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Law & Legal

Career insights: Become a Detective


Detective explained


Do you dream about solving mysteries, armed only with your brains and training? Do you love problem-solving, and want to help people with your keen abilities? A career as a detective might be the right path for you.

Detectives solve crimes, find missing property, expose cheating spouses, investigate corporate wrongdoings, and so much more. They can be called to give testimony in criminal cases and are a vital part of the institution of public policing. There are two main classifications of detective work: public and private.

  • Public detectives are law enforcement agents who specialise in investigations. Their investigations can range from searching for a stolen bicycle to decades-long sting operations that involve elaborate undercover operations. The title ‘detective’ is not a rank; it refers to knowledge, training, skills, and experience. They work alongside their uniformed colleagues and are not above them in rank or pay.[i]
  • Private detectives are those who work for large corporations (corporate detectives), or private investigators who operate individually and are employed directly by individuals.

What do detectives do?

Your daily duties as a detective will depend on which field you are employed in

  • Police Detectives are involved in a wide range of activities as a part of their daily duties. They might be classified as Serious and Complex Crime Investigators or Specialist Investigators. Police detectives plan, manage, and instigate investigations into domestic violence, theft, robbery, drugs, counterterrorism, homicide, cyber-crime, fraud, and public and child protection. Some police detectives go on to work for MI-5 or even Interpol.
  • Corporate Detectives work in a surprising number of industries, employed by large companies to investigate a wide array of matters. They conduct background checks on prospective employees, investigate the competition’s practices, and follow the trail of money in fraud and embezzlement cases.

    When someone is suspected of misconduct at work, but nothing can be proven, a corporate detective might be called in on the case to get to the bottom of things.

    Corporate detectives might also be called upon to check into a high-risk investment or fund manager. This ensures that the company has done due diligence to avoid getting involved in a Ponzi scheme or fraudulent organisation.[ii]

    Some corporate detectives focus solely on insurance claim fraud. They investigate people suspected of gaming the system when it comes to injuries, medical claims, property damage, and liability. They conduct background checks, interview witnesses, and perform surveillance.

  • Private investigators have varied and exciting careers, focusing on helping people fill investigative needs that fall outside the purview or capacity of the police force.[iii] They are employed directly by individuals to help with a long list of problems. PIs help people search for missing persons (when there is no sign of ‘foul play’), help adopted children find their birth parents (or vice versa), gather evidence of a cheating spouse, or search for lost or stolen property after the police have closed the case.

Investigative Due Diligence

While some private detectives are called upon to investigate criminal cases, they must always behave within the scope of the law. Even if they were previously a member of the military, a police officer, or security guard, hey must never misrepresent themselves as law enforcement. They are limited to performing a citizen’s arrest that is clearly identified as such.[iv]

Responsibilities as a detective

Both public and private detectives share a set of responsibilities to the public and/or their clients. If you work as a detective, you will be required to:

  • Conduct investigations into matters for private clients or your superiors
  • Manage complex cases
  • Stay up to date with local and national laws, policies, and guidance
  • Gather and verify information relating to the case at hand
  • Work closely with other investigators
  • Ensure that your investigations never place others at risk or in harm’s way
  • Interpret multifaceted data
  • Prepare case papers and submit them on time to clients or superiors
  • Be prepared to testify in court
  • Carefully deal with forensic evidence, following all necessary protocols
  • Organise and store evidence, in some cases, permanently
  • Participate in searches, following all necessary protocols
  • Conduct interviews with witnesses, using no leading questions
  • Recruit informants for ongoing and future investigations
  • Identify suspects
  • Liaise with schools, courts, social workers, law enforcement, and local councils

What do I need to be a detective?

Whether you’re a police detective or a private investigator, working in this field requires dedication and hard work. You can expect to work long hours at times, and you may be called upon to work on holidays, weekends, and through the night.

Personal Attributes required for detectives

Both public and private detectives need to have the following personal attributes:

  • An impeccable sense of honesty
  • Unquestioned integrity
  • Keen observation skills
  • A good sense of judgement
  • The ability to ‘read’ people
  • Logic and problem-solving prowess
  • Objectivity in the face of challenging situations
  • Exceptional communication skills
  • Respect for diversity and a commitment to treat all people equally, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity
  • Motivation and the ability to self-start
  • Good physical fitness and stable mental health
  • Willingness to take responsibility for your own actions
  • Unimpeachable ethics and a commitment to privacy
Skills required for detectives

In order to be an effective detective in a private or public role, you need to have the following skills:

  • Clear communication, both written and verbal
  • Writing skills that enable you to communicate complex instructions in a precise manner
  • Exemplary planning skills that allow you to design, investigate, and chronicle your investigations
  • Exceptional logic and problem-solving skills that allow you to analyse and assess evidence
  • The ability to maintain a good work/life balance and keep your emotions out of your investigations
  • Staying calm and collected in the hairiest of situations
  • Critical thinking and an analytical approach to problems and evidence
  • The ability to stay motivated and on task when working independently or as a part of a team
  • Leadership skills and the ability to motivate a team


The necessary qualifications to be a detective depend on whether you plan to work for the police, or you want to strike out on your own as a private investigator.

