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Detective Career Guide

What is a detective?

A detective is an investigator who typically works on criminal cases as part of a law enforcement agency. More severe or complicated crimes, including most felonies and some misdemeanors, require additional investigation to gather evidence. 

They are assigned cases based on their specialty or jurisdiction. Some may last months while information is gathered, people are interviewed, and evidence is reviewed. Their role is to organize the tangible evidence needed to bring justice to the matter. These investigators use problem-solving and observation skills to sort through the information provided and determine the order of events.

Duties and responsibilities

Daily duties for a detective vary greatly depending on what stage of an investigation they are working on. A typical day could include collecting and analyzing evidence, photographing and drawing diagrams of crime scenes, reviewing autopsy reports, interviewing relevant leads, and writing reports. The investigation must be extremely organized, so they must have excellent note-taking and organization skills. 

Depending on the type of detective, some surveillance may also be required. They should have plenty of experience in law enforcement. It’s essential to work within the laws, testify in court whenever necessary, and defend all methods and collection procedures.

Work environment

The work environment for detectives is constantly changing. There is a lot of deskwork in the role as they’ll be writing up reports, searching leads using the internet, and reviewing reports from other experts in your cases. Days in court will involve testifying for long periods and being able to answer questions and speak in front of others.

Fieldwork can take place in many different locations. They may be doing surveillance where they have to stay in their car or hidden away in a certain position for long periods of time. Interviews and evidence gathering can happen at crime scenes or locations where people need to be questioned. 

Typical work hours

A detective’s work schedule differs from the typical 9 to 5 job. Calls could come in after hours, often when they need to be on site. Shift work is required to keep the public safe, so anyone in law enforcement will have to adjust to rotating schedules. These professionals must adjust their schedules to work the cases assigned, so the schedule may constantly shift.

How to become a detective

In order to become a detective, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Meet the education requirements

Each police department has its own specific requirements. You’ll need a high school diploma; in many cases, detective positions require a bachelor’s degree in criminology or criminal justice.

Step 2: Complete training at the Police Academy

Each police department has its own training program. The Police Academy covers all the skills you need to be a good police officer. You’ll learn about local laws, constitutional law, civil rights, firearm safety and precision, and emergency response. Most recruits will be in the Basic Law Enforcement Academy for around 4.5 months before graduating to become student officers.

Step 3: Gain field experience as a patrol officer

Many police departments require at least two to five years of experience as an officer. By working in this role, you’ll gain experience and a deeper understanding of how the force operates and learn crucial skills for becoming a detective.

Step 4: Take additional online courses

While working as an officer, you can increase your knowledge in detective skills. Utilize online resources, like Udemy and Coursera, to keep this information fresh in your brain and become aware of any updates to technology or strategies. Here are a few that we recommend:

  • The Introduction to Psychology course from Coursera will give you insights into how people think. It’s an overview of the scientific study of thought and behavior, giving you much insight when solving crimes and interviewing witnesses and suspects.
  • For a course that focuses more on the detective role, take the Introduction to Forensic Science class. This course covers the scientific principles and techniques behind the work of forensic scientists. Learn about DNA chemistry and how evidence can be looked at. Another option for Intro to Forensic Science is offered from Udemy as well.
  • Dive into the most relevant and current conversations for detectives with the Hot Topics in Criminal Justice course. It covers the conversation about what to do with convicted criminals and how to identify them in the first place. Our society is dealing with mass incarceration, the validity of the death penalty, police injustice, and how technology is used in surveillance and police work. 
  • Try the Introduction to Criminology: Explaining Crime course. You’ll learn to speak about criminal psychology and the sociology of crime and be able to educate others about the backgrounds of criminal behavior. 
  • Take the Detective’s Guide to Lie Detection and Exposing the Truth to learn more about lie detection with tons of real-life examples and actual interviews. The course teaches you to detect hidden emotions and spot nonverbal cues. 

Step 5: Pass the national investigator test

The National Detective/Investigator Test (NDIT) is a comprehensive exam that helps determine if you have the necessary skills and knowledge to become a detective. This is a great exam even if there isn’t a current job opening, so you’re ready when something opens. You can let your current supervisor know you’ve passed the exam and are ready for any openings. The test has study guides, so allow yourself a month or two to prepare. 

Step 6: Apply for detective jobs

Once you’ve completed all the requirements, let your boss know you’re interested in applying for any open detective positions. You might have to switch your jurisdiction or location to find an open spot and hire. Check the job boards and online job searches.

How much do detectives make?

