College Degree Finder

Private Investigator Career, Job, Degrees and Training Information

Private detectives or investigators collect information. They conduct surveillance and perform searches to collect information. They also make phone calls and interview people. Private detectives conduct investigations for attorneys, businesses, and anyone in need of personal, legal, or financial help. Private detectives conduct background checks, pre-employment verification, and investigate individuals suspected of infidelity. Private detectives are often hired to investigate child protection and custody cases, personal injury cases, and insurance fraud allegations.

Most private detectives are trained to conduct physical surveillance. They may wait in a vehicle and use binoculars, cameras, and cell phones to collect data. They can also use computers to locate information about criminal records, civil judgments, and motor vehicle registrations.

Clients determine what detectives investigate. In some cases, such as a fraudulent insurance claim investigation, retrieving the information could take a long time. Once the detective has completed the investigation, he or she would provide the client with the findings.

Private detectives often specialize. Investigators tracking down unaccounted for money would go through documents and conduct interviews. Those specializing in intellectual property theft would conduct research on piracy laws. Investigators working with attorneys would conduct surveillance and interviews, and locate witnesses.

The following are few types of specialized investigators:
  • Computer forensic investigators specialize in recovering, analyzing, and presenting data from computers for use in police investigations or as evidence in a court of law. They will usually determine the details of intrusions into computer systems, recover data from erase or encrypted files, and recover deleted passwords and e-mails.

  • Legal investigators are responsible for assisting in the preparation of criminal defenses, serving legal documents, locating witnesses, interviewing police and prospective witnesses, and gathering and reviewing critical evidence. Legal investigators may also be required to collect information on the parties to a litigation, testify in court, take photographs, and organize evidence and reports for presentation in legal trials. Legal investigators frequently work directly for law firms or attorneys.

  • Corporate investigators work for corporations to conduct internal and external investigations. External investigations investigate crimes committed outside the organization such as theft. Internal investigations involve problems within the organization such as employee drug use.

  • Financial investigators, usually CPAs, work with investment banks or accountants to discover assets hidden by other firms that might be owed to the investigator's client, following a court order.

  • Loss prevention agents, also known as store detectives, supervise store activity to monitor theft. If someone is caught stealing, a store detective would apprehend the thief. They monitor employees and customers, occasionally inspecting dressing rooms, stock areas, and restrooms. Store detectives also prepare reports when theft is discovered and testify at trials. Hotel detectives monitor hotels to ensure guest safety and prevent individuals posing a risk to guests from entering the hotel.

Education and Training

While there aren't any formal education requirements for most private detective and investigator career positions, many have postsecondary degrees. Those detectives who decide to specialize usually possess a 4-year bachelor degree or specialized training. Taking college level courses in police science or criminal justice are helpful for aspiring private detectives and investigators looking for career advancement opportunities. Although job related experience is usually required, some professionals enter the occupation directly after graduation from college, generally with an associate's or bachelor's degree in criminal justice or police science. Experience in police investigation is viewed favorably by potential clients and employers.

Most corporate investigators are required at minimum to possess a bachelor's degree, preferably in a business or finance related field. Some corporate investigators will earn a master's degree in business administration, law, finance or accounting.

For computer forensics detective, earing a computer science or accounting degree is much more helpful than earning a degree in criminal justice. Believe it or not, a bachelor's or master's degree in accounting provides very good background knowledge for investigating computer fraud. Either of these two degrees provides a good starting point for aspiring computer forensic detectives, after which investigative techniques can be learned on the job via experience or specialized training. Alternatively, many colleges, universities and vocational schools now offer accredited certificate programs, requiring from 15 to 21 credits, in computer forensics. These certicate programs are most useful for aspiring paralegals, law enforcement officers, or others who already are involved in detective/investigative work. A few universities and colleges now offer bachelor's or master's degrees in computer forensics, and many colleges are beginning to offer such degrees. Most computer forensic investigators and detectives learn the investigative trade while employed for a law enforcement agency, either as a police officer or a computer forensic analyst working for a private corporation. Many people enter the public law enforcement arena specifically to acquire specialized investigative training and establish a good reputation in order to pursue career opportunities in the private sector.


Most States in the United States and the District of Columbia require private investigators and detectives to get licensed. However, licensing requirements vary from state to state. Seven States, including Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming, have no specific licensing requirements. Some States have only a few licensure requirements, while many others have very strict regulations.

Employment Opportunities

Private detectives and investigators maintained around 45,500 jobs in 2008. About 21 percent of private detectives were self-employed, including many whos investigative work was a second job. Around 41 percent of investigator and detective jobs were in security services and investigation, including private detective and investigative agencies. The remaining private detectives and investigators worked mostly in State and local government, department or other general merchandise stores, legal services firms, employment services companies, insurance agencies, and credit mediation establishments, including banks.