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How to Become a Private Investigator

“How can I become a private investigator?”

I’ve been asked that question literally hundreds of time over the past several years. The truth is that I never had a great answer. Actually, I take that back. I had a decent idea, but it was nothing that I could boil down into a few sentences.

So I enlisted the help of a group of investigators who collectively have hundreds of years of investigative experience.

Together, we came up with a list of skills, traits and tips on how to become a private investigator.

Experience Required?

One thing to keep in mind is that most states require investigative experience in order for a person to obtain a license as a private investigator. Legally, if you are receiving money for “investigative” work, even if it’s only internet research, you need to be licensed in most states. Many states require a minimum of two years’ experience; some states require more than five years’ experience.

That means that you need to work under another investigator’s license in order to gain the required experience before you get your own license. Or that experience can come from related fields, such as conducting investigations for some government agency or the military, and in most cases, prior law enforcement experience counts as your investigative experience.

Learn From Others

Collectively, we all agreed that it is critical that you learn from other investigators. This is not a business that you want to be self-taught. There are a number of states that have absolutely no requirements for investigative experience, and a few states do not have any licensing requirements whatsoever. When you are self-taught, “you don’t know what you don’t know,” one investigator commented.

It’s so true.

Your experience does not even have to come from another private investigator. This experience can come from working at an insurance company, in asset protection within a corporation, as an investigator for district attorneys/public defenders or even as an investigative journalist. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an investigative firm that provides the experience.

Learning from others will provide you with a good overall skill set. One of the things that you will quickly find is that private investigators require a lot of skills, so even though it may not be readily apparent that certain skills will be useful, they may come in handy someday.

Learn to Write

Perhaps the most critical skill to develop is not the power of observation, critical thinking or even interview skills; it’s writing. Writing is a fundamental skill, and being able to write concisely, clearly and thoughtfully is absolutely essential.

Of all of the investigators I have met over the years who have easily and successfully transitioned into being a private investigator are investigative journalists. That is no accident. In fact, several members in the group said that if they had to start over again, they would work as an investigative journalist first, which would give them the writing, interviewing, research skills and tenacity that are required of the job.

I can teach people how to conduct research, interviews and send a FOIA request; teaching someone how to write is next to impossible.

“Major in whatever the hell you want, but learn to write, succinctly and well,” one investigator told me.

I couldn’t agree more.

You Don’t Need Law Enforcement Experience

Although there are a lot of former law enforcement officers who transition into the private investigation business (51 percent of private investigators have former law enforcement experience, according to PInow.com), it is absolutely not a requirement. I’ve written about this before, but I have seen former law enforcement officers have a challenging time transitioning to the private sector for a variety of reasons.

You will absolutely learn skills that can be carried over into private practice, and you will make some great contacts along the way that can be invaluable, but depending on the type of work that you do, coming from law enforcement can actually be a hindrance.

Patience

Patience is kind of a lost art in today’s I-want-it-now world of Uber, Amazon, Netflix, Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. Despite what you may think about the investigative business, it’s rarely glamorous and often requires grinding through difficult and sometimes tedious times. One investigator who has been in the business more than 20 years illustrated this point perfectly.

I was at the Library of Congress earlier this week looking up an article from “TV Guide” from the 1980s to be used in an upcoming case where I’m looking at trying to debunk an expert witness. I realized that I’ve been threading microfilm and trying to make copies from a big unwieldy box since at least the 1970s at my local public library, which I was doing for fun, never realizing it would later be my career. I think having that quality of enjoying the hunt, and being tenacious to scroll through documents [are] still the most important [skills]. I fear the generation of people coming into our business only think to “Google” something, and need to learn that the best answers usually come from exhibits in court filings, archived newspaper stories, which aren’t online, decades-old crisscross directories, etc.

Learn to Listen

You are born with two ears and one mouth for a good reason. Listening has quickly become a lost art, but if you know the difference between listening and hearing, you are on the right path. Effective listening is one of the most important skills a budding investigator can have.

Whom should you work for?

Several of the investigators I reached out to suggested that you join a large investigative firm so that you can navigate all the facets of the trade, such as interviewing, surveillance, databases, social media research, forensics, etc. In part, so that you can see what interests you most and figure out which field best fits your skill set.

It’s also important to learn about the ins and outs of the business, such as the type of work that is typically requested, billable rates and working with subcontractors.

“Nosy” and “Curious”

At a cocktail party, inevitably someone will tell me that they would be a good private investigator because they are nosy or curious. My typical response would include the ancient proverb “Curiosity killed the cat.”

The truth is, that’s probably the last person I want as a private investigator. If you’re a “research adrenaline junkie” or “curious by nature” or “a problem solver,” then there are a bunch of professions where that’ll be helpful.

The main difference between a private investigator and a curious person, journalist or law enforcement officer is that you are researching something only because someone is paying you to do so. You have to have laserlike focus on the task at hand for what the client wants for the budget they are willing to pay. Anything less, and you will fail as a private investigator.

Curious and nosy people have this persistent desire to know. While this can be a great trait, it typically doesn’t mix well with budgets and deadlines.

