Any seasoned P.I. will be quick to point out, success in the PI game largely depends on your ability to (1) understand and use the tools and resources at your disposal, (2) operate within the confines of the law and the ethical code of the profession, and (3) employ contemporary investigative techniques.
For most private investigators, this means first completing a formal course of training and education. A program in private investigation or a degree in criminal justice will provide you with a foundation of knowledge that you will draw from throughout your career, whether conducting routine surveillance in a worker’s comp or adultery investigation, or working on a corporate fraud investigation that requires advanced computer forensics.
There’s no doubt that experience is the best teacher when it comes to mastering surveillance fundamentals and how to maintain a low profile during a stakeout, but no amount of experience alone is going to teach you about state and federal laws, protocols for admitting evidence to the courts, and evidence collection methods that ensure your clients are getting accurate and timely intelligence.
A certificate program in private investigations will provide the kind of formal legal and methodological training you need. And with PI certificates available through online and campus-based programs offered at private universities and career schools, dedicated PI academies, community and state colleges, that training may be more accessible than you think.
Note: Some states, such as Florida and Georgia, require students to complete an approved course (or set of courses) to become licensed as a private investigator. If you live in a state with this requirement, you will want to complete a state-approved course of training to ensure you meet licensing requirements. These courses are generally offered through community colleges.
Private Colleges, Career Schools and Dedicated PI Academies
Some schools require applicants to be at least 18, although many have open admissions policies that allow anyone with access to a computer and the Internet to enroll.
Private colleges and career schools are the largest providers of private investigator certificate programs. Many of these programs are offered either partially or completely online so you can complete them at your own pace and on your own time schedule.
Investigating Your Prof
Whether online or on-campus, the mark of a quality program is the level of experience your instructor has. Whether you’re studying under a doctor of legal studies or professor of computer forensics, or even a younger adjunct student professor, you should expect your instructor to be a state-licensed PI with enough time in the field to be able to teach you from their own experience, not just from the textbook.
Schools are making it easy now to study up on your instructor even before you begin hitting the books. Take the time to check out the bio on your prof. This will allow you to enter your program confident they have earned their stripes and are in a position to mentor you on what it’s really like conducting an investigation and going to trial.
Cost and Duration
Most private school programs run between $600 and $800, and many offer monthly payment plans and financing options.
Most programs can be completed in as little as 3-4 months, but with self-paced online programs you can take the time you need to complete the requirements and make sure you’re mastering the concepts and retaining the knowledge. Upon paying for one of these programs, you’ll get access to online courses, along with study guides and e-books to help you pass the exams used to assess your proficiency in a given area before progressing to the next.
What You’ll Study
The bulk of modern investigations take place behind a keyboard, scouring social media and researching public records. It’s amazing how much people voluntarily put out there about themselves, and just as surprising how careless people are with personal information. This has contributed to the computer becoming every PI’s primary investigative tool, so you can expect to cover everything from the basics of online investigations to information security to computer forensics.
You will learn how to collect evidence that would admissible in a court of law, the legal process and the unique role the PI plays as a representative of one party involved in a civil suit or criminal case. You will also learn the laws that apply to conducting private investigations including everything from privacy laws, what level of surveillance is allowable in public spaces, what constitutes a public space or public online domain.
Laws pertaining to private security executive protection services would cover everything from use of force laws to the rights civilians have to enforce certain laws and apprehend and detain someone who may be violating those statutes.
Considering a Dedicated PI Academy
Dedicated private investigator schools offer the same kind of comprehensive education provided by private colleges and career schools, but they often go one step further to ensure their students are ready for the field upon graduation. In addition to the required coursework, you can expect to complete field assignments designed to familiarize you with practices, procedures, and techniques you will use as a private investigator. You can also expect to receive professional mentorship and instructor guidance and support throughout the program.
Community and State Colleges
Programs offered through community colleges usually cost between $1,000-$1,500 for 30 course hours leading to a certificate. You may be able to apply the credits earned in a certificate program toward an associate’s degree in criminal justice or a similar field down the road if you want to continue your education at some point. The coursework covered in these programs generally mirrors what is offered through career schools.
Some community colleges offer more abbreviated programs, consisting of just 2-3 courses that can be completed in one semester. These programs usually cost between $200-$300. These are the least expensive option and take the least amount of time to complete, although you can expect to learn just a fraction of what you would learn through a more in-depth program.
These abbreviated programs provide a broad overview of the private investigation field, covering legal, ethical, and public policy considerations. You can also expect to receive a primer in the management of private investigations, the history and evolution of the field, and some of the latest investigative technologies used in the profession. A course in the court system often rounds out these programs, providing students with a comprehensive overview of the legal process, practices of civil and criminal case investigation, and the differences between the court systems.
Some four-year state colleges offer certificate programs in private investigating, although many are aimed at professionals working in related industries, such as police officers, claims adjustors, loss prevention agents, and licensed PIs seeking formal training. Admission requirements may vary, with many requiring at least a couple years of relevant professional experience.
Costs for these certificate programs can be considerably higher than community college certificate programs, running anywhere between $2,000 and $3,000.
Depending on the institution, you may be able to complete a private investigator certificate program through a community or state college on-site (with many offering weekend or weeknight courses), online, or a combination of the two.
Associate and Bachelor’s Degrees in Criminal Justice
An associate or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related area of study offers a comprehensive education in the political, societal and cultural factors that influence crime.
A degree in criminal justice provides a solid foundation for any number of pros in criminal justice, like loss prevention experts, police officers, security guards, and private investigators. There’s something to be said for getting a degree that is common among non-civilian commissioned law enforcement officers.
You won’t find courses aimed specifically at investigating and investigative techniques in a criminal justice program; instead, your course of study will likely focus on the criminal justice system, criminal law, and judicial administration. Coursework covers everything from ethics and leadership to crime policy, crime prevention, and decision making.
Associate degrees generally consist of 2 years of study and 60 credits, while bachelor’s degrees consist of about 4 years of study and 120 credits. Both provide students with a background in the liberal arts and sciences, although bachelor’s degrees allow students to further explore topics like policy analysis, management strategies, and criminal law. They also often provide students the opportunity to focus their education on a specific area of study, such as business administration, management, computer forensics, law enforcement, homeland security, or criminal psychology.
Students interested in pursuing a career in financial fraud or insurance investigations also often pursue classes in business, economics, and finance, while those interested in computer forensics often pursue classes in accounting, business and computer science.
Continuing Education for Experienced Private Investigators
Private academies offer dedicated hard skills training for experienced private investigators looking to add to their resume and skillset. These academies train a variety of professionals working in the field of security and protection, from personal protection specialists to law enforcement officers.
Courses may include everything from basic and advanced firearms training. Programs of this nature are designed to meet state laws where training is required for a concealed carry permit.
It’s very common to train alongside law enforcement professionals in vice units and special weapons and tactical teams, so these programs could also include everything from crisis management and conflict resolution training to hostage negotiations.
Courses in these programs may be used for professional development/continuing education purposes or for personal development.