There are many variables that go into determining how much a detective makes, from company size to experience to education, just to name a few. Most public detectives work for a government agency. Here are the median annual wages for each level of government:

  • Federal – $93,970
  • State – $72,280
  • Local – $64,610

Highest paying states

  • Alaska – $126,810
  • Maryland – $115,660
  • District of Columbia – $111,476
  • Hawaii – $111,130
  • Washington – $108,550

Browse detective salary data by market

Types of detectives

There are many types of detectives, from specific crime specialties with the FBI to local small-town detectives that handle misdemeanors. There are also investigators in the private sector used for background checks, help with missing persons, and other services.

Law enforcement detectives

You’ll find specific roles for all the major crimes within the realm of public detectives. Homicide detectives investigate deaths and determine whether or not foul play was involved. This role may determine the time and cause of death and help track down witnesses and potential suspects. 

In law enforcement agencies, these investigators specialize in crimes like drug trafficking, narcotics, robbery, and fraud. Gang detectives follow the activities of violent street gangs and help investigate any crimes that may be related to that activity. Sometimes, these local detectives partner with the FBI on federal criminal investigations, but the bureau also has its own agents. 

Cybercrime detectives

Cybercrime detectives work on internet cases involving hackers and online criminals. These roles are common for large corporations to have on staff, working as private detectives. Other common specialties for private investigators include insurance fraud, investigative due diligence in the corporate world, and recovering lost or stolen goods. 

Top skills for detectives

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a detective. The following descriptions provide insights into the abilities anyone aspiring to this role should focus on developing.

Investigative skills

The essence of detective work lies in its investigative nature. The ability to meticulously examine crime scenes, gather evidence, and connect the dots is vital. This skill involves a mix of fieldwork and research, requiring these professionals to be well-versed in forensic methods, legal procedures, and modern investigative tools.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking allows investigators to view a situation from multiple angles, weigh the evidence, and draw logical conclusions. This skill often involves disassembling complex problems into manageable parts, analyzing them individually, and then synthesizing them back into a coherent whole. This analytical approach often results in more effective problem-solving and, ultimately, case resolution.

Attention to detail

In the investigative world, even the smallest detail can be the key to solving a case. They must have an eagle eye for details that others may overlook, from inconsistencies in witness statements to subtle clues at a crime scene. Attention to detail also plays a role in documenting evidence and maintaining thorough case files, which can be crucial in legal proceedings.

Strong communication skills

These professionals must be adept at both verbal and written communication. Interviewing witnesses, interrogating suspects, and liaising with other law enforcement agencies require effective speaking and listening skills. Similarly, writing comprehensive reports and case summaries are critical aspects of the job that necessitate strong written communication abilities.

Emotional intelligence

Understanding human behavior is essential for successful interrogations and interactions with victims, witnesses, and suspects. Emotional intelligence enables them to read nonverbal cues, gauge emotional reactions, and build rapport. This skill can be crucial in sensitive situations where gaining someone’s trust could mean the difference between obtaining valuable information or hitting a dead end.

Detective career path

Choosing a detective career means committing to a challenging but highly rewarding profession. Most start their careers as police officers, patrolling assigned areas, enforcing laws, and gaining first-hand experience in law enforcement. Earning a promotion to detective usually requires years of experience, demonstrated skill, and often the passing of a promotional exam. Some departments also require the completion of advanced training courses in criminal investigations or similar subjects.

Once you become a detective, your duties will shift from general law enforcement to specialized investigations. This can range from working on homicide cases, narcotics, and financial crimes to cybercrime. The specialization you choose can significantly shape your career trajectory. Specialized training and certifications can bolster your expertise in these specific areas.

After years of successful cases and proven competence, you may be promoted to senior detective, lead detective, or even detective sergeant. These roles often come with supervisory responsibilities and may involve overseeing other detectives or entire investigative units. High-profile cases often land on your desk, and your skill in navigating complex investigations will be pivotal.

As you progress, managerial and administrative roles, such as lieutenant or captain in the investigative division, could be the next step. Here, you’ll be responsible for broader strategies involving crime reduction, inter-departmental collaboration, and administrative duties. Some also transition to federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, or Homeland Security for specialized investigative roles.

Ultimately, you could aspire to executive roles like chief of detectives or even police chief. In these roles, you’ll oversee the full spectrum of departmental activities, from budgeting to community relations, and you’ll substantially influence law enforcement policies and practices.

Law enforcement and their communities have been focusing more on community policing in recent years. Police and citizens can build trust and cooperation, and detectives will have more opportunities to work collaboratively with community members.

