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A Day in the Life of a Detective/Private Investigator

The Raymond Chandler-spawned image of the hard-boiled detective, sipping scotch, fighting in dark alleys and being pursued by rich beautiful women gave way on the entertainment circuit twenty years ago to those more like James Garner as Jim Rockford. On The Rockford Files, a scrappy street-smart ex-con eschewed violence and ducked moral stands in favor of maintaining personal safety. For the first time, detectives were portrayed doing what they really do: “Mostly it’s just background checks and finding lost people,” said one detective from Dallas; “usually it’s between family members.” Detectives fulfill client requests for research and surveillance; over 40 percent of their work has to do with divorces. Most detectives spend a lot of time using computer searching resources. Familiarity with credit checks, Lexis/Nexis/Dow Jones searches, and Internet-searching facilities is crucial. Detectives frequently search credit reports, birth and death records, marriage licenses, tax filings, news reports, and legal filings. Involvement with legal issues and lawyers is cited as one of the most prominent features of daily life. Usually, only the final stages of searches for lost or missing people involve significant travel. Detective work for smaller agencies involves a high quotient of solitude and isolation. A solo practitioner must have solid budgeting and client-relations skills, a strong work ethic, and an independent style. Most detectives are paid per project; there are usually limitations on the time that any fee will cover. Those who join larger agencies must be skilled at prioritizing, writing reports, using a variety of institutionalized resources, and working with teams of other detectives. Large firms sometimes have annual contracts with corporations to investigate internal problems and provide security. Maintaining contacts and personal recommendations is critical.

Paying Your Dues

The skills acquired during an academic career aren’t the skills that a detective uses, so degrees are relatively unimportant. At larger firms a degree in criminal behavior, psychology, or law enforcement may be a plus on a resume, but the primary traits employers look for are experience in related fields and an appropriate temperament. Over 75 percent of all private detectives learn the investigative skills required for the profession and make contacts with other future private detectives in the military, local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, or private security firms. Others attend private detective schools, which teach students how to fingerprint, take samples, write reports and use firearms. Over 25 percent have experience as bodyguards and over 80 percent have licenses for firearms. Few use them, however: “If you want to be a gunslinger, rent a movie. Private detectives investigate and report. That’s all,” said one. Specific computer search skills are usually taught by any hiring firm. An investigator should be able to work alone, think logically, react quickly to changing circumstances, use sound judgment, and keep a professional distance from her work. Maturity is a must. Some states require private detectives to pass certain exams and post a bond to ensure their compliance with state regulations; check with local authorities for the laws in your area.

Present and Future

Most law enforcement between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars was primarily work for hire by bounty hunters and so-called “thief takers.” They walked on the border of the law to achieve their goals. The Pinkerton Detective Agency, founded in the 1850s by Allan Pinkerton, was the first private detective firm to promise integrity and trustworthiness for a daily wage (as opposed to bounty-based pay). Private detective agencies are expected to grow rapidly and increase in size over the next ten to fifteen years. Private detective firms are more in demand than ever; as more and more local governments downsize their police forces, communities, companies and individuals need to hire private detectives. Economies of scale make it likely that larger, more technologically advanced firms will begin to consolidate many of the smaller firms.

Quality of Life


Private investigators in large firms work with more experienced mentors and learn the methods and protocols the firm employs. Many spend significant amounts of time doing library, courthouse, and city hall based research and reviewing reports written by their colleagues. Most work purely behind the scenes. Those who wish to advance aggressively pursue additional duties and responsibilities, such as late night and weekend projects. Small firm or solo investigators have all the same problems small business owners face: client recruitment, instability of income, and unpredictable staffing needs. Satisfaction is average; hours can be long.


Five-year survivors are experienced private investigators. Many have learned valuable computer searching skills, have established contacts in a variety of record keeping industries (such as credit-reporting companies, city hall, and the police department), and have seen a number of cases from inception to completion. Members of large firms have contact with clients. Many have supervisory roles. Small firm practitioners add bodyguard and security duties to their investigative roles in order to attract more clients and to ensure a more steady stream of income. Satisfaction is, again, average; hours are still long.


Private investigators who have lasted ten years in the profession have strong reputations and valuable experience. The majority who leave the profession do so between years four and eight, dissatisfied with the limited range of responsibilities. Those who are going to begin their own firms have done so by this point, and many supervise instead of doing field investigative work. A number of ten-year veterans find this transition jarring, as the skills that make one a good investigator do not necessarily translate into making one a good supervisor. Salaries increase, hours decrease, and satisfaction goes up for those who like the new job role, and down for those who dislike it.