How to Become a Criminal Investigator

Learn how to become a criminal investigator. Explore the educational and experiential requirements for this career.

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by Christina Payne

Updated May 13, 2022

Edited by Madison Hoehn
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How to Become a Criminal Investigator


Criminal investigators work for the city, state, or federal government, gathering evidence to solve crimes. These professionals typically work for police departments or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Some criminal investigators may become private investigators.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that private detectives and investigators will experience 13% job growth from 2020-2030, which is faster than the national average.

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The following sections explain how to become a criminal investigator. Readers can learn what kind of training and education they need to secure a job, including enrolling in a trade school or college. Readers can also explore potential salaries for this career and find out how long it takes to become a criminal investigator.

Criminal Investigator Requirements

Criminal investigators evaluate crime scenes, uncover evidence, and help close cases. These professionals may specialize in fields such as forensic science or cybercrime. Depending on the type of crime they're working on, criminal investigators may work out in the field or at a desk.

The following sections explain criminal investigator requirements and what qualifications aspiring investigators may need for this position.

Education

Criminal investigators typically need a high school diploma (or GED certificate) to meet the education requirement for their profession. While investigators will need additional training before starting their careers, many employers do not require a postsecondary education.

However, certain specializations within this profession may need additional education. Criminal investigators with a specialization in forensic science, for example, often need an associate or bachelor's degree. Similarly, cybercrime experts may wish to pursue a postsecondary degree to gain a better understanding of information technology and criminology.

Aspiring students should research potential employers to determine education requirements for specific jobs.

Law Enforcement Background

Criminal investigators seeking a position within local and state police departments often need previous experience in law enforcement. Professionals in this field typically become police officers first before working their way up to become criminal investigators. Law enforcement training gives criminal investigators experience and insight into investigative procedure and criminal law.

Criminal investigators seeking work as private investigators do not need previous law enforcement experience, but many in this profession have it.

Licenses and Certifications

Licensure and certification requirements differ depending on an employee's state and type of investigation. Pursuing licensure or certification can improve skills and boost career options and salary potential. For example, criminal investigators considering careers as private detectives should look into earning a certification.

Criminal investigators who specialize in criminal defense investigation and negligence can pursue the certified legal investigator certification from the National Association of Legal Investigators. Additionally, all criminal investigators may pursue the professional certified investigator certification offered by the American Society of Industrial Security.

Criminal Investigator Training

Criminal investigators in the police force go through the same training as police officers. These professionals enter the police academy and complete a training program, which typically takes six months. Police officers receive further on-the-job training once they enter the police force.

Training for this career includes lessons related to evidence collection, criminal and civil law, and investigative procedures. After becoming a criminal investigator, professionals typically receive additional on-the-job training in their new role.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Criminal Investigator?

Becoming a criminal investigator can take anywhere between 3-6 years, although especially motivated learners may be able to speed up the process. After high school graduation, aspiring criminal investigators can enroll in the police academy right away. Police academy training typically takes about 6-12 months.

Police officers then need to gain experience and training before applying to become criminal investigators. In general, the transition from police officer to criminal investigator takes 3-5 years.

Criminal Investigator Salary

According to the BLS, police and detectives earned a median annual salary of $67,290 in May 2020. The BLS projects 7% career growth for these workers from 2020-2030 — about as fast as the national average.

Private detectives and investigators earned a lower median annual salary of $53,320. However, the BLS projects 13% career growth from 2020-2030, which is faster than the national average.

A criminal investigator's salary potential can vary depending on their location, level of experience, and level of education.

Frequently Asked Questions About Criminal Investigators

Can you become a criminal investigator without being a cop?

Professionals who want to work as criminal investigators within the police force must go through the police academy and serve time as a police officer. Professionals who do not wish to become a cop first may pursue a career as a private detective.

However, many private detectives do have previous experience in law enforcement, even though it is not required. Professionals who do not have past experience in law enforcement should strongly consider earning additional certification to prepare for and advance within their careers.

Do you need to go to university to become a criminal investigator?

No, criminal investigators do not need a postsecondary degree for this profession. In general, criminal investigators only need a high school diploma or GED certificate. However, educational requirements differ depending on the state, the employer, and the specific role.

Though not required, many professionals pursue an associate degree or bachelor's degree in criminal justice. These degrees prepare graduates for future careers in law enforcement. Students may also be able to specialize in areas such as cybersecurity or forensic science.

How do you become an FBI criminal investigator?

FBI criminal investigators, also known as FBI special agents, must meet the following qualifications:

  • U.S. citizen or a citizen of a U.S. territory
  • Be between the ages of 23 and 37
  • Hold a valid driver's license
  • Hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited postsecondary institution in the U.S.
  • Have at least two years of professional experience
  • Meet FBI special agent fitness standards
  • Must be able to obtain Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance

Previous law enforcement experience is not required to join the FBI.

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