Do you love starting each new day knowing that anything could happen? Does the unknown fill you with excitement and expectation? If so, a career as a private investigator might be the perfect fit. While this career field may seem like something that only exists in the movies, in reality, private investigators are hired and employed by law firms, law enforcement agencies, and various corporations. Other PIs start their own successful investigation businesses that serve a range of clients.

Private Investigator Career Overview

What Will My Job Look Like?

One wonderful thing about becoming a private investigator is that you can truly mold the job into what you desire, starting with your work environment. If you like working in a corporate environment and in close proximity to the law, you may decide to target work for a law firm. If you like a corporate atmosphere but want to stay away from courtrooms and depositions, you can work for an investigative position within a corporation.

If you like the law but business environments do not appeal to you, a position in law enforcement might be right. Or, again, you can start your own private firm and work on a case-by-case basis with different individuals and organizations.

Just as you have the power to shape your work environment as a private investigator, you can specialize in areas and activities that interest you. The possibilities are endless. You may work to help locate missing persons or complete background investigations in connection to civil and criminal matters. You may interview individuals who have pertinent information or inconspicuously follow someone to gather intelligence on their whereabouts and activities.

While possible focus areas and tasks are endless, the need to perform research underpins them all. In one way or another, a private investigator is always doing research and gathering information. Whatever your personal and professional strengths are, you must find a way to use them to your advantage to bring back the necessary intelligence for your clients. Everything you offer up must be well researched.

How Much Will I Get Paid?

The general career field of Private Investigation is growing and is forecast to continue to do so. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 41,400 private investigators in 2016. They also published the expectation that this field would continue to grow by 11% in the next decade which is faster than the average growth rate for other career fields. On average, a PI makes $50,700 a year, or what equates to around $24 per hour. This is solid pay when we consider that an aspiring private investigator needs only a high school diploma, skills, and plenty of ambition.

Skills & Experience

How Do I Know If This Career Is Right for Me?

Because there are so many possible ways to start out as a private investigator, it may seem hard to decide or predict whether this career is the right choice for you. Despite the great range of possibilities, there are a specific set of skills that tie them all together. Because all investigators perform and depend upon research, you must develop those skills. However, you can also play to your existing strengths and utilize whatever methods best suit you.A good researcher has a strong memory and an inquisitive mind. A good investigator doesn’t stop when finding the answer to one question, but rather keep asking and answering more questions that follow from that one. If you want to become a private investigator, you must have patience and a level of emotional detachment that allows you to gather information without it being clouded by your own bias. A good investigator is attentive to detail and able to look at a picture or situation and pick it apart for information adeptly.

There are lots of ways that private investigators research, and while you may not be a pro at each method, you should have one or two in which you are confident. Maybe you are skilled at reading body language and developing a rapport with people that makes them want to confide in you. Maybe you’re great at computer research and coding. Maybe you have a near-photographic memory that keeps you in command of the facts. Maybe you are skilled at playing an undercover role to gather information. Whatever you are great at, you can find a way to use it to your advantage as a PI.

What Do I Need to Have on My Resume?

Man in the office

Private investigators learn on the job, and it isn’t required that you have education beyond a high school diploma. However, having a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or political science can be immensely helpful, and some employers may expect this of the private investigators they hire. Also, depending on which state you live in, you may be required to pass tests, complete other requirements, and become licensed in order to practice as a private investigator.

If you’re looking to beef up your resume, there are great ways to do just that. You can take a class, or several classes, in criminal justice and related topics at a local college or online. Lots of colleges offer courses toward certification in various disciplines, and a certificate on your resume helps to show potential employers you have what it takes. You can also check out the National Association of Legal Investigators, which offers the Certified Legal Investigator certification, or ASIS International, which offers the Professional Certified Investigator certification.

If you are just starting out in the world of private investigation, you may want to research what PI firms are already working and trusted in your area. See what they look for when hiring. Try to make some good connections with the PI community. By building a strong foundation as a private investigator, you’ll have the people and the skills to help you get where you want to go.

Job Duties & Responsibilities

While there are some big differences in job possibilities and duties in this career field, there are skills you will need no matter where you work. If you decide to become a private investigator, you will most likely have to interview people and conduct surveillance, for example.


man interviewing

Perhaps someone witnessed a crime and needs to give a statement to describe what he or she saw. Or, perhaps you need to interview an individual who reported suspected child abuse or neglect. Perhaps an individual is suspected of committing fraud, and you need to talk with this suspect to analyze their behavior and gather more facts.As you can see, a PI must have people skills that are intuitive and adaptive.

For instance, when dealing with victims, you must be able to help calm them to gather as much information as possible. If you are interviewing a suspect, you must be able to read body language and interpret linguistic “tells.”


detective cartoon character

Just like interviewing, conducting surveillance can vary greatly in different circumstances. You may be tasked with spending a long night in your car while watching someone’s house. Or you may find yourself in the midst of a car chase. Or, perhaps you will tail someone on foot and need to blend into the background. Certainly, in order to be effective at surveillance, you must have a keen eye for detail and the patience to wait until the information you need presents itself to you.

There are other job duties that will be more specific to where you choose to work as a private investigator. If you work for a law firm, you may be asked frequently to testify in court about intelligence you’ve discovered.  If you decide to work on your own, you may be asked by a family to help find a missing loved one. If you work for a corporation, you may be asked to conduct background checks on potential employees by locating and talking to past associates.

Before stepping into the field, it can be helpful for you to think about what you want out of this career and in what situations you will be most comfortable. By thinking this through beforehand, it can be easier to decide what kind of job setting you should pursue as a private investigator.


With all the crime shows and legal dramas these days, some may believe that being a private investigator is something that exists only on the screen. But private investigation is a real career field that can encompass almost any possibilities you can conceive. With a solid job outlook and the ability to pursue your own personal interests, curious intellectuals are often drawn to the field. Whatever skills and history you bring to the table can be useful in making you a unique and talented investigator.

If you have a thirst for knowledge, want to have many great adventures, and love waking up in the morning and not knowing what the day will hold, being a private investigator may be the perfect career choice. If you’re ready to become the Sherlock Holmes in your own life story, you can start pursuing those dreams today.