How to Become a Detective

Growth Trends for Related Jobs


As a parent, you're probably already used to doing some detective work, problem-solving and following the clues of mess your little ones have left behind after a busy day. But what about becoming an actual detective? Plenty of crime shows and the media paint it as a full-on, risky career choice, but the reality might be a little bit different.

Job Description

Police detectives are responsible for taking on various crime cases, collecting evidence and facts, and conducting interviews with witnesses and suspects to try to determine what happened at the time a crime was committed. The ultimate aim in these cases is to correctly identify, arrest and bring to trial perpetrators of the crimes they're investigating.

A large percentage of the role is administrative. Detectives have to file case notes and reports about everything they do in a case they're investigating. This paperwork must be reviewed by a senior officer, who may have you follow up on different aspects of the case. Detectives may also have to testify in court about an investigation and provide verbal feedback on reports and case notes. It's not all chasing around suspects and figuring out clues.

This is not a job for the fainthearted. It's a full-time job that often involves long hours with overtime. Core hours are conducted in shift work, including nights. You will also be expected to be physically healthy and confident in approaching different individuals. You will be required to carry a gun―detectives are almost always armed.

Education Requirements

Most detectives work their way up, starting out as a police officer to earn the experience and training that will help them become a more-effective detective.

Many individuals start by first earning an associate's degree in a related discipline such as criminal justice, law, criminology or even psychology. While this isn't a requirement for all law enforcement roles, it's a good starting point to help build your knowledge in the field. It's highly recommended that you seek out work experience or an internship in a related role while you study to help build your skills and experience.

While not required by all police departments, earning an associate's degree in criminal justice can provide students with the basic knowledge and skills to work in law enforcement. Students will have an opportunity to complete courses in criminal investigations, criminal procedures, police services, juvenile justice and law enforcement training. Opportunities may also be available to participate in an internship with local law enforcement agencies.

After completing an associate's degree, you can enroll in police academy training, which is a requirement in all states for individuals wishing to become a police officer. Through the training, you will be expected to participate in a wide variety of courses and training―both in the classroom and out. These will include physical and health exams and courses covering state laws, local laws, ethics and community engagement through police work. You'll also train in self-defense and firearms.

Once you pass police academy training, you'll be expected to work as a police officer before you can earn promotion to become detective. The time this takes depends on you and your work; some individuals can get promoted relatively quickly, but for most, it takes several years. If you are successful in receiving a promotion, some states will also require that you pass a comprehensive exam involving higher level skills testing such as decision-making, conflict management, forensic science and criminal law.

Salary Expectations

The salary for detectives varies and depend on how long you have worked as a detective and also where you work, whether that's in a local, state or federal department. The average salary for all detectives was around $81,490 in late 2017 as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Basic Salary for New Police Officer: $26,600
  • Newly Promoted Detective: $42,220
  • Mid-Level Detective: $55,180
  • Senior Detective: $131,200

Where Do They Work?

The majority of detectives work in law enforcement departments, whether that's in local, state or federal institutions. A lot of the work is office-based and will require some fieldwork and outdoor work when carrying out investigations on assigned cases. A select few work as private detectives.

Years of Experience

Since detective roles are usually government-based jobs, pay is reflected on how many years of service you've accumulated. As a detective, you can usually expect to receive salary increases as you progress in work experience:

  • 0‒5 years experience: $49,000
  • 5‒10 years experience: $52,000
  • 10‒20 years experience: $64,000
  • 20+ years of experience: $72,000

Job Growth Trend

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this industry is predicted to see a drop in growth between 2014 to 2024. At least a 1 percent drop in job growth is predicted as budget cuts are implemented across all departments.

Becoming a senior detective is no small commitment. It can take many years and even several failed attempts to secure the promotion from police officer to detective. But if you're prepared to put in the hard work and have the determination and grit this role requires, it could ultimately turn out to be a very rewarding and successful career journey.