Becoming a Private Investigator: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a private investigation career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a private investigator is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Private Investigator

Private investigators use a combination of computer research and fieldwork to uncover information for private individuals and businesses. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of being a private investigator and see if it's the right job for you.

Pros of a Career as a Private Investigator
Average employment growth expected from 2012-2022, at 11% (for private detectives and investigators)*
Many specializations and types of investigation work (surveillance work, interviews, computer searches)*
Variety and independence in work tasks (Can work alone, as part of a team or undercover)*
No specific education required to enter profession (Can learn investigative skills on the job)*
Salary is higher than the average for all occupations (Around $53,000 average salary for private detectives and investigators)*

Cons of a Career as a Private Investigator
Strong competition for available jobs, with many qualified candidates*
Need to be licensed (Some states require investigators to have 2-3 years of experience)**
Irregular work hours (nights and weekends are common)*
Confrontations can be stressful and possibly dangerous*
Surveillance and research can be time-consuming*

Sources: *The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Georgia Secretary of State and State of California

Career Information

Job Description

Private investigators are usually hired to uncover and analyze information about many types of matters, such as business, relationships or finances. Today much of the work is done using computer research, though investigators might still need to perform surveillance on an area or an individual. As a private investigator, you might specialize in cases pertaining to issues such as worker's compensation claims or intellectual property theft, or you might work in a business investigating suspicious activity. These professionals use equipment like video cameras and global positioning systems to perform their investigations. You might perform face-to-face interviews or go undercover to obtain information.

Career Outlook and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), private investigators earned an average of around $53,000 per year as of May 2014, though earnings vary considerably between employers and geographical areas. The top-paying industry for private investigators was fabricated metal product manufacturing, with an average annual salary of $81,500 as of May 2014. The BLS estimated 11% growth in the employment of private investigators from 2012-2022. Private investigators can expect competition for jobs because many qualified individuals are attracted to the field.

What are the Requirements?

General Requirements

Jobs in this field generally don't have education requirements since you learn your skills on the job. However, it is common to have some college training and experience in police investigation is helpful, the BLS reports.

While coursework in criminal justice and police science could be useful, it really depends on what kind of cases you're investigating. For example, computer forensics specialists usually have a bachelor's degree or higher in computer science and those who investigate financial cases might have a background in accounting. Overall, most private investigators have previous experience in other occupations that they can apply to their investigative work. Most states require private investigators to be licensed, though specific requirements to obtain licensure vary.

Useful Skills

In general, investigators should have the following attributes:

  • Persistence and assertiveness
  • Ability to think and act in the moment
  • Good communication skills
  • Excellent interviewing skills
  • Ability to convincingly present evidence to others

Job Postings from Actual Employers

Employment postings for private investigators indicate that you'll likely need your own computer and video camera, and you'll probably need to be willing to travel. As a private investigator, you should be comfortable working with little supervision and be able to avoid and manage conflict with others. Here are some postings from March 2012 to show you what employers were looking for:

  • A surveillance company in Kentucky advertised for a full time licensed private investigator with a clean criminal history and driving record, as well as a laptop and internet access. A criminal justice degree and previous relevant experience is preferred .
  • A national department store chain in Illinois posted for an assets protection investigator to identify fraud and possibly represent the company in court proceedings. The posting specifies that candidates must have a 4-year degree and knowledge of law enforcement and security.
  • A risk management firm searched for a field investigator to work at a Miami location. The advertisement explains that investigators perform research and interviews to determine the validity of insurance claims. Candidates must be bilingual in English and Spanish, and five years of insurance claims investigation experience is preferred.
  • An insurance investigation group in Salt Lake City looked for a part-time fire investigator to analyze the cause of fires and provide court testimony. Candidates with 5-10 years of experience and certification by the National Association of Fire Investigators are preferred.
  • An auto insurance company in Orlando looked for a special investigator to research suspicious customer claims. Two years of either claims experience or investigative experience are required.

How to Stand Out in the Field

As a private investigator, you'll probably be using specific technologies in your work, such as computer imaging software, query software and cameras. Potential employers often look for candidates with appropriate surveillance equipment, and you might be able to stand out among applicants if you can show a range of knowledge in computer programs, surveillance gadgets and other relevant topics. These skills are especially important if you opt for a career in computer forensics investigation, a field that requires understanding of operating systems, software programs and other technologies, according to the BLS.

Get Certified

Professional certification might improve your chances for employment, the BLS reports, as it is an endorsement of your skills and knowledge. You should research which certifications are applicable to your line of work; for example, the National Association of Fire Investigators offers certifications in fire and explosion investigation, fire investigation instruction and vehicle fire investigation. The National Association of Legal Investigators offers legal investigator certification to those employed at law firms or investigation agencies. Requirements will vary depending on the type of certification, but most require the completion of a written exam in addition to other steps.

Alternate Careers to Consider

Police Officer

If becoming a private investigator doesn't feel like the right choice for you, there are still a variety of related careers out there. For example, police officers work in law enforcement and investigate suspicious activities. As a police officer, you might work at the local, state or federal level, patrolling specific areas and arresting suspects. In May 2011, police officers earned an average annual salary of around $56,000, according to the BLS. However, employment growth is expected to be slower than average for all professions, at an estimated seven percent from 2010-2020.

Bill Collector

If you like the idea of investigative work and maintaining organization, but you don't want to work in potentially dangerous situations, consider becoming a bill or account collector. A bill collector locates and contacts individuals who are overdue on payments. You'll only need a high school diploma for this career, and you might work exclusively over the phone. You'll likely work for a commission based on the amount of debt you successfully collect. The BLS reported that the average annual salary for bill collectors in May 2011 was around $33,000, lower than that of private investigators. Job growth should be average from 2010-2020, estimated at 14%, according to BLS data.

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Kaplan University

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American InterContinental University

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  • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice

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Johns Hopkins University

  • Certificate in Government Analytics

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Indiana Wesleyan University

  • Master of Public Administration - Criminal Justice
  • B.S. Criminal Justice
  • A.S. Criminal Justice
  • Undergraduate Certificate - Criminal Justice

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Grand Canyon University

  • MS in Criminal Justice: Law Enforcement
  • MS in Leadership: Disaster Preparedness & Executive Fire Leadership
  • Bachelor: Public Safety and Emergency Management

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Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Criminal Justice - Federal Law Enforcement Track
  • MS - Criminal Justice
  • Post-master's Certificate in Criminal Justice - Behavior Analysis

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Colorado State University Global

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  • BS - Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Admin
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Colorado Technical University

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