Top post: How to become a private investigator

Door to private investigator's office

This updated post was originally published in May 2020.

How do I become a private investigator?

People often ask me this question, and I generally offer some standard advice, but I decided to tap into my network of fellow PIs to see what else I should be  telling others about breaking into this exciting and rewarding profession. 

Many thanks to all who responded to my LinkedIn request: Steve Mason, Leah Wietholter, Robyn Shaw, Tina Thomas, Richard Ring, Phil Johnson, Dean Beers, Timothy Hardiman, Matt Christensen, Sean Cote, David Young, Jaydra Perfetti, and Ron Troutman. Also thanks to Matthew Spaier for your podcast episode, Transitioning to Private Investigations with Jim Casey.

From these responses, several common themes emerged – some confirming my initial suggestions and a few that I hadn’t thought of. So, if you want to become a private investigator, here’s what you need to do:

Check local laws regarding licensing requirements – In the U.S., each state has its own requirements. Only five six states don’t require licensing at this time, and you want to make sure you’re in compliance. Identify any barriers to entry such as experience or coursework, and develop a plan for overcoming them. (Update: Colorado ends their licensing requirements tomorrow, August 31, 2021. Since I feel strongly about the integrity of this profession, look for more commentary from me about this.

Connect with other PIs – A PI is only as good as their network. Join your state association, the national association for PIs, and any other relevant groups. Start early and stay in touch by attending meetings and conferences, because networks don’t maintain themselves. Here’s a great resource to get you started. I’m a member of PPIAC, NCISS, ACFE, and AIIP, and all have been essential to my career. (Update: Since relocating to North Carolina last year, I am also a member of NCAPI.)

Find your expertise – The days of the jack-of-all-trades investigator are a thing of the past. Identify what skills/interests you already have, then narrow them down to a few. Be sure to think broadly, because you may not realize some of your strengths or how they can be applied to investigations. Re-evaluate every so often, too, because you may have added new skills, some may need to be refreshed, or market demand has changed.

Learn as much as you can – You’ll need to immerse yourself in learning, focusing on marketing, running a business, and how to do the actual work. Check out  Cynthia Hetherington’s webinars; training programs like those from PI Education, Criminal Defense Investigation Training Council, and Investigative Learning; podcasts from Matthew Spaier and Michael Bazzell; and blog posts from Brian Willingham and others. Read any books you can find on relevant topics, like  these from Dean and Karen Beers, and attend conferences such as OSMOSIScon. (Update: Also check out my online courses, and don’t miss Kelly Paxton’s podcast, Great Women in Fraud.)     

Get some experience – You can’t learn on your client’s time and some states require experience in order to obtain a PI license, so start off by learning from others’ experience. I started as a subcontractor for another PI, and you can sometimes work as an employee – although not many PIs have the time to train someone with no experience. You may be able to volunteer or intern with your local public defender’s office, district attorney, or law enforcement agency. 

Gather your resources – You can’t do it all, so you’ll need to bring in others with specialized skills. For example, when I’m conducting non-U.S. due diligence, my global connections come in handy for interviews or degree verifications. Learn who specializes in what, starting with your association membership directories. With experience, you’ll know who you can rely on.

Find a mentor – As someone who has experienced both sides of the mentoring relationship, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of tapping into an experienced investigator’s knowledge, skills, and experience. A good mentor will inspire, act as a positive role model, and encourage ongoing learning and growth in the field. You can find a mentor through informal relationships or established programs like AIIP’s Peer to Peer Support Program.

You can read my original LinkedIn post and the responses here. And feel free to contact me if I can answer any other questions about how to become a private investigator. 


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