How To Become a Private Investigator

Private investigator looking at crime scene

If you enjoy research and solving puzzles, you might enjoy becoming a private investigator (PI), also known as a private detective. Now is a great time to consider entering this career field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an estimated 3,000 new jobs are expected to open for private detectives and investigators from 2019 to 2029.1 Before embarking on your journey to become a PI, it is a good idea to learn a bit more about what the role of a PI entails.

The Job Responsibilities of Private Investigators

Influenced by popular movies and TV shows, many people assume that most PIs work for themselves in their own agencies. In reality, some PIs are employed by government agencies, while others are employed by companies in the finance and insurance sectors.

The specific job responsibilities and areas of focus can vary from one agency to the next. In general, however, a PI may do any of the following:

  • Search records databases, including court records
  • Interview people
  • Conduct background checks
  • Perform surveillance
  • Conduct accident reconstructions
  • Investigate crime scenes and claims of fraud

Some PIs also specialize in a single area. For example, some may exclusively do corporate investigations, while others primarily handle background checks within the criminal justice system.

Earn a Degree in Criminal Justice Studies

The educational requirements for a private investigator can vary from one agency to the next. However, it’s common for investigative agencies to require job applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as criminal justice or justice studies.

A justice studies degree is particularly helpful because it provides a thorough overview of criminal and civil laws. PIs are often called upon to conduct investigations of wrongdoing, so a basic understanding of laws is a must-have. Furthermore, PIs need to be mindful of staying on the right side of the law themselves as they conduct their investigations. Any evidence obtained through illegal means will be rejected by the courts.

Another reason a bachelor’s degree in justice studies is helpful for aspiring PIs is that it strengthens their critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. For instance, you may take courses on threat assessment, behavioral analysis and community planning. During your studies, you may review case studies that apply effective solutions to real-world problems. These can be helpful in dealing with challenges that arise in your criminal justice career.

Cultivate the Necessary Skills and Characteristics

While you are working toward your bachelor’s degree, you can simultaneously begin acquiring or strengthening the key skills and characteristics needed for this profession.

  • Communication skills: Because PIs must prepare written reports for their clients, writing skills are essential. Furthermore, in order to conduct investigations, PIs must interact with people from all backgrounds. It is necessary to be a persuasive speaker, as some people may be reluctant to provide information.
  • Computer proficiency: All PIs rely on the internet to conduct research for their investigations.
  • Photography skills: Many PIs take photos during their investigations. These can be used as evidence. PIs may also examine their photos later to pick out details they might have missed in person.
  • Patience: PIs who conduct surveillance must be patient enough to wait for long hours in a single place.

Another important trait of an effective private investigator is objectivity. It is important for an investigator to review evidence impartially, without preconceived ideas about the conclusion.

Consider Gaining Relevant Work Experience

Many private investigators come to the profession after having already acquired work experience in a related career. For example, many PIs have served in the military or law enforcement. Others may have worked as process servers, paralegals or claims adjusters. Working for a bill collection agency can also lead to work as a PI.

Although not every PI agency requires prior work experience in a related field, many do. Furthermore, related work experience may be necessary to acquire a license in some states.

Obtain State Licensure

Before you can legally work as a PI, you will likely need to obtain a PI license from the state in which you plan to work. Nearly all states require PIs to hold appropriate licensure. Requirements vary from one state to the next, so check licensure requirements from the start as you begin your journey to become a PI. For example, in Arizona, an individual must document three years of relevant, full-time work experience before obtaining a license.2

The Benefits of Becoming a Private Investigator

For those considering becoming a private investigator, there are many rewarding perks and benefits in working within this career field. Here are some advantages of pursuing a career in private investigation:

  • Having control in your own career: Within the criminal justice career field, there is a wide range of work and tactics you can choose from, and you can partner with people who work in a variety of fields, including insurance companies, corporations, law offices or private investigation firms.
  • Earning potential: When you are a private investigator who is self-employed, you can choose how much work you take on and the rates you want to charge. In choosing to work for a private investigator firm, you might earn less money; however, you won't have as many business-related expenses as owning your own firm.
  • Having satisfaction with your job: The work you do as a private investigator gives you the opportunity of completing tasks, overcoming challenges and employing detailed tactics. The career of a PI can be rewarding for individuals who enjoy solving puzzles and providing important information to clients who need help.
  • Personal fulfillment: People who pursue careers in private investigation tend to have a strong sense of justice, and their professional accomplishments in service of law and order can also lead to personal satisfaction.
  • Variety in cases: There are a variety of diverse cases to be worked within private investigation, ranging from law enforcement to clients within the corporate field.

The Benefits of Hiring a Private Investigator

In hiring a private investigator, there are many benefits they can bring to the table that can help the client and the communities around them. Here are some examples of the benefits in hiring a private investigator:

  • Detailed background checks: The private investigator you have hired will conduct detailed background checks or procedures to get down to the truth. These background checks include learning more about the individual at the center of the investigation and the motive behind their crimes.
  • Gaining experience: Private investigators spend their careers unlocking clues, solving problems, overcoming challenges and dealing with difficult tactics. All these things make them skilled professionals you can trust to develop the most efficient results of a case.
  • Grappling complex responsibilities: Complex cases can cause stress that leads to cases getting out of control. You can rest easy knowing you have a private investigator who is properly trained and prepared by your side.
  • Collecting evidence: Within legal cases, the evidence you obtain is the most important thing; fortunately, your private investigator is very knowledgeable about gathering and interpreting evidence. They will know how to handle difficult situations and how to develop the facts and evidence backing up your case.
  • Efficient work: When you hire your private investigator, you will save yourself time and stress by not handling the case alone. The investigator’s experience and professionalism will make the case flow more efficiently.

If you are the type of individual who enjoys learning new challenging skills, believes in justice, and wants to help people, a career as a private investigator may be right for you.

You can begin working toward an exciting career in private investigation by earning your undergraduate degree at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences is ideally suited to this career field, as it covers key topics such as threat assessment, criminal procedure and criminal law. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to get started today.


1COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Private Detectives and Investigators.

2Arizona Registers of Contractors, Getting a Contractor’s License, in December 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.