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How to Become a Detective

November 21, 2023
4 min read


Reviewed by:

David Merson

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 11/21/23

If you’re considering a career as a detective and want to know more about how to join this profession and what to expect in it, this guide has got you covered!

We’ve all seen the detective trope multiple times in the media: the stoic, cynical investigator in a trench coat and top hat is called in from out of town to work on a tough case. He visits the crime scene once only to find the crucial missing piece of the puzzle that the other seemingly incompetent personnel overlooked. 

As exciting as TV shows and movies make detective work appear, real detective work is far more extensive, requires a lot of paperwork, and involves more slow findings than eureka moments.

Nonetheless, detectives are crucial parts of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. To learn more about how to become a detective, what their realistic day-to-day duties involve, their career outlook, and more, read on!

Steps to Becoming a Detective

Let’s start with the basics: how long does it take to become a detective?

Detectives have varying levels of education and experience, so it’s difficult to set a specific timeline to join this profession. However, it typically takes at least two to six years to become a detective.

Detective with evidence on corkboard

To help explain this large range, here are the steps most detectives take to join the field

Step One: Obtain a High School Diploma

The minimum educational requirement to join law enforcement is a GED or high school diploma. While some states do not require detectives to have formal college education, they all require a high school diploma at the minimum.

Step Two: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

Some states will require you to have higher education to pursue detective work. Even if your state doesn't, having a bachelor’s degree will make you a more competitive applicant and increase your qualifications to become a detective.

Aspiring detectives generally pursue majors in criminal justice or a related field. These programs take four years to complete. Students that opt for two-year associate’s degrees instead will still have an advantage over students without higher education experience, but bachelor's degrees are strongly preferred.

Step Three: Complete Police Academy Training

While it’s suggested you have either a bachelor’s or police academy training, having both will strengthen your application.

Your undergrad will equip you with crucial technical knowledge to be an effective detective, whereas police academy training will equip you with the physical skills and practical experience needed to succeed as a law enforcer.

These programs typically take five to six months to complete and are known to be rigorous! 

Step Four: Become a Police Officer

You won’t be able to become a detective as soon as you enter the law enforcement field. Detective work requires a high level of expertise and experience! To gain this experience, you must first become a police officer.

Most detective positions will require at least two to five years of police experience. In order to become a police officer, you will need to complete training and pass a certification exam called the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) exam.

You will also be required to pass a physical and psychological test to assure you’re prepared for a career as a police officer.

Step Five: Gain Experience and Network

The majority of detective positions will require you to have at least two to five years of experience as a police officer. Do your best to gain investigation experience, even if you’re just observing investigations with senior officers or detectives. 

Since most police departments promote detectives from within their own force, ensure you build strong connections with your peers and mentors. Work hard to build a good reputation for yourself, so that you’re seen as knowledgeable, reliable, and hardworking!

Express your desire to become a detective with your supervisors, so they know your goals and can help you achieve them.

Step Six: Pass the National Detective/Investigator Test

As you prepare for your career as a detective, you’ll have to write the National Detective/Investigative Test (NDIT), a promotional exam that assesses police officers’ readiness to conduct detective work. 

What Does a Detective Do?

After learning how to become a detective, the next aspect of this profession to discuss is the tasks detectives perform.

Detectives interrogating suspect

While detectives’ responsibilities vary depending on the cases they work on, they mainly gather evidence and build criminal cases. To do so, they perform the following duties:

  • Interrogate suspects
  • Survey or supervise crime-scene research
  • Review crime scenes
  • Interview witnesses and victims
  • Surveille suspects
  • Gather and review records, videos, and other evidence that reflect criminal activity
  • Work with prosecutors to compile evidence and create a case
  • Find and use informants to gather information on suspects
  • Help find missing persons 
  • Prepare and examine reports
  • Perform raids and arrest criminals
  • Testify in courts 

While movies may show detectives conducting lab research or aiding in the forensic analysis process, these professionals rarely enter forensic labs aside from delivering evidence for testing.

