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How to Become a Detective

A detective sitting in a chair looking at a bulletin board going over evidence

The work of detectives has been portrayed in American media and popular culture for many decades.

From comic book heroes, to television dramas, to reality-TV series and countless movies, it’s a profession that has intrigued audiences and captured collective imaginations across generations.

And while this often leads to misperceptions about what it’s really like to be a detective, it can be an exciting and fulfilling professional path for anyone interested in working toward justice, safety and closure for victims of crime and their families.

How Do I Start Off as a Detective?

Unlike other professional fields like education, medicine or law, there is no strict, singular academic path you must take in order to ultimately become a detective.

That said, achieving the rank of detective does involve a rigorous blend of education, training, physical fitness and prior experience working in law enforcement.

Sean Leighton with the text Sean Leighton “While many law enforcement agencies have instituted educational requirements as a condition of eligibility for employment over the last 10 to 15 years, there (typically aren't additional requirements necessary) to become a detective,” said Sean Leighton, MBA, a criminal justice adjunct faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Leighton, who has 29 years of experience as a detective and police captain, said that although a degree in criminal justice is generally preferred, any college degree is helpful and demonstrates that you’ve developed critical thinking and writing skills that are an important part of the profession.

In addition to traditional college-level education, Leighton said, there are also in-service training courses that candidates can complete that will better position them for the rank of detective, some of which include:

  • Basic Crime Scene Processing
  • Digital Photography
  • Homicide Investigation
  • Interviews and Interrogation

Fulfilling the necessary academic and educational requirements is typically the first step toward becoming a detective, Leighton said, to be followed by real-world experience working in law enforcement.

How Much Experience is Needed to Become a Detective?

Individual organizations and law enforcement agencies have their own distinct requirements when it comes to reaching the rank of detective.

“While many agencies may not require a specific number of years of experience to become a detective, it is general practice to allow officers to gain experience in a uniformed patrol position for several years prior to becoming a detective,” Leighton said. “This can be impacted by the size of the agency and the number of personnel that they have available to choose from for the position.”

Gaining those years of experience will equip you with the kind of perspective and hands-on skills that simply can’t be gained in a classroom or training environment, Leighton said.

“A good amount of uniformed patrol experience provides a solid foundation to assist newer detectives in adjusting to the assignment,” Leighton said. “Working in a patrol capacity gives the officer important experiences such as learning to deal with people, practical application of criminal statutes and detecting crimes in progress.”

Since there’s no required number of years in the field before someone can become a detective, there’s also generally no age restriction other than the usual minimum age requirements that vary by agency, Leighton said.

“However, because most agencies prefer that an officer has some experience before they are promoted to detective, they tend to be a few years older than newly hired officers,” he said.

Misperceptions About What It’s Like to Be a Detective

Given the amount of representation that detectives have had over the decades in television, movies and popular culture, there are plenty of misperceptions out there about what it’s really like to work in the field.

“The biggest misperceptions are caused by TV and movies,” Leighton said. “People see major crimes being solved on TV in 48 minutes with instant DNA results and strong physical evidence at every scene, and they expect that when it comes to real-life scenarios. In reality, many crime scenes have little to no physical evidence and most laboratory tests, including DNA, can take weeks to get results back.”

Another misperception, Leighton said, relates to the expectations of younger graduates who are looking to enter the profession. Many times, they assume they’ll be able to enter an agency and immediately begin work as a detective, or they don’t fully understand the limitations of smaller agencies.

“Many of my students who have expressed an interest in crime scene processing and forensic sciences work are surprised to learn that generally, only very large agencies hire specifically for those types of positions,” Leighton said. “The majority of agencies cross-train detectives to process crime scenes in addition to their general investigative duties.”

Learn more about TV vs. reality when it comes to criminal justice career paths.

How Has the Profession Changed Over the Years?

Every professional discipline changes and evolves over the years as a result of many different factors, and this is no different for detectives.

In fact, scientific advances and new technologies have had a profound impact on the work of detectives and created exciting new possibilities in the field.

“Over the last 10 or 20 years, the field has come to rely more and more on technology,” Leighton said. “There have been significant improvements in DNA technology, which has led to the resolution of many cold cases that wouldn’t have otherwise been solved.”

Additionally, the proliferation of cell phones and smart devices over the past 20 years has created a valuable new tool for detectives in terms of data analysis. Leighton said software used to extract data from a variety of sources on cell phones is continually being improved to address efforts to avoid detection.

And perhaps the biggest change in recent years that has affected the work of detectives, Leighton said, is the ever-expanding presence of surveillance cameras.

“Law enforcement agencies have learned to leverage the amount of cameras available for investigations through the use of platforms such as FUSUS, which allows them to access private cameras instantly with the owner’s permission when a crime occurs,” Leighton said.

The Pros and Cons of Being a Detective

As with any profession, there are a number of challenges and benefits that come with being a detective. A key challenge, Leighton said, is the lack of resources many agencies face that can lead to manpower shortages and, as a result, increase the caseload of each detective.

Another challenge is the constant changes in case law that impact what detectives can and can't do while conducting an investigation.

“Whether it be court decisions regarding search and seizure or Miranda warnings, it’s important to be aware of the latest rulings to ensure that your evidence isn’t suppressed down the road,” Leighton said.

And no matter the challenge, Leighton said, they are far outweighed by the benefits that come from being a detective for those who are a good fit for the profession.

“Unlike most jobs where most days are the same, you never know what you will face when you work as a detective,” he said. “The biggest benefit that comes with being a detective is the ability to help victims receive justice. There’s no better benefit than being able to tell a homicide victim’s family that you solved their loved one’s case.”

What Makes Someone a Good Fit for the Profession?

Every detective chooses to enter the field for reasons unique to them, but there are a range of personal characteristics that can make someone a good fit for the field, Leighton said.

Future detectives must possess an appreciation for physical fitness and living a healthy lifestyle, due to the rigorous physical requirements most agencies demand of new hires. It’s also the norm for agencies to have physical fitness standards that officers must maintain throughout their careers.

Other important characteristics, according to Leighton, include:

In his nearly three decades of experience, Leighton said, determination is among the most important characteristics that can make you a good fit for the role of detective.

“Many times during investigations, techniques that are used are not successful," he said. "... Detectives who are determined will work through those setbacks and continue to look for evidence to solve the case. Often, it’s that continued effort that locates the small piece of evidence that leads to a case resolution.”

Organizations and Agencies Where Detectives Work

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of police and detectives across the country is expected by grow by more than 20,000 between the years 2022 and 2032.*

Additionally, the BLS estimates that the field of private detectives and investigators will grow by 6% during that same time frame.*

And while people most often assume police departments and law enforcement agencies are the only places you’ll find detectives working, Leighton said, that’s not actually the case.

“In reality, there are many private sector positions that are the functional equivalent of a detective,” he said. “There are investigative roles in many fields, such as insurance, accounting and civil law. Many state and federal regulatory agencies also utilize investigators to achieve their mission as well.”

Discover more about SNHU's bachelor's in criminal justice: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Cary Jordan is an Iowa-based writer and content strategist.

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