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What does a Detective do?

The popularity of crime investigation television shows and Sherlock Holmes-esque dramas have driven a booming interest in the working lives of detectives, but how accurate are these portrayals, and how do you really become a detective?


Beyond pop culture: what detectives really do

It is important to understand that there are two primary types of detectives in the field today: police and private detectives. Police detectives work with officers and forensic specialists to gather and analyze evidence, collect witness testimony and identify potential suspects. While TV shows give the impression that police detectives spend most of their time in the field, many detectives actually spend a great deal of time doing paperwork and reviewing records. None the less, these professionals solve crimes and make their communities safer.

Private detectives or investigators, often called PIs, are the other common type of detective. Unlike police detectives who work for local, state or federal agencies, private detectives are mostly self-employed investigators hired by private citizens to solve different types of mysteries, from suspicious infidelity or fraud to finding long-lost loved ones. Their methods vary from case to case, but all private investigators are beholden to the laws and ethics governing their fields.

How to become a detective

Most police detectives begin as officers in the field, graduating from agency police academies and then advancing through the ranks via merit and experience. Those who advance within their departments may earn the title of lead detective.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some state and federal agencies require detectives to earn college degrees in police science or a related discipline. Even those in local agencies without these requirements tend to fare better with this type of training. In some cases, military experience can replace higher education.

The BLS reports that while there are no standard education requirements for private detectives, most have college degrees in areas like criminal or political science. Those specializing in corporate investigation often have business training while those working in financial investigation study accounting. According to the BLS, most states require private detectives to be licensed, so it is a good idea to research your state’s education requirements.

Detective career, salary projections

Demand for detectives seems mostly unaffected by shifting economic conditions, making this a virtually recession-proof field. According to the BLS, the future is particularly bright for private detectives who are projected to enjoy an impressive 22 percent career growth. Positions among police detectives are projected to grow by about 10 percent during the same period. Note, however, that police detectives typically earn more than their private counterparts.

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