When considering a career as a detective, it is important to check the individual requirements of the jurisdiction where you expect to work. Some police departments will require detectives to have a university degree while others may only require some college courses or even just a high school diploma.
In many police departments a detective position is a promotion made after an officer has served several years on patrol. This usually means the detective has only had to meet the minimum academic requirements needed to be hired as a police officer. Most police departments in the United States either require a new recruit to have completed their high school equivalency or to have received 60 college semester credits. However, some departments are more specific and want their detectives to have completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Also keep in mind in large urban centers there will be more competition to fill detective positions and a higher education may give you an edge in the promotion process even if it is not required.
Most police departments do not directly state what degrees their detectives should complete. However, candidates should focus their studies in areas relevant to law enforcement. Many colleges and universities offer degrees in law enforcement studies, criminal justice, criminology or forensics. If those degrees are not available, students should consider pursuing a degree in law, psychology or sociology, which will provide them with important foundations for a job in law enforcement. Coursework in politics will also give students exposure to legislation and law as well as critical thinking and analysis. Meanwhile, some focus in computer studies or sciences will provide a technical edge that can be important for detectives in working with lab technicians and forensics units in solving a crime.
Candidates should keep in mind an education is only one of the qualifications needed to be a detective. The education requirement may also sometimes be waived, particularly for candidates with military service. Beyond education, the minimum requirements to be hired as a police officer in the U.S. include being at least 21 years old and a resident of the jurisdiction of the police department. Potential officers go through a vigorous hiring process that includes medical, physical and psychological testing. Recruits also have to complete police academy training before being hired. Most officers will serve as a patrol officer for two to five years before being promoted to a detective. Some police departments will require candidates to pass a written detective’s exam before they can be considered for promotion.
The median annual salary of a detective in 2012 was $74,300, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment of police officers and detectives is expected to grow about 7 percent from 2010 to 2020. The BLS says competition for law enforcement jobs will be stiff at the state and federal level but opportunities locally will also be available.
Based in Toronto, J.A. Zander has worked as a full-time journalist since 2004. Zander's work has appeared in Canadian and American magazines, newspapers and websites.