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How to Become a Detective

Working as a detective for a living isn’t just something you see on TV or read about in novels. It’s a highly respected, rewarding and growing profession. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment of police officers and detectives to increase seven percent between 2016 and 2026.1

Basically, police detectives investigate crimes to figure out who did what and why. They interview suspects and witnesses, gather evidence, do surveillance, write reports, arrest suspects and testify at trials to help convict perpetrators. They can be employed by local, state or federal agencies and specialize in investigating different types of crimes, like narcotics, homicides and traffic accidents.

The qualifications to be a detective vary by agency. All require a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate, and some precincts and federal jobs require a bachelor’s degree. The best degrees to help you pursue a career as a detective are a Bachelor of Criminal Justice in criminal behavior, criminalistics, digital forensics, law enforcement or forensic psychology; or a Master of Science in Criminal Justice in crime analysis, criminal behavior or forensic psychology.

The first step to becoming a detective is to be a police officer. Most police departments require a few years of experience in the ranks before you’ll be considered for promotion, although some allow officers to substitute a college degree for a year of experience. Typically, candidates must pass a promotional exam before they can move into a detective position.

Becoming a detective takes time and dedication, but the rewards are worth it. As of May 2017, the median annual pay for detectives and criminal investigators was $79,970, and police and detectives working for the federal government earned a median salary of $84,660.2 Detectives can be promoted to lieutenant, captain, commander and deputy chief, gaining greater management responsibilities at each level. Many agencies provide extensive benefits and the option to retire sooner than the typical retirement age.

Learn about our Bachelor of Criminal Justice programs

Learn about our Master of Science in Criminal Justice programs


[1]Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, April 13, 2018
[2]Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives, April 13, 2018