Their work has also been impacted by advances in technology. Digital forensics, for instance, is becoming increasingly important in crimes involving computers, and they may need to be proficient at analyzing digital evidence and data.

Employment projections

The job count for detectives and investigators is predicted to grow about 6% through 2031, which is average among the different careers. Police departments rely on budgets to make hiring decisions, so cities with a growing population will have more increases to work with in the near future.

Detective career tips

Soft skills and traits

There are obvious steps to apply for job openings for all aspiring detectives. You can also do a few things outside the outlined requirements to boost your job performance and resume for potential employers. Develop strong note-taking skills. You’ll be doing a lot of writing, and it’s important to capture as much information as possible to refer back to and use to help solve cases. Practice thinking outside the box and being perceptive. You want to look at things from different angles without missing details while investigating.

Learn a second language common in the community you’re going to work in. It can be extremely beneficial when you’re interviewing possible witnesses and community members. Spanish is popular, but you could check the Census information to see your best options.

Commonly required skills and qualifications

Improve your physical fitness and strength. You’ll have to pass a physical test before becoming a police officer, but even when working, you’ll want to move around for long periods and remain in good shape. Keep a clean record. Not only will you need to pass a background check, but you will also need a clean driving record to become a detective. Stay on top of the most current technologies and strategies for forensics. Follow industry communications to learn about the changes and advancements.

Develop a professional network

Consider military service. By serving in the military, you will gain some crucial skills that can assist in your law enforcement career and help move you to the top of the list for new hires.

Learn first aid and other skills that will help with general police work. It’s best to be prepared while on the job. The bigger your network, the better chance you’ll have. Here are a few networks to try:

  • National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO)
  • National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA)
  • International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
  • National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C)
  • LinkedIn Groups
  • Community Organizations

Where the detective jobs are

Top companies

  • Local Police Depts
  • Foglight Investigations
  • BCI
  • Gold Shield Security
  • CPI

Top states

  • District of Columbia
  • New Mexico
  • Arizona
  • Texas
  • New York

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • LinkedIn
  • ZipRecruiter
  • Careerbuilder
  • Monster


What skills are required to become a detective?

They need strong problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to help them solve crimes. It’s important to have excellent verbal and written communication as well. Attention to detail and good observation skills can help interview witnesses and assess a crime scene. 

Is a bachelor’s degree required to become a detective?

Not all positions require a bachelor’s degree, but gaining some additional education beyond high school is always recommended. Taking online courses or completing an associate’s degree can increase your chances of reaching that role.

What is a typical day for a detective? 

Each day will vary depending on the caseload. Typically, they interview people, write reports, analyze information, appear in court, and follow up on leads. There might be fieldwork, like surveillance, or deskwork, like writing up reports on specific cases. 

Can I become a detective with no experience?

The only way to become a detective is by first gaining experience in the police force. Most work for at least two years as officers and complete their training before being promoted. Military service can count as experience in some locations.

What are the downsides of being a detective?

They have a crazy schedule because they are often on call, even when they are off duty. Overnights and weekends are sometimes required to get the necessary information. The job can also be highly stressful when there are large cases to be solved or a lot of media and public involvement in a specific case.

How many days off does a detective receive?

They have a set number of days off agreed upon when accepting their position. It ranges by years of service and which department they work for. It’s usually around 20-25 days each year, plus public holidays.

Do detectives work alone or with a partner?

Many police departments, especially large cities, have multiple detectives working as a team. Cases may be assigned to one specific detective, but they will enlist the help of others on their team to gather information. 

How old do you have to be to become a detective?

Due to the training and education requirements, it’s pretty standard for detectives to be at least 21 years of age. You must have several years of experience on the police force and be at least 18 years old to start the police academy.

What type of degree should you get if you want to become a detective?

The best college programs for aspiring detectives are related to criminal justice. Criminology is a popular choice because you’ll learn the basics of the criminal justice system, including investigative methods. Psychology is another beneficial area of study because it gives insight into how people behave and think.

What is the difference between a public and a private detective?

Public detectives are employed by government agencies and work in law enforcement groups to solve crimes. Private detectives can work for anyone and help to investigate situations that might not be related to an active crime investigation. They can also assist public detectives and use methods that aren’t typical in police units. 

Can introverts make good detectives?

Personality type doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to being a good detective, but introverts often make great observers. To become a detective, you need to be able to communicate well with others and tap into your critical thinking skills to solve problems and come up with solutions others may not consider.