How to Become a Private Investigator

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A good introduction to an article about how to become a private investigator will include plenty of information about what private detectives actually do. Private investigators fill in the gap between law enforcement and the investigation needs of private citizens.

So what do private investigators do?

They work for a variety of clients, from attorneys and insurance companies to major corporations and individuals. Private detectives look into people's backgrounds, watch them in their daily lives as part of an investigation into their behavior and activities, and testify or write affidavits for court and legal cases. There is a lot of work for private investigators tracking the behaviors of suspicious married couples, determining if an extramarital affair is taking place, though much of the myth surrounding the work of private investigators is just that--myth.

How to Become a Private InvestigatorThese days, private investigators are more likely to assist in criminal liability cases, civil trials, to determine if fraud is involved in an insurance claim, assist in child custody battles, or do basic screening on individuals before a marriage, sort of an investigative prenuptial agreement. Now that we live in the "Information Age," businesses are hiring private investigators to look into the backgrounds of potential employees and other business related queries.

Average Private Investigator Salary and Earning Potential

The average income for a private investigator depends on how much their service charges per hour and how much business they do. Typically, private investigation agencies charge between $40 and $100 per hour. Why the variation? In big cities, private investigators charge more, closer to $100 an hour or more. In less affluent areas or in the rural South, you can hire a private investigator for $40 an hour or less.

Another reason some PIs charge more per hour is that they have a good reputation, specialize in a difficult field of investigation, or work in a wealthy part of the country. If a private investigator is working with the defense team on a capital punishment case, he is likely to be highly skilled and able to charge above $100 an hour. On the other hand, a new PI or someone in training to become a PI will probably earn very little, close to minimum wage.

Professional private eyes can also earn a salary instead of being paid by the hour, and an annual salary of between $25,000 and $100,000 a year is a good average.

How does this work?

If a private investigator works for a PI service, he may only earn 40-50% of his billable hours. If his agency is charging $60 per hour, the investigator earns $25 per hour and the rest goes to the agency. If you work a 50 hour work week at that salary, you're clearing $1,250 a week. It all depends on how much work you do, how much you earn per hour, and how much the agency you work for charges by the hour.

Private Investigator Education and Training

People interested in working as private investigators can take classes in the field towards earning a license, like any other professional field. Private investigator licenses are handed out by the state in which you take your licensing exam. Many private investigators start out by earning a bachelor's degree before they take their licensing exam. It's not uncommon to find private investigators with degrees in business administration, political science, or even a foreign language. Yes, there are also a large number of private detectives who had careers in the military or law enforcement.

That being said, there are no actual educational requirements to become a private investigator. If you can pass your state's licensing exam, you can become a private investigator. Where higher education becomes important is when you want to work for an investigation firm or agency. Jobs with reputable private investigator firms usually require some post secondary education. If you don't want to go the traditional college route, there are private investigator training programs you can attend.

Online training to become a private investigator provides the coursework you need to pass licensing exams. You take these courses online, sometimes supplementing your online training with materials sent through the mail. Online schools like Kaplan University and hundreds of other online programs provide these courses, as do vocational schools that you attend like traditional colleges.

Qualifications for Private Investigators

If you want to work as a private investigator for a large PI agency, you'll need to prove that you meet certain qualifications. Almost all of these agencies require some higher education, whether its in law enforcement, military training, or private investigator courses.

If you are interested in becoming a private investigator, a college degree in any of the following fields can prove you have what it takes to be a PI:

  • criminal justice
  • business administration
  • foreign language
  • homeland security

A degree in business administration will help a private investigator when he or she works with corporations to investigate clients, future business partners, future or current employees, and business deals. A degree in criminal justice provides the basic education in law enforcement that some private investigators need. A degree in a foreign language, especially Spanish, could make you an ideal candidate for a PI agency with a large number of Spanish speaking clients, and a vocational degree in homeland security (similar to a degree in law enforcement) provides the background in investigation and law enforcement that private detective agencies are looking for.

Steps to Becoming a Private Investigator

If you're a high school student, you have many options for becoming a private investigator. The steps to becoming a private investigator are as follows:

1. Maintain a Clean Criminal Record

A person convicted of a felony will probably not be hired by a detective agency. Contrary to the detective stories and movies, people with a checkered past don't usually make good private investigators.

2. Take Higher Education Classes

If you want to be a private detective, your options for higher education are wide open. Many private investigation agencies don't care what your degree is in, as long as you have a bachelor's degree or even an associates' degree. Good fields of study for private investigators are criminal justice, business, or foreign language studies. Private investigation school exist to prepare students for licensing exams and work as a PI.

3. Take a Licensing Examination

In America, 45 out of the 50 states require a license before you can call yourself a private investigator. These exams vary from state to state, covering things like the procedure for conducting ethical interviews, using the Freedom of Information Act, and surveillance law.

The life of a private investigator may look nothing like what you see on television or read in detective stories, but it can be a lucrative and exciting career for people bored by the idea of a typical 9-5 desk job. With the proper education and training, a private investigator can make a good salary working in a field in which every day is a new adventure.

You can find more information about private investigation at the following sites: - The site has an entire section about private investigation, with articles about how to find a person and tools used by private detectives. - The official website for Professional Investigator magazine is worth a look, too, and the content is updated at least monthly. Their list of private investigator associations is especially useful, as is their frequently asked questions page. - They offer a study-at-home program where you can become a private eye in 3 to 6 months. I enjoyed the skills you need section and the school catalog provides a list of classes you'll take.