Career Development

How To Become a Detective

February 24, 2021

Becoming a detective can take experience, dedication and a mixture of hard and soft skills like communication, interpersonal and investigative skills. Detectives may also work long hours, taking on responsibilities that protect communities and provide justice for a variety of criminal cases. If you are considering a career in detective work, there may be specific requirements for your state or local jurisdiction. In this article, we discuss what a detective does, how much they earn and how to become one, with answers to frequently asked questions about detectives.

What does a detective do?

A detective is a law enforcement professional or criminal investigator who collects and analyzes evidence from criminal cases. Detectives may work in law enforcement agencies, government investigative agencies and private investigative agencies. Detectives who work in law enforcement may be police detectives who are responsible for answering emergency calls, investigate crime scenes and arrest criminal suspects. Criminal investigators may work in law enforcement as well, however, they may also find employment in a variety of investigative agencies outside of police forces. Some common duties detectives may perform include:

  • Collecting evidence from crime scenes and submitting evaluations and reports to forensic teams
  • Securing crime scenes for investigation
  • Questioning witnesses and suspects and filing appropriate documentation for police records
  • Attending criminal cases in court to testify and submit evidence
  • Performing patrol, emergency and routine tasks within assigned jurisdiction

These tasks can also include role-specific tasks—like forensics and testing samples—depending on the agency and position.

Related: A Guide to Civil Service Jobs

Average salary of a detective

The national average salary for a detective in the United States is $53,725 per year, according to Indeed's salary guide. This income level can fluctuate depending on the state, county or city jurisdiction. Additionally, some states have average salary levels above the national level. Some of these states include:

Steps to becoming a detective

Becoming a detective usually requires earning some type of degree and completing specific training requirements set by the state, county or city jurisdiction in which you desire to work. Use the following steps as a guideline to help you get started on your career path as a detective:

  1. Attend and complete police academy training
  2. Fulfill educational requirements
  3. Gain work experience
  4. Complete licensing requirements
  5. Apply for advancements and open positions

Read more: When a Professional Degree Will Help You Advance in Your Career

1. Attend and complete police academy training

All police detectives must be experienced law enforcement officers. If you are considering a career as a detective, you will need to complete training in a police academy and work as a police officer to gain experience. Even candidates possessing degrees must have law enforcement experience before they can qualify for detective certification. Police officers working in the field before applying for their detective's certificate must have a certain amount of documented work hours to qualify for taking the certification exam.

2. Fulfill educational requirements

Depending on the requirements of your state or the law enforcement agency you wish to work for, you may need to attend and complete an educational program. Some states require detective candidates to complete an associate's degree or higher in criminal justice, forensics or another related field, in addition to working experience as a police officer. Other states may only require candidates to possess a high school diploma and a certain amount of experience—in hours or years—working in law enforcement.

3. Gain work experience

Once you have completed the main requirements of your state or agency, you can work on building up your law enforcement experience. Some states and law enforcement agencies may require up to five years of documented work experience, and some states may only require two to three years of work experience in addition to your degree.

4. Complete licensing requirements

Many states may require detectives to possess a state license or certification to work as a detective. You will need to take and pass the National Detective and Investigative Test (NDIT) if your state or agency requires it. This license enables you to work as a police detective and private investigator.

5. Apply for advancements and open positions

Typically, police officers advancing to a detective role may apply for advancements through the agency they work for. Similarly, they can also find positions available in other areas and may transfer across jurisdictions. Advancement opportunities are also available to experienced detectives, so working as a detective for a period of time can potentially earn you a position as senior detective.

Related: 15 Jobs You Can Get With a Criminal Justice Degree

Detective FAQ

If you are interested in becoming a detective, the following answers to frequently asked questions may offer some more insight on what the job might entail:

  • What kinds of skills do detectives use?
  • Is being a detective dangerous?
  • Do detectives arrest criminals?
  • What is the demand for detectives?
  • Are there career advancement opportunities for detectives?

What kinds of skills do detectives use?

Detectives rely on a variety of both hard and soft skills. Working in this field can require exceptional communication and interpersonal skills, as well as analytical and problem-solving skills. Because of the nature of some detective work, technology can be a necessary tool and highly desirable skill for detectives to have. In addition to these skills, detectives might benefit from maintaining physical fitness and overall good health, as the job can be physically demanding.

Is being a detective dangerous?

Working as a detective does come with various levels of risk, and the ability to perform in dangerous situations can be critical to succeeding in the role. Even with the risk that detectives and law enforcement officers may face, they are trained in the proper protocol for dealing with risky scenarios.

Do detectives arrest criminals?

Detectives may arrest criminals when evidence is presented, however, they do not make arrests as part of routine patrols. Detectives may collect and analyze evidence from a crime scene and only make an arrest if a suspect is connected to that evidence.

What is the demand for detectives?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for detectives and law enforcement is expected to grow 5% between 2018 and 2028. While this is in line with the average growth rate for all occupations, detective work may expand into other investigative roles like cybersecurity and technical security systems. Expanding into technological fields may offer other job opportunities.

Are there career advancement opportunities for detectives?

Police detectives can continue to advance in rank within their agencies, eventually becoming deputy chiefs or chief of police. Criminal investigators can also advance in their careers, some branching into cybersecurity roles or government roles including investigative agencies.


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