What is a detective?
Becoming a detective might be your best career path if you love solving puzzles and mysteries and sorting through data. 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.
Detectives are assigned cases based on their specialty or jurisdiction. Some may last months while information is gathered, people are interviewed, and evidence is reviewed. The detective’s role is to organize the tangible evidence needed to bring justice to the matter. Detectives use their problem-solving and observation skills to sort through all of the information provided and determine the order of events.
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, taking photographs and drawing diagrams of crime scenes, reviewing autopsy reports, interviewing relevant leads, and writing reports. The investigation process needs to be extremely organized, so detectives must have excellent note-taking and organization skills.
Depending on the type of detective, some surveillance may also be required. Detectives should have plenty of experience in law enforcement. It’s essential to be able to work within the laws and be able to testify in court whenever necessary and defend all methods and collection procedures.
Qualifications and eligibility
To become a detective, you’ll need to gain some experience in the police force first. Each department has specific education requirements, usually two to four years of post-high school education. In addition, you’ll need to complete police training and work for a few years as an officer to learn the techniques used and get some hands-on experience.
In addition to education and experience, detectives need to be excellent problem-solvers. Many cases are like puzzles that need to be solved. The ability to think outside the box, interview and understand people, and analyze all the information (even the things that don’t seem relevant on the surface) are all essential skills for aspiring detectives.
The work environment for detectives is constantly changing. There is a lot of deskwork in the role because you’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 of time and being able to answer questions and speak in front of others.
Fieldwork can take place in many different locations. You may be doing surveillance where you have to stay in your 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 is not the typical 9 to 5 job. Calls could come in after hours, often when detectives 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. Detectives must adjust their schedules to work the cases assigned, so the schedule may constantly shift.
The salary for detectives varies depending on location, education, and experience. The BLS breaks down the top-paying locations for the average salary for detectives, shown in annual mean wages:
- Alaska – $126,810
- District of Columbia – $123,760
- Maryland – $115,660
- Hawaii – $111,130
- Washington – $108,550
Most public detectives work for a government agency. Here are the median annual wages for each level of government:
- Federal government – $93,970
- State government, excluding education and hospitals – $72,280
- Local government, excluding education and hospitals – $64,610
Steps to become a detective
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.
2. Complete training at the Police Academy
Each police department has its own training program. 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.
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 as an officer, you’ll gain experience and a deeper understanding of how the force operates and learn crucial skills for becoming a detective.
4. Take additional online courses
While you’re working as an officer, you can work to increase your knowledge of 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 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 by 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.
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 that 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.
6. Apply for detective jobs
Once you’ve completed all the requirements for a detective job, 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 a spot that is open and hiring. Check the job boards and online job searches.
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 detectives in the private sector used for background checks, help with missing persons, and other help. Learn more about private investigators in the specific career guide.
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, detectives specialize in crimes like drug trafficking and 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 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 recovery of lost or stolen goods.
Tips for becoming a detective
For all aspiring detectives, there are obvious steps to hit to apply for job openings. There are also a few things you can do outside the outlined requirements to boost your job performance and your resume for potential employers.
- 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 a popular choice, but you could check the Census information to see your best options.
- Improve your physical fitness and strength. You’ll have to pass a physical test before becoming a police officer, but even when you’re 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.
- 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.
- 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 and not miss any details while investigating.
- Learn first aid and other skills that will help with general police work. It’s best to be prepared while on the job.
- Stay on top of the most current technologies and strategies for forensics. Follow industry communications to learn about the changes and advancements.
The job count for detectives and investigators is predicted to grow about six percent from 2021 to 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.
Each law enforcement agency has its own rules and hierarchy for promotions and ranks. For detectives, it’s common to complete a few years as an entry-level patrol officer. Once you’ve completed the necessary length of time, you can start working towards a promotion. Detectives are ranked higher than officers in the force, and in larger cities, there are multiple levels of detectives. With experience, you can move up the ranks and eventually oversee the detectives in the unit instead of managing your own caseload.
If you want to move up the ranks as high as possible, you can set your sights on the Chief of Police position. There are also positions within the Federal government that come with higher pay and responsibilities.
Detective interview questions to expect
1. What is your experience and training as a criminal investigator?
Share your background in your career, but also mention any work you’ve done to expand your knowledge outside of the police force. Talk about any online courses or job shadowing you’ve done to show that you want to learn as much as possible.
2. Describe the most challenging case you’ve worked on.
This question allows you to highlight your skills and accomplishments in the field. Even if you’ve never been a detective, you probably have some experience helping on a crime scene by collecting evidence or interviewing witnesses. Make sure to mention some tactics you used while working on the case to showcase your knowledge.
3. Which specific crimes do you find the most satisfaction solving?
As we mentioned above, a law enforcement agency has multiple types of detectives. Talk about your passions and which crimes are the most impactful for you personally. If you don’t have a specific crime you hope to specialize in, you can share the parts of the job that will be the most meaningful to you.
4. What methods of detective work do you find the most challenging?
It’s important to have some self-awareness of the areas where you might not be as talented, and you can share that while answering this question. But it’s also important to mention how you plan to improve that area. For example, if surveillance is challenging, let them know how you plan to learn new techniques and practice the skill.
5. How would you handle a high-profile case?
Some crimes are going to have a stronger media presence than others for a variety of reasons. As a detective working on the case, you must be prepared for an influx of leads, plus a lot of public questions and scrutiny throughout the process. Each case should be treated with the same focus on detail.
6. Do you have any experience working with uncooperative people?
Detectives have to interview different people during an investigation, and it’s going to happen that you are faced with someone who doesn’t want to cooperate. Talk about your experience in working through this. Which communication methods do you try first? How do you help to break down that barrier and get through to someone when it’s most important?
7. How well do you work with others? Do you have any experience collaborating with another department or jurisdiction?
Detective work isn’t always confined to your location. People move around a lot, so there will be instances where you need to work with another detective or law enforcement group. It’s essential to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes and plan how to work together to ultimately get to the bottom of the case. Talk about any projects or cases where you’ve needed to pull together outside people to accomplish your goal.
8. What do you think are the most important skills for detectives?
Showcase your knowledge about the role of a detective and work on the skills you have that will benefit you. Critical thinking, problem-solving, and observation skills are all essential in this role. Communicating clearly and organizing your notes and reports well are also crucial.
9. How often do you fill in your supervisor on the status of your cases?
Each law enforcement agency has a chain of command, and it’s important that all officers and detectives follow that. Be open to your methods for reporting, but make sure to highlight your understanding of the importance of that hierarchy. Lay out your communication plan and talk about your style, and then stress your willingness to alter your plans to meet your boss’s needs.