Fire, Forensics, Fraud or Foul Play: Why Now's the Time to Consider a Career as a Criminal Investigator

The FBI released its preliminary uniform crime report (UCR) in June 2013 and the findings are equal parts encouraging and discouraging.

For the ninth year in a row, property crime – burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft – across the country dropped 0.8 percent compared to the previous year. The FBI estimates an additional 1.2 percent decrease in arson as well.

But there is another side to the coin.

According to the most recent figures, violent crime in America – murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault – rose 1.2 percent between 2011 and 2012.

Sure, 1.2 percent is a tiny figure. But when you consider that U.S. law enforcement reported 1.2 million violent crimes in 2011, the increase translates to 144,000 more violent crimes last year. That’s almost 400 additional violent crimes every single day.

So what can you do about it? The simple answer is this: Earn a criminal justice degree and become a criminal investigator!

An introduction to criminal investigation

The thing about “criminal investigation” is that it’s a broad concept that encompasses many different tasks across many different fields. A statement on the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) website explains the field in a nutshell: “Investigators use different techniques to solve arson, murder and kidnapping. In various cases, investigators must also be able to find and analyze evidence, locate suspects and identify victims.”

We used to identify more than 18,000 criminal investigation jobs posted online between June 7, 2012 and June 8, 2013. The job titles we focused on include (click on each title for a description): special agents, private detectives, police detectives, forensic science technicians, fire inspectors & investigators, fraud investigators & analysts and insurance adjusters & examiners.

So if you’re drawn to Sherlock Holmes-style whodunits and the perplexing paper trails built by the Bernie Madoffs of the world, maybe there’s a future for you in the field. And, if you’re thinking seriously about making criminal investigation your career choice, there are some things you need to know.

It’s true that you are technically qualified to be an entry-level police officer, correctional officer or sheriff’s deputy without a college degree, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever move up to the rank of “investigator” without one. In fact, 76 percent of the criminal investigator jobs posted online over the last year required at least an associate’s degree – and eight out of 10 of those jobs required a bachelor’s degree.

The figures reflected on are considered “real-time mean salary” for the positions listed. This means they are averages calculated from actual job listings posted online over the past 365 days.

Salary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) or the U.S. Department of Labor (O*net) might be significantly higher or lower than what is reflected on Burning Glass. The reason for the discrepancy is because the government figures are based on a 10-year projection made at the end of 2009.

It should also be noted that the salary for police detectives and special agents is identical ($73,797) because the BLS groups these positions into similar categories due to the levels of training, education and years of experience both require. They are not, however, the same position.

Bear in mind that criminal investigator salaries will always fluctuate depending on the geographic location of the job. Law enforcement agencies use “locality pay” to determine appropriate compensation for their employees.

One of the takeaways from the FBI’s preliminary report was that the West region saw a 3.3 percent increase in violent crime – the largest such increase in the nation. A second takeaway was that despite a nationwide dip in property crimes, the West actually saw a 5.2 percent increase in this category as well.

It's unclear whether a rising crime rate in the West region caused a hiring binge or whether a higher-than-average crime rate is the result of too few criminal investigators. It's likely some combination of both factors. But the FBI statistics are certainly consistent with our data, given the fact that Phoenix, Sacramento and San Francisco are among the top 10 locations looking for criminal investigators right now.

The bottom line

There’s plenty to consider when you’re trying to decide on the college degree that will put you in your dream job. If you’re a problem solver … if logic games are like child’s play and solving Sudoku puzzles is second nature to you, maybe becoming a criminal investigator is a career choice that makes sense.

There is obviously a need for new recruits. The salary covers a wide spectrum, but law enforcement is known to be a field in which you get from it what you put into it. And while we singled out the West region, there are criminal investigator jobs available in all 50 states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

But ultimately it’s your choice. If you like the sound of working in law enforcement but being a criminal investigator isn’t quite your cup of tea, check out our Criminal Justice Career Guide for more options.

About the author

Jeff Roberts

Jeff is the Content Marketing Editor at Collegis Education. He oversees all of the blog and newsletter content for Rasmussen University. As a writer, he creates articles that educate, encourage and motivate current and future students.

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