Qualifications needed to become a Police Detective

Many police detectives first qualify as a police officer, while others take a different training path with the Police Now National Detective Programme. Over the course of two years, you’ll learn the skills for the role, and develop your leadership qualities.

You’ll begin with their immersive and intensive 12-week Detective Academy. This is a residential training course that includes field training and classroom instruction. At this point, you’ll need to pass the National Investigators Exam (NIE).

After you successfully pass the exam, you’ll undergo training in-force and a number of rotations on different patrols and shifts. You’ll be in uniform, working alongside qualified officers and detectives to improve your core skills. You’ll then take on accelerated training that will equip you to investigate all sorts of crimes.

To qualify for the Police Now programme, you’ll need an undergraduate degree with a 2:2 (or the non-UK equivalent). You will also need at least two years of work experience after graduation.

Qualifications needed to become a Private Investigator

Believe it or not, there is no official licensing or regulatory body for private investigators in the UK.[v] This is a complex, multifaceted field – even though it is not officially regulated (much to the chagrin of most respected Private Investigators in the country), you will still need qualifications if you want to get hired and maintain a solid reputation in the industry.

Most clients will want to see that you have some form of qualification. A degree in Criminology or similar, former experience with a police force or M1-5, and references from past clients are all critical.

An estimated 45% of private investigators are former police officers. Considering the fact that policing skills are often very handy in private investigations, it’s surprising that this number isn’t even higher! That said, even though police training can be a helpful asset, it’s not necessary for a successful career in private sector investigations. There are a number of training providers who can equip you with the skills you need to be a private detective. However, you need to be careful when selecting educational opportunities.

Sadly, there are some unscrupulous ‘detective academies’ out there that have no standing in the industry. They take your money, teach you unfounded and unproven methods, and the print you a diploma. Anyone who actually works in the industry will take one look at that diploma and tell you to hit the road.

It’s a good idea to check with the ABI (Association of British Investigators) before you select a training provider. This respected industry organisation has been operating since 1913, and their’ seal of approval’ means a lot to potential clients and fellow detectives. When you complete your training, you should consider joining the ABI yourself. You’ll find that an ABI membership opens a lot of doors, which is especially important when investigating a case.


Your salary as a detective will depend dramatically on whether you work for a police department or strike out as a private investigator.[vi]

The starting annual salary for a novice constable in the UK is £23,123 (£28,392), which rises every year, and will increase over time. Keep in mind that £38,382 is the top of the constable scale after a decade (£40,877 in Scotland). However, if you rise the ranks over time, you can expect to earn in the low six figures. The ranks of assistant chief constable to chief constable between £98,538 and £111,249, depending on where in the country you are located.

In addition to your salary, police detectives earn a wide variety of perks and benefits, including:

  • A competitive pension
  • Part-time options
  • At least 22 days of annual leave (28 days in Scotland)
  • Childcare schemes and support
  • Generous parental leave
  • Sport, gym, and social facilities
  • Paid sick leave
  • Trade union membership (in some cases)
  • Housing allowances in London and the South East

If you decide to become a private investigator, your salary could be far, far higher. If you work for a large corporation or multinational bank, you could earn in the six figures as well as a generous benefits package and bonuses.

As a freelance detective, you’ll be able to set your own hours, determine your rates, and choose your clients carefully.

Career options as a detective

Of course, your career options as a detective depend on whether you decide to go the public or private route.

Career options for police detectives

If you work within the police force, you could work as a uniformed officer or as a plainclothes investigator. You will usually specialise in one type of crime, such as fraud, homicide, narcotics, sexual assault, or white-collar crime. In some cases, you may be called upon to go undercover and take on a new persona to investigate a crime.