Important Skills to Be a Detective

Becoming a detective will be competitive. Many police officers enter the field in hopes of eventually leading investigations and having a more hands-on role in solving criminal cases. To ensure you stand out as an applicant, and become the best detective possible, hone the following skills:

  • Communication: it’s essential you perfect your communication to be able to adapt to the group you’re speaking to: victims, suspects, or court members
  • Critical thinking: to solve crimes and piece together all of the evidence
  • Problem-solving: to continue investigating cases when they seem to be going cold 
  • Attention to detail: all evidence must be considered thoroughly; there’s no telling which piece will be important
  • Writing skills: writing clear and accurate reports is important to the progression of any case and can help in future investigations
  • Logic: to be able to prevent emotion from clouding your judgement on difficult cases

As a detective, you can expect to investigate crimes you’ll never forget. Depending on the specialty you pursue, you may handle homicides, robberies, or gang violence cases that are emotionally draining and traumatizing. 

Detective looking through evidence

You must be able to handle these types of crimes and should have the right support and resources available to continue investigating these tough cases.

Detective Specialties

Considering there are so many types of crimes committed, detectives often focus on one of the following specialties

  • Gang-related crime: figuring out and preventing gang formations and violent street crime involving firearms, drugs, or robberies
  • Narcotics: monitoring drug activity in local areas and gathering evidence to shut down drug trafficking networks
  • Fraud: crimes involving life insurance fraud or other monetary issues, identity theft, forged documents, and fraudulent claims 
  • Homicide: investigating deaths and finding the murderer(s)
  • Cybercrime: mainly tracking hackers and other online criminals 
  • Theft: crimes involving any form of robbery or theft such as auto theft, extortion, and bank robberies

The ultimate goal of detectives is to find the guilty parties, have them prosecuted, and prevent similar crimes from reoccurring. 

How Much Do Detectives Make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, detectives are well-compensated for their physically and emotionally demanding jobs. The average detective makes around $90,000 a year, but can make more depending on their experience and location.

Detectives working for federal governments or branches are typically paid the most and those working for state governments are paid the least. The District of Columbia currently has the highest average salary for detectives, at $123,760 a year.

Detective going through evidence with suspect

FAQs: How to Become a Detective

In this guide, we’ve answered questions such as: “what do detectives do?”, “what skills are needed to become a detective?” and “how much do detectives make?” For any remaining questions about how to become a detective, read on to find your answers.

1. How Long Does It Take to Become a Detective?

It will take at least two and a half years to become a detective. If students enter a six-month policy academy program right after high school, and spend at least two years working as police officers, they may be able to land a detective position.

However, most departments require aspiring detectives to have a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and around five years of police experience. Considering this, a more realistic timeline to become a detective is at least nine years.

2. Is It Hard to Become a Detective in the USA?

Yes, detective positions are highly competitive! Police departments often hire from within their own divisions, meaning you may have limited job opportunities if you’re seeking employment outside of your department.

3. What Are the Educational Requirements to Become a Detective?

At the minimum, you’ll need to have a high school diploma or GED to become a detective. But, most states recommend students acquire a bachelor’s degree to have the most opportunity.

4. Where Are Detectives Paid the Most?

The District of Columbia has the highest average salary for detectives. 

5. Do I Need to Go to Law School to Become a Detective?

No, students do not need to obtain a JD to become detectives, it is considered a non-lawyer legal career. At the most, they will need a bachelor’s degree in a law-related subject.

6. What Major Should I Take to Become a Detective?

The most useful major for detectives to have is criminal justice. These programs not only teach students about the nature and causes of crime but also give insight into how criminals behave and think, which can prove useful during interrogations. 

Final Thoughts

If you do pursue this profession, ensure you’re in it for the long haul! Becoming a detective will take several years of education and experience but will be well-worth the hard work!

While your career as a detective might not be as glamorous or fast-paced as it’s portrayed in the media, you’ll still be making a huge impact on the victims and families affected by the crimes you investigate! 

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