Detective: How To Become A Detective, Job Outlook & Resources

Detectives or criminal investigators, play an important role in the criminal justice system. They investigate crimes, which entail analyzing crime scenes, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, interrogating and apprehending suspects, preparing reports, and testifying in court.

How To Become A Detective

Generally, detectives begin their law enforcement career as police officers. However, pursuing post-secondary course work increases the chances of being selected for a detective position and receiving pay incentives. Major requirements for pursuing a detective career include the following:

Earn a High School Diploma or General Education Development (GED)

The minimum requirement for entering the police force is either graduating with a high school diploma or earning a GED.

Pass a Civil Service Test

A civil service test is administered to evaluate the cognitive skills of new recruits. Basic skills such as reading comprehension, grammar, writing, vocabulary, and memorization of facts are assessed through this exam.

Join the Police Training Academy

New police recruits must be 21 years old, citizens of the United States, have a clean criminal record, and successfully pass fitness, drug, and polygraph tests.

For detective positions, previous experience as a police officer is required. Therefore, joining the police training academy is mandatory. This training lasts approximately 6 months and focuses on laws, physical fitness, self-defense, emergency response, and the use of firearms.

Serve as a Police Officer for Approximately 2-5 years

Typically, detectives are selected from the police force. After graduating from the police academy, new officers usually serve for approximately 2-5 years before being promoted to detective.

Participate in Physical Fitness Program

Staying physical fit and alert to do the demanding job of law enforcement requires participation in a physical fitness program on a regular basis.

Engage in Continuous Professional Development

Police officers and detectives receive performance evaluations annually. Engaging in professional development activities to become proficient in new practices and technology related to the field is expected and beneficial especially when applying for a detective position.

It is also highly beneficial to be proficient in a foreign language or to enroll in a university level foreign language course. This is an asset for those working in culturally diverse urban areas.

Complete an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice

While previous experience as a police officer is a major requirement, being a college graduate is an asset. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a significant number of applicants entering the police force have a college degree.

Associate and Bachelor degrees in Criminal Justice are options at the college level. An Associate’s typically requires 65 credits and a Bachelor’s 120 credits. Course work should include theory and practice, criminal law, sociology, forensic science, psychology, and human relations.

Attend Detective-Specific Training

New detectives receive training specific to the position. These sessions range in duration from 100 to 400 hours and include specialized instruction in areas such as homicide, narcotics, cybercrimes, surveillance techniques, interviewing skills, courtroom testimony, and managing informants.


Aspiring detectives may either elect to earn an Associate or a Bachelor’s degree. The costs range from approximately $16,000 to $30,000 for an Associate’s degree in Criminal Justice. The average cost for a Bachelor’s degree is approximately $45,000.

Many state and local law enforcement agencies encourage their officers to pursue higher education and provide financial assistance to those who are interested.

Job Description / Responsibilities

Detectives collect and analyze evidence to investigate crimes. They work on cases until   arrests are made, the trial is completed, or the case is dropped.

Responsibilities of a detective include the following:

  • Secure crimes scenes with ropes or police tapes to prevent contamination of the area and evidence by observers or other law enforcement personnel.
  • Examine crime scenes to collect evidence and clues such as hairs, fingerprints, fibers, and blood to help identify motives and possible suspects.
  • Photograph crime scenes, lift fingerprints, and properly secure evidence. If the evidence is not properly stored and secured it may disappear or become contaminated. Photographs of a crime scene allow detectives to recreate the scene to further analyze clues.
  • Run fingerprints through law enforcement database to identify suspects.
  • Interview witnesses and suspects to obtain additional evidence and corroborate information.
  • Surveillance of suspects, which is done through following suspects, videotaping, or listening to telephone conversations. Observe and photograph the sales of narcotics. Record information about suspects and surroundings.
  • Prepare and serve search and arrest warrants. Detectives are responsible for drafting up warrants and presenting them to the prosecutor’s office. The information provided must be supported with strong evidence in order to convince a judge to issue a warrant.
  • Apprehend criminals and participate in raids. Request assistance when necessary.
  • Write and keep detailed reports and records of investigation progress. This is especially important when requesting warrants and testifying in court because the information must be written clearly and show evidence to substantiate that a crime was committed.
  • Testify in court to convince a judge and a jury that a suspect is guilty requires experience, and excellent communication and investigative skills.
  • Analyze police reports to determine the next course of action. By analyzing these reports, detectives can identify possible missing pieces to a case. This helps formulate appropriate investigative plans and identify possible leads.
  • Communicate with forensic lab personnel regarding tests to be performed on evidence as well as obtain results is a routine task for detectives.
  • Communicate with medical examiner and attend autopsies and take relevant notes to help guide the investigation.
  • Exchange information and collaborate with the prosecutor’s office and with other law enforcement agencies and departments as necessary.

