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Become a Criminal Investigator: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Find out how to become a criminal investigator in this video. Research the education and training requirements, and learn about the experience you need to begin a career in criminal investigations. View article »

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  • 0:03 Criminal Investigators
  • 1:05 Obtain an Education
  • 2:00 Gain Law Enforcement…
  • 2:46 Get Promoted to…

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Video Transcript

Criminal Investigators

Criminal investigators usually work for local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies where they question suspected criminals, crime victims and witnesses; look for evidence; and prepare reports about criminal activity. They might also conduct surveillance or testify in court.

As with many law enforcement positions, work as a criminal investigator does carry some personal injury risk. The specialization of the investigator will largely dictate the amount of risk he or she is exposed to. The work can be high-adrenaline and will likely require the investigator to be armed. While some investigators work alone, others operate in a partnership or even on a team. Most criminal investigators work on a full-time basis, although night, weekend, and overtime hours are all probable. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the median annual salary of detectives and criminal investigators as $77,210 as of May 2015.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Some employers require an associate's or bachelor's degree
Degree Field Criminal justice, accounting, engineering, computer science, or a foreign language
Training Police academy and on-the-job training
Certification States certify sworn police officers
Key Skills Problem solving, leadership, social perception, multitasking, proficiency with specialized tools and technologies
Median Salary (2015) $77,210 (for detectives and criminal investigators)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, International Association of Chiefs of Police, O*NET OnLine.

Let's now take a look at the steps involved in becoming a criminal investigator.

Obtain an Education

The first step to becoming a criminal investigator is to obtain an education. Aspiring criminal investigators generally need at least a high school diploma or equivalent for entry-level jobs at state and local law enforcement agencies. Obtaining an associate's, bachelor's, or even a master's degree in criminal justice or law enforcement can lead to advancement and better pay.

Relevant majors for aspiring federal agents include criminal justice, accounting, engineering, computer science, or a foreign language. Degree programs typically include criminal justice courses in criminology, community-oriented policing, and victimology as well as investigative techniques, criminal law, and substance abuse. Classes in sociology, corrections, and juvenile crime are also often part of the curriculum. Students can choose tracks that match their career goals, such as law enforcement, crime scene investigations, and computer crime.

Find schools that offer these popular programs

  • Corrections Admin
  • Corrections, Probation, and Parole
  • Criminal Justice and Safety Studies
  • Criminal Science
  • Forensic Science
  • Juvenile Corrections
  • Law Enforcement Administration
  • Police Science and Law Enforcement
  • Securities Services Mgmt
  • Security and Theft Prevention Services

Gain Law Enforcement Experience

The second step to becoming a criminal investigator is to gain law enforcement experience. Individuals working for local and state law enforcement agencies are typically hired as patrol officers. Most agencies require each candidate to be a U.S. citizen and at least 21 years old with a valid driver's license, have an upright moral character, and be in good physical and mental health. New hires may also have to pass a physical and/or psychological exam, a background check, a lie detector test, and drug testing. After becoming hired, prospective officers typically complete law enforcement training before becoming sworn in as police officers. A period of field training follows, in which new officers work under the supervision of experienced patrol officers.

Get Promoted to Criminal Investigator

The third step is to get promoted to the position of criminal investigator. Work experience in investigations or general law enforcement is usually preferred, if not required, by many agencies. Individuals may become eligible for advancement to criminal investigations at a state or local agency after finishing a probationary period, taking a promotions exam, and showing efficiency in job performance.

Criminal investigators at the local, state, and federal levels are also typically required to receive continuing training to keep current with their job skills. Regular marksmanship testing and physical exams might be required by employers. Special assignments and job promotions usually involve added training. Earning a degree in criminal justice, law, or forensics may also lead to expanded career opportunities.

In summary, becoming a criminal investigator consists of obtaining an education, gaining law enforcement experience, and working to get promoted to an investigator position, which will then be followed by various types of continuing education and training.

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