Get Some Basic Skills

Whether that’s taking some courses at a local college, teaching yourself how to mine social media, practicing interviewing and writing by starting a blog or taking an online course, the more skills that you have going into the business, the more attractive you look as a candidate.

Acquire a Skill

Getting an internship or a job in this business is not easy. It’s not a high-growth business that is hiring all the time. A couple of the larger firms I know have some good internship opportunities, but they are few and far between. You can easily separate yourself from others by having a skill. If you can speak a language, have a strong financial background or know how to code, you can definitely separate yourself from others.

Some Skills Can’t Be Taught

Tenacity and the willingness to put in lots of hours; those are two things that can’t be taught, both of which are absolutely necessary in this business. You can be taught a lot of things, but if you give up easily and are not willing to put in some long hours, including some overnights, this might not be the right job for you.

“The good investigators use investigative resources to help them solve problems and find answers; the so-so ones use them because it’s their job,” one investigator said.  

It’s Rarely Glamorous

You will notice that some of the things we discussed here – patience, long hours, tenacity, listening, writing – don’t include anything about Ferraris, car chases, cheating spouses or anything remotely close to what you may have learned from Magnum PI, Sherlock Holmes, Columbo or the esteemed members of Scooby-Doo’s Bloodhound Gang.

If you are an adrenaline junky looking for a bit of glamour, I’m afraid that this may be the wrong business.

Is private investigator the right job for you?

Who knows? That’s about as honest an answer as you can get.

There are no crystal balls. If you don’t have some of the personality traits or skills we have discussed here, maybe this is not the profession for you. Maybe you can learn some of these traits.

But here are some indicators that you might be cut out to be a private investigator:

  • You ask questions, twice.
  • You enjoy listening to others.
  • You look at boxes of documents and get excited.
  • You love the hunt.
  • You are willing to work the midnight oil to find that nugget
  • You love taking notes, and when necessary, you take notes on a cocktail napkin or an airplane vomit bag.
  • You understand the need for privacy laws and have a healthy respect for the law.
  • You know that no question is too stupid.
  • You believe in intuition.
  • You understand that there are at least three ways to catch a fox. If at first you don’t succeed, knock and knock again.

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21 replies
  1. Suzanne Merriam
    Suzanne Merriam says:

    Delightful insights! Please keep me on your “good list”, the one with the list of to whom you send these emails!

  2. David Childe
    David Childe says:

    Solid, on-point post. I did teach myself because I couldn’t find anyone in Memphis with the skillset I wanted. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really like reading. I spent six months reading everything relevant I could find on the investigative and legal profession. It would have been nice to have a mentor, though.

  3. Amos
    Amos says:

    Great article with sound advice. Enjoy your site and advice. Please add me to your list of the sneak preview work for your masters work. Thanks.

  4. Alex Kramer
    Alex Kramer says:

    Spot on.
    I’ve had this conversation with fellow investigators for years, but seeing all of those thoughts so well stated serves as additional confirmation. Well done!.

  5. Christine Leonhardt
    Christine Leonhardt says:

    Excellent and Factual and AWESOME!! The one bullet point that states…”You look at boxes of documents and get excited”!! Amazing~ that is me!! Entry Level position many moons back..Insurance company – entry level fraud position…..Boxes of documents and scanning them for comparison and signatures….Loved It!! I so believe in intuition…and I too Brain..am enjoying all the good information I’m learning from you.I find you to be one of my best resources for investigation info. Please e-mail me all up and coming classes or courses your putting out..!! I love being at a computer all day..the Worst nightmare is when a computer is down..then the house gets cleaned!

  6. TAMI HOOD
    TAMI HOOD says:

    Hi,
    This is the first article of yours that I have read and I totally agree with you. I went to work for a private investigator while I was working on my Master’s degree in Criminal Justice and I loved it so much that I worked for this investigator off and on for 9 years. There were some situations that would have appealed to an adrenaline junkie, especially while doing decoy work or working under cover in a business to catch the employees who were stealing from them. But most of my time was spent by scouring records at the courthouse or as you said, sitting in my car with a camera and a legal notepad doing surveillance, which is far from glamorous but absolutely essential. But I really enjoyed my work. My boss retired and I have been unable to find someone else to work with so I have gone back to my first profession – pharmacy, working in pharmaceutical sales. However, I would also be interested in any online class if you do one because I am a lifetime learner, whether I work in investigation again or not.

    Thank you for your insight,

    Tami

  7. CARL
    CARL says:

    Brain..Im enjoying all the good information I’m learning from you.I find you to be one of my best resources for investigation info. Please e-mail me all up and coming classes or courses your putting out. Thanks so much. Carl.

  8. Thomas Nelson
    Thomas Nelson says:

    Brian, I enjoyed reading your article. Spot on with your points. When I tell people I am a private investigator the normal response is. “Wow you must have so much fun”. My reply is what you see on TV is typically not real world.
    I tell them one aspect of the job is surveillance, and say would you like to sit in your vehicle for 12 hours, in the winter or hot summer watching for you subject, who never comes out. The response , THAT IS BORING.

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