has been only been relatively recently that society saw the need for a modern police force as we now know it. Even so, the public was still distrustful of uniformed police officers and agencies, and the expense of starting up brand new police departments was cost prohibitive for most governments, including that of the United States.

Very quickly, industrious private citizens saw an opportunity to fill in the gap by providing services that police were too busy, too legally constrained, or simply too poor to provide. Private investigative and security services began to appear in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Many of these services were lead or staffed by former detectives from larger police departments and sometimes were seen as direct competitors with regular law enforcement.

Nonetheless, their services were continued to be utilized, and at times they were even contracted by government entities to provide protection, security, and investigative functions.

Perhaps the most notable of these was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which handled security and private investigative services for the federal government, manufacturing corporations and railroads across the U.S.

Today, private investigators are a far cry from the action-filled exploits and intrigue of their fictional representations.

They are, however indispensable in the services they provide, from fighting fraud, finding missing people and detecting crimes.

What Do Private Investigators Do?

Private detectives work in a variety of environments for a variety of different clients. Individual investigators may have a specific specialty, such as a forensic computer investigator or a forensic accountant, or they may provide general investigative functions.

A vast majority of the job of a private detective is information gathering and fact finding. This may be accomplished through computer searches, surveillance, conducting interviews and even going undercover.

Private detectives may conduct follow-up investigations of already closed criminal cases. They may also be called to look into instances of insurance and worker's compensation fraud. In these instances, they may spend a great deal of time surveilling suspects to catch them in the act or collect solid evidence that proves their guilt.

The job of a private investigator often includes:

  • Performing surveillance
  • Preparing reports
  • Conducting background checks
  • Interviewing people
  • Intelligence gathering
  • Providing security services
  • Assisting in locating missing persons
  • Providing courtroom testimony

    Private detectives may work for security or investigative consulting firms, private corporations or law firms. Individuals may contract out their services to clients.

    Private investigators must walk a fine line, and though they are not government agents, the information they gather may be used later for criminal investigations. For this reason, it is important that like police detectives, private investigators adhere to established rules of evidence.

    What Education and Skills Are Required for Private Investigators?

    Private investigator jobs are one of the many great criminal justice and criminology careers that don't require a degree. However, prior experience in a related field may be beneficial and at times required to advance in any private investigator career.

    Relevant work experience can include past employment as a loss prevention specialist, a police officer, or detective.

    In fact, jobs as private investigators can be great second careers for former law enforcement officers or great ways to get started in other criminal justice careers.

    Most states require private investigators to be licensed. Specific licensing requirements vary from state to state but may include attending a private investigation course or school, testing, and a background investigation. A concealed weapons permit may also be required.

    Aspiring investigators must have strong interpersonal communication skills and must be able to interpret, analyze and evaluate evidence. They must also have strong writing skills and the ability to think quickly and solve problems.

    Though a degree isn't required, one can never underestimate the value of a college education in any criminology career. Earning a degree in criminal justice can provide a good background for learning proper procedures and investigative skills.

    How Much Money Can a Private Investigator Earn?

    According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, careers in private investigations are expected to grow at a rate of 21 percent through 2020, which is faster than the average for all job categories.

    The increased demand is expected to be due largely to the increased demand for security services, employment background investigations and forensic computer and cyber security services.

    The lowest 10 percent of investigators may earn as low as $25,000 per year. The highest 10 percent can expect to earn around $75,000. Salary will vary by agency, expertise, and location.

    Is a Career as a Private Investigator Right for You?

    If you enjoy investigative work, or if you are looking for a great second career after working in law enforcement, a private investigator career may be a great choice.

    Private investigations can offer ways to help others and augment law enforcement services. They can also be a great way to break into a job as a police officer or detective. You may just find that working as a private detective is the perfect criminology career for you.