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Become a Detective: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a detective. Research the education requirements, training information, and experience required for starting a career as a detective.

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Do I Want to Be a Detective?

A detective, sometimes referred to as an investigator, normally works with a law enforcement agency. Called in for specific situations, a detective collects evidence and analyzes the facts in a criminal case. Duties of a detective generally include interviewing witnesses and suspects, examining records involved with a case, observing potential suspects, and taking part in arrests.

Detectives and investigators work on a full-time basis with the likelihood of paid overtime. Shifts during the weekends and the night are common for those without seniority on a police force. There can be great personal reward in serving the public's needs for protection and justice. The career carries a higher-than-average risk of confrontation with criminals, personal injury, and even death.

Job Requirements

Many prospective detectives earn a college degree and have experience working as police officers. The following table summarizes the core requirements for detectives:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Many, but not all, agencies may require a college degree*
Degree Field Criminal justice or law enforcement*
Experience Since most detectives start out as police officers, it may take several years to be promoted to detective*
Key Skills Detectives must be very perceptive; they should also have leadership, communication and multitasking skills*
Computer Skills Experience with crime scene management, fingerprint database, crime information database and computer-aided composite drawing software may be helpful; additionally, detectives may use Microsoft Word and Excel**
Technical Skills Detectives may use handcuffs, polygraphs and fingerprinting and surveillance equipment**
Additional Requirements Stamina is important for those working in this sometimes stressful and physically demanding profession*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net OnLine.

Step 1: Earn a College Degree

Detectives usually begin their careers as police officers. Although a GED or high school diploma may be all that's required for some police officer positions, many agencies require a college degree in criminal justice, law enforcement or a related field. Both associate's and bachelor's degree programs are available for aspiring detectives. Students may take courses in criminal law, criminology, human relations, judicial function, forensic science and criminal procedure. Some programs also include an internship experience, during which a student can get real-world insight into the field.

Success Tip:

  • Take foreign language courses in school. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that proficiency in a foreign language can be beneficial for aspiring detectives, especially in urban surroundings (www.bls.gov). Students can take advantage of their time in school to build these skills and gain a competitive edge for their future careers.

Step 2: Complete a Police Training Academy

In order to be eligible to be trained as a police officer, an individual must be at least 21 years old and a U.S. citizen. He or she may also have to pass drug and polygraph tests. Police recruits must complete training academy programs and often pass written and physical tests before beginning to serve as officers. Individual police departments, as well as state and federal agencies, offer these programs. They include a mixture of physical training and classroom study in areas such as firearm training, self-defense, traffic control and first aid. Police academy graduates should have a clear understanding of state and local law.

Step 3: Build Work Experience

Detectives typically are chosen from existing police officers; thus, aspiring detectives should express their interest to superior officers to be kept in mind for promotion. Many agencies require police officers to serve at least three years before becoming eligible for detective positions. Promotion within agencies is generally based on an individual's position on a promotion list, scores on agency exams and an evaluation of his or her performance as a police officer.

Success Tips:

  • Maintain excellent physical and mental health. Detectives should maintain a healthy body and mind. They can do this by engaging in regular exercise and fitness training, which better equips them for handling danger and stress. Detectives can keep a sharp mind by brushing up on new techniques and technology. For example, studying computer forensics can be extremely useful because of the increase in cyber crime.
  • Develop strong reasoning and investigating skills. Detectives must be very perceptive and observant to do their jobs; the ability to pay keen attention to detail is a very important quality for a detective. Individuals should cultivate these skills while on the job, paying close attention to crime scenes and accidents, and learning how to capture details in reports.
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