What to know about private investigation careers

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Private investigators (PIs) are sought out to find answers to a variety of difficult questions. This field includes a heavy focus on surveillance, forensics, fugitive recovery and many other investigatory skills.

Former law enforcement agents may be able to easily transition into private investigation. Many other candidates who pursue PI work may lack previous law enforcement experience. Regardless, independent private investigative work can be an exciting and potentially lucrative field for those with the appropriate skills, passion and training. 

In this Article

private investigator leans out car window with zoom lens camera

What is a private investigator?

Private investigators (PIs) are commonly called private detectives or independent inquiry agents. Individuals, corporations and various other organizations hire these agents to find solutions through independent, investigative work. PIs are often tasked with finding information related to domestic disputes, and insurance or workers’ compensation claims.

“It is extremely important for investigators to be able to think outside of the box. Whether it be surveillance, getting entry to a specific area, or simply not standing out within a crowd, a good investigator must think outside of the box,” said Ty Larkin, a private investigator based in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

This work requires surveillance, forensic investigation and other skillsets within the legal boundaries for investigators. Private investigators often work for attorneys or their clients associated with civil and criminal cases. These cases may require external discovery and research to dispute or reaffirm a legal claim.

Can I specialize within the field?

PI work includes a variety of different specializations including:

  • Computer forensics
  • Civil and domestic disputes
  • Insurance claims
  • Loss prevention
  • Surveillance
  • Criminal investigation

An investigation company may become popular among particular clients due to its strong focus on one specific skill set or investigative field. Although, many companies and independent investigators focus on providing clients a broad spectrum of investigation services. 


What is a bounty hunter or fugitive recovery agent?

Bounty hunters specialize in fugitive recovery. Generally, they’re hired by bail bonds companies to find fugitives who did not appear for a criminal trial. A bounty hunter may then detain the fugitive and return him to the proper authorities. In return, bounty hunters are generally paid a percentage of that fugitive’s bond amount once he has been successfully returned. 

Bounty hunter school

Many bounty hunters pursue degrees in areas such as criminology or criminal justice. These programs can offer the appropriate training needed in business and law to give a strong educational foundation to new bounty hunters.

Additionally, there are bounty hunting schools scattered across the nation. These programs offer unique and differing curriculums and training exercises to potential bounty hunters. The time and cost required to complete programs from these academies can vary widely making it important to research the ideal bounty hunter school suited for your career path.

Many people who pursue bounty hunting choose to become an apprentice to a more experienced agent in the field. This apprenticeship can offer some of the best, direct training for new bounty hunters, with the extra confidence of learning the inner workings of the business from a veteran. 


What kind of education and training do I need to get started?

Law enforcement agents who transition into PI work may find their previous job experience ample training for their independent, investigative career. However, requirements for education and training vary from state to state.

For instance, Oregon requires at minimum 1500 hours of experience in investigative work, or a combination of investigative work experience matched with 500 hours of state-recognized educational courses. In contrast, Ohio requires two years of investigative work experience adding up to a minimum of 4,000 hours. Ohio’s requirements may be waived for those with prior work experience in the military or law enforcement. In Virginia, potential PIs must complete a specific 60 hour training course authorized by the state.

Many private investigators find additional benefits from earning a degree in a related field of study. For example, majoring in criminal justice or law enforcement can help PIs navigate the legal system effectively and efficiently, helping them know the snags that could potentially interfere with their business. 

While a degree can provide a good foundation, field training and practical experience is often equally important for those pursuing private investigation or bounty hunting work. Similar to bounty hunting, private investigators may choose or be required to apprentice under a practicing PI to gain experience. Others might work for an established firm before starting an independent agency of their own.

State education case studies


California

California has relatively rigorous training and educational standards compared to others. To become a licensed PI in California, you must complete complete:

  • 6,000 hours of investigation work over a 3-year period (2,000 hours per year)
  • 5,000 hours of investigation work and earn an associate degree in criminal justice or law enforcement
  • 4,000 hours of investigative work and earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or law enforcement

Acceptable forms of work to earn your needed investigation hours may include sworn law enforcement work, military police work, or doing investigative work with a licensed PI, law firm, repossession company, insurance agency or arson investigation agency.


Florida

Florida has different levels of licensing for private investigators. The initial CC license is for those who have interned within the PI field and intend to further their career.

To apply for the initial Florida CC License, you must have completed 40 hours of training and have worked with a Florida licensed PI agency. Your CC license application will have additional requirements outside of education and training including fingerprinting and background checks.

Once candidates have earned their intro CC license and have completed two years of verifiable experience, they may be eligible to apply for the Florida C private investigation license. The Florida C level license is intended for those already ready to work in the field and potentially grow an independent PI practice on their own.

The needed experience for your C license can be earned through an internship at a private investigation agency, completing college coursework in criminal justice, criminology, or law enforcement administration.

This college coursework may be supplemented by successfully completing a verified federal or state-level law enforcement training course. Yet, only a year maximum of this specific experience may be applied to your C license application.

Candidates with two years of previous private investigation work may apply immediately for their Florida C Class License. Once you have applied for your C-level exam, you must complete a state-mandated exam.


Georgia

Private investigators who wish to work at or open their own state-licensed agency in Georgia must complete a four-year degree in criminal justice or related field. Additionally, candidates must complete a state-approved PI course within six months after being hired by an agency or starting their own. Each PI in Georgia must also complete 16 hours of continuing education each year to maintain their license.


North Carolina

To earn a PI license in North Carolina, you must have at least a high school degree or GED and three years (or 3,000 hours) of private investigation experience.

It is important for candidates who wish to work in North Carolina to research and confirm the Private Protective Services Board (PPS) licensing requirements, as they often change year to year. The PPS board is responsible for establishing the exam curriculum and all associated requirements for practicing PI work within North Carolina.

Additional requirements, such as fingerprinting, background checks and reference questionnaires, are currently required for the state’s PPS licensing application checklist.


Texas

Texas requires candidates to complete at least three consecutive years of private investigation experience or earn bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field.

Those who wish to pursue a PI license in Texas may also earn their associate’s degree in criminal justice or related fields. However, candidates who earn an associate degree must pair that with six months of investigation experience.


Job outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 37,000 private detectives and investigators as of 2021. This job is anticipated to grow by 6% from 2021 to 2031, which is considered an average pace.


joe edwards

Written and reported by:

Joe Edwards

Staff Writer

ty larkin

With professional insight from:

Ty Larkin

Private investigator and founder of APEX Surveillance and Investigations