Job Outlook

Detective employment is expected to grow 4% from 2014 to 2024. In 2014, the number of jobs in the industry was 806,400 with a projected increase of 33,100. This growth is slower than the average for other occupations.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the continued need for public safety will have a direct impact on the demand for detectives. However, local and state budgets will determine continued growth of the profession.

The number of detective positions will vary by year and will depend on location. Urban areas with high crime rates or local agencies will offer the best opportunities. Detective positions become more competitive at the state and federal agency levels.

Overall, detective job prospects are expected to be good. Candidates with a bachelor’s degree, law enforcement or military experience, and language skills will have the best opportunities for selection.

Work Environment

Typically, detectives work full time and are compensated for overtime. They work in shifts under all types of terrains and weather to ensure public safety at all times. At the federal level, they are often required to travel and relocate.

The work environment will vary according to the detective’s specialty and the unit assigned. However, regardless of the specialty, the nature of the job requires detectives to be alert and in good health and physical shape.

While detective work is dangerous, stressful, and physically demanding, many find it to be very rewarding. When compared to other occupations, detectives have the highest rates of injuries and illnesses. They face high risk situations, diseases, and criminals regularly.

The conditions under which detectives work may often lead to physical and emotional health issues. Overcoming these challenges means practicing personal stress management, getting a physical health check up on a regular basis, and seeking psychological help when necessary.

Detectives can manage stress by maintaining a regular exercise regimen and eating a balanced diet to help increase their resilience to stressful situations. Going on vacation and engaging in interests and hobbies outside the force is also highly recommended.

Additionally, stressful situations may often lead to the use and abuse of substances. It is of utmost importance for detectives to avoid using substances as coping mechanisms when dealing with work related stress as this will only exacerbate the problem.


With the rise of technology, investigative tools and techniques are continuously changing resulting in a redefinition of detective responsibilities. To stay apprised of these changes and obtain up to date information on law enforcement career opportunities, you may visit the following sites:

  • S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: A federal agency that provides information on the field of labor economics and statistics. Research based information such as job outlook, job description, work environment, and pay are included on this site.

  • National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO): NAPO was created to protect the interests of law enforcement officers, and it represents police unions and associations around the United States.

  • The American Society of Criminology: An international organization that focuses on the exchange of scholarly, scientific, and professional knowledge regarding etiology, prevention, control, and treatment of crime and delinquency. Members include students, practitioners, and academicians.

  • Journal of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation (JFSCI): JFSCI is a journal that publishes reliable information on discoveries and developments in the forensic and criminal science fields.

  • National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS): A federally funded organization that provides information to support research, and policy and program development. Resources and services are available to anyone interested in criminology, victim assistance, and public safety.

  • Forensic Technology Review: Covers the latest technologies, equipment, and services that are available worldwide for forensic investigations. These issues are free of charge.

  • Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies (ASCIA): ASCIA is a professional association of senior state investigative agencies. It was created as an effort to foster open communication and cooperative efforts among state law enforcement agencies.

  • Indeed: An American world-wide employment search engine. It is available in over 60 countries and 28 languages. Indeed allows members to browse available positions and subscribe to forums.

  • Com: A law enforcement site for news, jobs, training, and online forums. It is open to local, county, state, and federal law enforcement personnel.

  • Real Police: Law Enforcement Resource: A leading resource for law enforcement professionals. Find jobs, read the latest police news articles, watch videos, and learn about police training.


To be successful in the profession, a detective must possess a very specific set of skills and personality traits. These critical skills can be grouped under critical and problem solving, communication, organizational, and interpersonal.

  • Critical and Problem Solving: Identify and analyze complex issues and formulate appropriate solutions. Conclusions must be logical and evidence based. These skills come in handy when interviewing witnesses, interrogating suspects, and writing case reports.
  • Judgement and Decision Making: React and make decisions quickly based on limited information. They must consider the pros and cons of potential actions and choose the most appropriate one.
  • Active Listening: Pay close attention to what people are sharing, ask appropriate questions, and not interrupt at inappropriate times in order to get a full picture of a case. This is an essential part of communication.
  • Attention to Details: Pay close attention to details when collecting and analyzing evidence and during interviews and interrogation to ensure nothing is missed in the case.
  • Communication: Communicate effectively both verbally and in writing. Detectives come into contact with a diverse audience and they must be able to convey their message clearly.
  • Persuasion and Negotiation: Persuade others to change their minds or behavior and bringing people together to reconcile their differences. These skills are crucial during such cases as domestic violence or hostage negotiations.
  • Social Perceptiveness: Being aware of other people’s reactions and having an understanding of why they react the way they do.
  • Time Management: Being organized and able to prioritize tasks. Detective must also be able to manage their time and the time of others in order to stay on task.
  • Technology: With the rise of technology, detectives must be well-versed on the latest computer software and programs used to conduct legal searches and on most current investigative techniques.
  • Service Orientation Attitude: Detectives are responsible for public safety. Therefore, they must actively search for opportunities to help others. This is an intrinsic trait.

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