Degrees and Training Programs for Aspiring Criminal Investigators

Criminal investigator programs are typically offered as a certificate of completion, while criminal justice programs are offered at the associate's and bachelor's levels. Courses cover investigative techniques, criminology, victimology and law enforcement ethics.

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Essential Information

There are several paths towards becoming a criminal investigator, including short certificate programs that may be offered only to law enforcement officers. Associate's and bachelor's degree programs in criminal justice usually include courses in criminal investigation. In all these programs, students learn techniques for collecting evidence and interviewing suspects and witnesses. They also examine the law regulating the conduct of criminal investigations.

Many states require licensing for private detectives and investigators, and there are optional professional certifications available as well. These credentials may require a certain level of education and training in the field. A high school diploma or equivalent is required prior to pursuing any of these programs.

Criminal Investigator Certificate

Criminal investigator certificate programs may require 6-15 credit hours. Programs or specific courses are sometimes only available to police officers or police officer candidates. All programs focus on teaching students to conduct safe, legal investigations that do not compromise evidence. Students also learn how to use evidence to aid lawyers in court. Online programs are available.

The curriculum includes courses in law enforcement principles, case management and interviewing techniques. Common courses include:

  • Causes of deviant behavior
  • Laws governing searches and seizures
  • Legal interrogation
  • Photography for police purposes
  • Physical evidence
  • Preparing and using search warrants

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

The field of criminal justice may be looked at as the umbrella that covers careers in law enforcement, corrections, investigations and forensics. An associate degree program in criminal justice prepares students for entry-level jobs in these and other areas. Associate criminal justice programs are available both on campus and online. Associate programs typically culminate in a capstone project or internship.

Courses typically cover criminal procedures, laws, criminal investigations, evidence collection and corrections. General education requirements in English, math and psychology are also incorporated. Other courses might include:

  • Constitutional law
  • Victimology
  • Criminology
  • Deductive and inductive profiling
  • Organized crime
  • Procedures and systems in law enforcement

Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice

Bachelor's degree programs in criminal justice provide students with leadership and investigation skills for mid-level positions in criminal investigations. Students can typically choose a specialty within criminal justice programs, such as law enforcement, investigation or corrections. Topics covered include criminology theory, research methods and penology. The program also may include practicums, internships and seminars.

Core courses in the criminal justice program include psychology, sociology, criminology and criminal justice systems. Other courses students complete include:

  • Criminal justice
  • Homicide
  • Fire investigation
  • Probation and parole
  • Role of police in a democracy
  • Strategies of corrections

Popular Career Options

Graduates of an associate's program in criminal justice have a wide variety of job opportunities in juvenile justice, corrections, law enforcement, insurance and security. Job titles may include:

  • Youth advocate
  • Specialist in victims' services
  • Security specialist
  • Police officer
  • Criminal investigator

Bachelor's degree graduates possess the theoretical knowledge and practical experience in criminal law and investigations for mid-level positions such as:

  • Corrections officer
  • Parole officer
  • Criminal investigator
  • Private investigator
  • Criminologist

Employment Outlook

A 5% growth in employment opportunities for private investigators and detectives is projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in the decade 2014-2024 ( The median yearly wage for private detectives and investigators was $45,610 in 2015. Detectives and criminal investigators, who work for the government, earned a median annual salary of $77,210 in 2015.

Certifications and Continuing Education

Though requirements vary by state, most states require a license to practice as a criminal investigator or detective. Also available are voluntary certifications that attest to competency. Certifications are usually based on training, experience, research and certification test scores.

The National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) is one of three major professional organizations that offer a certification pertinent to a criminal investigator. The NALI offers credentials as a Certified Legal Investigator (CLI). A Board Certified Criminal Defense Investigator (CCDI) is available through the Criminal Defense Investigation Training Council for investigators specializing in criminal defense. The International Association for Identification (IAI) offers a variety of certifications appropriate for criminal investigators.

Bachelor's graduates can begin working immediately or continue into a master's program. Master's degree programs in criminal justice provide the advanced theoretical knowledge and practical experience for administrative and high-level positions.

Becoming a criminal investigator is typically accomplished by completing a criminal investigator certificate program, earning an associate's degree in criminal justice, or earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. Students will learn skills such as interrogation, photography, and evidence handling, among others. Those who complete these programs often enter into careers such as youth advocates, criminal investigators, and corrections officers.

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