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How to Become a Detective in 2024

June 17, 2024
4 min read


Reviewed by:

David Merson

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

Reviewed: 6/17/24

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. They visit the crime scene once only to find the 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. To learn more about how to become a police detective, what their realistic day-to-day duties involve, their career outlook, and more, read on!

Steps to Becoming a Detective

Becoming a detective involves three years of patrol experience before taking the detective exam. 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 around eight years.

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

Step 1: 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 a formal college education, they all require a high school diploma at the minimum.

Step 2: 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.

Aspiring detectives generally pursue majors in criminal justice or a related field. These programs take four years to complete. Students who 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.

Some of the best schools in the USA for criminology include the University of Maryland--College Park, the University of Pennsylvania, and UC Irvine. 

Step 3: 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 4: Become a Police Officer

You won’t become a police 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 ensure you’re prepared for a career as a police officer.

Step 5: Gain Experience and Network

The majority of detective positions 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 career desires to your supervisors, so they know your goals and can help you achieve them.

Step 6: 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. 

If you need help throughout your detective journey, consider speaking with one of our counselors. They can provide expert insight with every step in your detective career path.

Amy had an incredible experience with our counselors. Here’s what she had to say.

“I had an amazing experience working with Juris. We spent significant time going over items such as realistic career goals to crafting my life story that we could then leverage for my applications. At times when I was slacking on my applications, Juris got me back on track by having weekly calls with me to think through what was stumping me. When it came time to interview, they provided a theatre coach to help me come across in my best light and connected me with other consultants at Juros to have mock interviews with.”

How Long Does It Take to Become a Detective?

It takes three to five years to get promoted to detective. However, if students enter a six-month policy academy program right after high school and spend at least three 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 is at least nine years.

What Does a Detective Do?

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

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
  • Surveil 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 except to deliver evidence for testing.

Important Skills to Be a Detective

Detective requirements are varied, but the most competitive detectives have an impressive skill set. 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 judgment 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. 

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 $91,100 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. Alaska currently has the highest average salary for detectives, at $121,770  a year.

FAQs: How to Become a Detective

For any remaining questions about becoming a detective, read on to find your answers.

1. 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.

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

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

3. Where Are Detectives Paid the Most?

Alaska has the highest average salary for detectives. 

4. 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.

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

Criminal justice is the most useful major for detectives. 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 it 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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