Here are some of the other police detective specialties:

  • Crime Scene Investigator – Blending detective work with forensics and science, crime scene investigators collect and analyse all of the evidence found at a crime scene. While you may not interview witnesses or suspects, you’ll analyse fingerprints, examine evidence, and conduct ballistics and weapons reports.
  • Computer forensics – In order to fullthoroughlyestigate many 21st century crimes, you need to be a computer expert, or have one on your team. Computer forensic investigators collect data, recover lost files, and analyse computers used in crimes. You’ll work on crimes such as child pornography, internet stalking, hacking, and consumer fraud.
  • Money laundering investigator – Money laundering is a massive problem in the UK, and you could help solve these cases. You’ll conduct investigations to detect money laundering schemes and prevent them from occurring.
  Career options for private investigators

As a private investigator, your career options are far more varied – you can truly specialise in any field that interests you most. You might instantly think of a PI from film noire, waiting in their office for the next juicy client, but most private investigations are a lot more mundane! Here are some of the most common career options for private investigators.

  • Corporate investigations – Major corporations around the world need people with detective skills to investigate all forms of wrongdoing. This includes internal theft, NDA breaches, and the spilling of company secrets. In some cases, your initial investigations will be passed on to law enforcement.
  • Corporate fraud prevention – In addition to the needs listed above, corporations also need someone who can investigate fraud and accounting deception. If you have a passion for numbers and a keen eye for.
  • Private criminal investigations – The police don’t always have the manpower or budget to investigate all crimes with the same level of effort. Similarly, cold cases don’t always take priority on the case docket. In these instances, families often hire private investigators to local stolen items or gather evidence that they can then present to law enforcement.
  • Missing persons investigations – Just as with the above example, law enforcement does not always have the time and resources to investigate missing persons cases to a level that satisfies loved ones. As a missing persons investigator, you’ll be tasked with searching for individuals where no foul play is suspected.
  • Insurance fraud investigations – Insurance fraud is more common than you might think. Insurance firms hire detectives to look into suspicious claims in order to determine if something shady is occurring. This role includes paperwork, digital tracking, and in-person surveillance.
  • Personal issues investigations – This category is often considered the ‘juiciest’ – you’ll usually be hired by an individual to track the movements of a suspected cheating spouse. That said, there are plenty of other personal issues that individuals are keen to have you investigate.

How to become a detective


Follow this step by step guide to become a detective.[vii]

  1. Earn a university degree

    While you don’t strictly need a university degree to become a private investigator, it is a good idea to have a strong educational foundation in Criminology, Forensic Science, or Psychology. You’ll not only make lifelong connections, but your education will help you in every aspect of your career. Online criminology courses are another fantastic option to give you the knowledge you’ll need to be successful.

    To become a police detective, you need an undergraduate degree with at least a 2:2 (or a foreign equivalent). The University of Birmingham offers a BA in Criminology, Investigation, and Policing that would be incredibly useful. You can then apply directly to the police force, or enter into the Police Now National Detective Programme.

  2. Train on the job

    For police detectives, you’ll do most of your practical training on the job. However, if you’re going to work on your own or for a private corporation, you can seek an apprenticeship with a skilled investigator. While no official apprenticeships in detective work are currently on offer in the UK, you could approach private investigators you admire and ask them for a chance to work alongside them. Even if you don’t plan to work for the police in the long term, you could consider a position in the force for a year or two to gain experience.

  3. Never stop adding to your skills

    As a detective in the private or public sphere, you need to maintain good physical fitness, robust mental health, and stay in good standing with the law. Keep up to date with the latest techniques in your field, particularly if you work in computer investigations, forensics, or fraud.

  4. Work on cases that interest you to build your portfolio

    If you’re working as a constable within a police force, you will usually have to serve for at least a few years before becoming a detective. If you’re a private investigator, focus on working on cases that interest you so that you can build a strong portfolio of reviews and testimonials.


Do you have what it takes to become a detective?

Exciting, challenging, and potentially lucrative – working as a detective in the public or private sector will change your life. You’ll need education, training, experience, and gumption - do you have what it takes to embark on this career path?

Courses related to this career

Reference list

Career Explorer (2018). What does a detective do? ‐ CareerExplorer. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Oct. 2020].

Proactive Investigations (2019). Are Private Investigators licensed and regulated in the UK? [online] Proactive Investigations. Available at: [Accessed 14 Oct. 2020].

Proactive Investigations (2019). Are Private Investigators licensed and regulated in the UK? [online] Proactive Investigations. Available at: [Accessed 17 Oct. 2020].

Prospects (2019). Detective job profile | [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Oct. 2020].

Smith, T. (2019). There are Many Forms of Corporate Investigation. [online] Investigate Insight. Available at: [Accessed 14 Oct. 2020]. (2020). Become a Detective | Education and Career Roadmap. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2020].

Westminster Security (2019). Westminster Security Ltd. [online] Westminster Security. Available at: [Accessed 25 Dec. 2019].

Wikipedia Contributors (2020). Police ranks of the United Kingdom. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: [Accessed 14 Oct. 2020].