How to Become a Private Investigator: Stake Out The Steps to Landing Your Dream Job
A career as a private investigator (PI) probably flits across everyone’s mind at some point in life. PIs are often featured in movies, television shows or comic books as lone-wolf heroes—independent geniuses and protagonists with thrilling lives steeped in intrigue. But this often-romanticized career is far more accessible than you might think.
“I grew up watching a steady diet of television shows like The Rockford Files and Mannix,” says Bill Papazian, CEO and Managing Partner of Lightstone Solutions. “I always knew that the investigative field was where I wanted to be.” Papazian had a passion for getting to the bottom of something, poring through research to find the answers and this eventually led to his career in private investigation.
So if you feel inspired watching by the private detective work on your favorite shows and podcasts, and you’d love nothing more than to dig through archives to solve a mystery, you might find your dream career as a PI.
“What most surprised me about being a private investigator is how varied the field has become,” Papazian says. “My firm is multidisciplinary, and our professionals come from diverse backgrounds that allow us to perform sophisticated investigation such as international investigation, due diligence research and computer forensics, in addition to more traditional investigation such as surveillance.”
If you have a passion for solving mysteries, you’re probably wondering what you have to do to become a private investigator. Look no further—we’ve got you covered with this handy guide.
5 Steps to becoming a private investigator
Step 1: Decide on the type of investigator you want to be
Contrary to the common assumption, private investigators do more than hunt down extramarital activity. They exist in many different field and forms—taking their talents beyond otherwise “private” encounters. The type of investigation you want to perform will determine the education and training you need.
“Think about the old saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’ Well, that comes into play in the private investigation world,” says Jessica Jackson, investigations consultant and owner of The Jessica Jackson Agency. “Many PIs start an agency, and they do every type of case under the sun, but they aren't really good at any of them.”
Jackson explains that you will have more success if you can gain a reputation in one specific area. “You can have a little experience with all types of investigation or you can be great at one or two—which will make you the go-to person in the industry for that type of case.”
Jackson says new PIs should seek experience at a firm that handles many types of cases. After some exposure, it will be easier to choose a specialty or two. “They can start learning all there is to know about that type of case, going to seminars to learn more and mingling with clients who would need this type of service.”
Jackson has a colleague who uses two websites. One offering services for all types of cases and another just for missing persons cases—his specialty. “In order to make good money and make a name for yourself, you have to become an expert in one or two particular types of investigations,” Jackson says.
So what are some of the options for specialization? Jackson offers the following list as some of the most common investigation specialties:
- Personal family investigations
- Crimes against persons
- Child custody investigations
- Cyber extortion and bribery
- Art and jewelry theft
- Attorney legal support
- Litigation support
- Genealogy, probate and estate
- Lost and unclaimed assets
- Workers compensation fraud
- Corporate crisis management
- Workplace drug trafficking
- Fraud and forgery investigations
- Brand protection
- Manufacturing and industrial theft
But this list is only the beginning. There are contract investigators who work with different companies on an as-needed basis, background investigators and corporate investigators for example. PIs also specialize in surveillance, fraud, motor vehicle investigations, insurance and cyber forensics.
The area you decide to work in will determine the education, experience and credentials you need. So it’s important to research your preferred trajectory individually.
Step 2: Acquire the training and education you need
Most investigators need at least a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But that standard is inching higher. “In the last 10 years or so, states have raised the standards, and some now require a college degree,” Jackson says. “This is awesome because it helps our industry to be known as the professional, reliable experts that we are.”
The job postings agree with Jackson. Over 70% of jobs advertised for private detectives and investigators in the last year required a Bachelor’s degree or higher.* Depending on your state, you might be able to start a PI career with an Associate’s degree in Criminal Justice according to the BLS, or a significant amount of military or law enforcement experience.
Corporate investigators need a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting, Business or a similar field, and computer forensics investigators will want a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science or Criminal Justice.
“I would advise students hoping to break into the field to consider a major such as Criminal Justice, Business, English, Computer Forensics or Accounting,” Papazian says. “All of these disciplines apply to various aspects of modern, sophisticated investigation.”
Step 3: Gain experience
This is a career where field experience makes all the difference in the world. Many PIs branch into investigation after they’ve spent some time in a related career. Corporate investigators typically work in business and accounting first. Cyber investigators often spend time working in technology. Whether it is in a legal, law enforcement or military capacity, PIs might train in a different job for a little while before becoming detectives.
However, some PIs get their experience by jumping right into the industry. “I first became interested in becoming a private investigator when I did my first internship,” Jackson says. “The other criminology students were opting for internships at police departments and jails, but I knew that I wanted to explore something different.”
Jackson landed an internship with a private investigator who specialized in missing persons cases. “This internship allowed me to gain a wide perspective of all of the different niches a PI can specialize in.” Jackson also worked for an insurance-related company and found a job within their SIU (special investigations unit), a department that investigates fraudulent insurance claims. “After several years in that field, I decided to start my own investigation agency and specialize in criminal defense cases,” Jackson says.
Step 4: Get licensed
Private investigator requirements were haphazard for a long time. But Jackson says licensing has been steadily getting more stringent, and the requirements have been raised in most states. This trend is very encouraging for current PIs according to Jackson. “Some states do not require any license for PIs, and this is a disaster. Why? Because any person can start advertising service as a PI and do horrible, unethical work which makes our entire industry look bad.”
“Every state is different, but my recommendation to any student would be to check the licensing requirement first because most will require some type of internship or on the job training. It's best if they know this upfront.” Jackson also suggests looking into an internship to see if those hours can count toward licensing requirements. Check out a state by state breakdown of private investigator licensing requirements to see where your state stands.
Step 5: Consider certification
Certification may not be a necessity for your work as a PI. But Jackson says it’s definitely helpful. “The more you learn and the more letters after your name will always make your clients feel better about your level of expertise.”
As an example, Jackson says the Certified Fraud Investigator certification is well worth the time and money to earn because many times employers will specify they “prefer someone with CFI certification.” “The AML (Anti-Money Laundering certification) is becoming bigger everyday with so many online frauds and schemes. Any certification is helpful, and most of them are under $2,000 and take only a few weeks of courses to earn,” Jackson says.
“The thing about being a PI is that technology and tools are always changing, so it is necessary to constantly study your craft and keep up with the changing times,” Jackson says. PIs can join a professional association to keep a solid pulse on the industry and connect with fellow professionals.
Does PI work have your eye?
Does becoming a private investigator sound a little more achievable than you thought? With this information under your belt, you have the tools you need to hunt down your dream career. For many private investigation specialties, a Criminal Justice degree is a perfect foundation with which to begin. Check out Rasmussen College’s Criminal Justice degree page for more information.
*Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 10,185 private investigator job postings, Oct. 01, 2016–Sep. 30, 2017)