Movies often make the life of a private investigator look incredibly exciting and even glamorous at times, and while that might be the case sometimes, the reality of being a private investigator can be quite different. The career path that private investigators go down and how they get their jobs varies. What they all have in common, however, is a desire to uncover the truth.

This guide outlines what you need to know before pursuing a career as a private investigator.

What does a private investigator do?

Contrary to what you see in the movies, most private investigators are employed by an organization to conduct investigations on their behalf. For example, they might be employed by a security service, law firm, insurance company, or a financial institution. There are, however, some self-employed private investigators that are able to pick and choose their own clients and work for them on a contract basis. This route will usually provide more variety and a greater level of control over the kind of work that they take on. They may choose to work for a private individual on a personal matter, a lawyer looking for evidence for their case, or an insurance company.

Generally speaking, a private investigator will gather information through research using documents, public records, computers, surveillance, and more to find out the truth about a person or situation. They might interview people and collect witness statements, look into potential cases of fraud, verifying employment applications or conduct background checks, or look for evidence that might be helpful in criminal proceedings. Others might look into matters for a family court such as child custody or support conflicts, workplace investigations, missing persons, or accusations of infidelity.

The terms ‘private investigator’ and ‘private detective’ are often used interchangeably, but you may find that some licensing bodies will prefer one term to the other.

How much does a private investigator earn?

Private investigation is an expanding and evolving field of work, with demand increasing all the time. This is good news from a financial point of view, as private investigators can earn a high salary. According to Indeed, the average hourly rate for a private investigator is $23.90 per hour, and annual salaries can reach in excess of $100,000. The more experience and formal qualifications that you have, the more you can charge for your services.

What are the pros and cons of being a private investigator?

There are plenty of reasons to consider a career as a private investigator. Of course, there will be times of fast-paced activity, exciting discoveries, and plenty of job satisfaction when your investigations discover the truth. However, it is also important to note that there is a quieter side to the job. Sometimes surveillance can take hours, days, or weeks to complete, and it will not always be successful. Investigations will suffer complications and setbacks, which require resilience and patience.

Working as a self-employed private investigator gives you the power to choose which clients you take on and to organize your own working hours. This flexibility and autonomy can be a great advantage for some people, but it requires a high level of self-motivation and discipline.

Of course, there is no better feeling than managing to solve a client’s problem or resolve a situation, and that can bring a great sense of professional satisfaction, especially if you are helping to bring deception or immoral behaviour to the surface.

What qualifications does a private investigator need?

To become a private investigator, you must be 19 years of age or older and have a clean criminal record. You should also have a high level of language proficiency in the relevant area. In most provinces in Canada, private investigators need to complete a government-approved licensing course and obtain a certain number of hours of experience as a beginner.

While it is generally not a requirement, many private investigators find that completing a degree in a related field such as criminology, private investigation, or law enforcement can provide them with additional knowledge and skills. This can make a private investigator more appealing to an employer and can increase their earning potential.

Lots of private investigators come to the job after a career in the police force or as a lawyer, as they already have lots of the skills required for effective investigation, evidence gathering, and interviewing witnesses.

What makes a successful private investigator?

In theory, anyone can complete the relevant degrees and get a license as a private investigator, but becoming a successful private investigator requires something else. To ensure that you will enjoy the career and have the right character, it is important to spend some time in self-reflection. Some qualities may already come naturally to you, while others may require some development.

  • Do you have the patience and determination to spend hours conducting surveillance and carrying out research?
  • Do you have the energy, self-discipline, and stubbornness to pursue an investigation even when it looks like a hopeless case?
  • Are you good with detail and skilled at spotting clues that others might overlook?
  • Do you find it easy to read people’s body language and sense their emotional state?
  • Can you solve problems quickly and under pressure? Are you able to innovate and think creatively when solutions are not obvious?
  • Are you confident and adaptable enough to interact and communicate with people from all walks of life?
  • Can you be trusted with sensitive information, and are you comfortable delving into the personal lives of your clients and/or the people you have been asked to investigate?

If you can answer yes to these questions and think of situations in your career or personal life when you have exhibited these skills, you may be well on your way to a successful career as a private investigator. If you are not sure, it may be worth looking into some courses in self-development or soft skills like communication and negotiation that might help you to become a more effective private investigator.

If you are interested in this career option, then getting the right qualifications and skills is essential. It will take hard work and time, but if you are passionate about it, you should find the process itself enjoyable.