Online Private Investigator Degree and Certificate Program Information

Dec 03, 2019

Get info about online programs in private investigation. Read about program requirements, course topics and degree levels, and check out career and continuing education options.

Essential Information

Private investigators (PIs) conduct detective work like the police, but they are hired by private parties such as corporations, lawyers or individuals. Training varies by specialty.

Online criminal justice and private investigation programs are offered at the certificate, associate's and bachelor's degree levels. Some require internships, in addition to online classes. A degree is not always required to become a private investigator, but it is required for licensure in some states. Many states also require experience, with the amount of experience required often depending on the level of formal education attained. A few states don't have any education or experience requirements for licensure. Prospective students should check with their state boards for specific requirements that they'll need to meet.

Even if a degree is not required for licensure, some jobs may prefer to hire investigators who have an associate or bachelor's degree. Specialty investigators may need a degree in a field related to their line of work, while postsecondary programs in criminal justice or police science may give other private investigators an edge when applying for jobs.

Private Investigation Certificate

Online certificate programs for PIs are uncommon, so advanced registration is suggested to ensure enrollment. Undergraduate-level coursework teaches the general practices of private investigators. Laws applicable to the student's home state are reviewed to prepare graduates for state licensing exams.

Program Information and Requirements

The certificate may be earned entirely online in one year. Students can expect to spend a minimum of two hours per course each week on class instruction and assignments. Coursework is asynchronous, so students can access them at their convenience any time of day.

Course Topics

The program's coursework reviews the methods and techniques employed by private detectives from fact-finding to presenting legal evidence in court. Courses covering laws are tailored to a student's state of residence.

Crime Scene Investigation

Students learn the proper methods of recovering clues to a crime and legal documentation of evidence. Theories of criminal motives are discussed as well as tools for crime scene analysis.

Private Investigation

Investigative techniques are introduced such as collecting digital evidence and interviewing informants. State laws regarding record searches are reviewed.

Report Writing

Students learn to write accurate and professional reports. Communication with clients, law enforcement agencies and attorneys is an integral function of the PI industry.

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

While not as common as traditional on-campus programs, online associate degree programs in criminal justice are available. Aspiring detectives learn valuable deductive reasoning skills. Students gain insight into the role of PIs in assisting the legal process and collaborating with police to protect communities.

Program Information and Requirements

Distance education coursework for an associate's degree can be completed in two years. Programs are delivered entirely online through interactive exercises, PowerPoint lessons and streaming video requiring a Flash player and high-speed Internet connection.

Course Topics

General education classes in the social sciences and humanities are required in addition to coursework in criminal justice. Students gain communication and math skills that can be applied to many careers.

Introduction to Criminal Justice

Students survey the history of the criminal justice system in this class. The roles of police and security officers in safeguarding citizens are examined.

Private Security

The security industry is increasingly becoming privatized. Students review the ways in which security professionals interact with local and federal law enforcement agencies. Techniques and tools of the trade are introduced.

Criminal Behavior

Theories of criminal psychology are explored. Distance learners discuss ways to examine the motivations behind crimes.

Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice

Numerous online bachelor's degree programs in criminal justice are available to prepare students for a career in private investigation. Students gain a broad understanding of the criminal justice field while tailoring their curriculum to computer forensics, crime scene investigation or security.

Program Information and Requirements

A bachelor's degree program may be completed in four years, or in two years if credits are transferred from an associate degree program. Students may choose to complete all coursework online, or they may elect to participate in an internship at a crime lab to gain hands-on experience.

Course Topics

Core course requirements include communications, math, humanities, natural and social science classes. Students then complete introductory criminal justice coursework focusing on analytical tools and techniques, before choosing electives in a particular specialization. Prior to graduating, students complete final projects demonstrating all the investigative skills acquired.

Legal Evidence

Distance learners study the types of evidence used in the legal process. They learn how to collect evidence and testimonies, and how they are presented in court.

Computer Forensics

As more information is stored on computers, the rate of cybercrimes increases. Students learn about software and methods for recovering digital evidence as well as legal regulations for acquiring information from e-mail and other electronic devices.

Investigative Photography

Students learn how to use photographs and videos in their investigations and as legal evidence. Image enhancement and other advanced techniques in digital photography are introduced.

Career Information

Private detectives and investigators may be self-employed or work for private businesses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (, the mean annual salary for private detectives and investigators was $56,810 in 2018.

Continuing Education Information

Licensing requirements to become a private investigator vary by state and by specialty. In general, most states require private investigators to have clean federal and police records, an associate or bachelor's degree in criminal justice or related field, on-the-job experience and a demonstrated knowledge of state laws. Additional certification may be required for some specializations, such as working in the security industry.

Online programs in private investigation cover topics such as collecting and using evidence, computer forensics and criminal justice and are available as certificate, associate's and bachelor's degree programs. Licensure is required to work as a private investigator, and additional certification or degrees may be necessary to work in some areas of specialization.

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