Today is career day. This post is for all the people out there that are thinking about becoming a private investigator.
I’ve been doing investigative work for well over 40 years. My career began as a Federal agent. I then moved on to form my own agency, Martin Investigative Services. We now have locations in Newport Beach, Los Angeles, San Diego and Mission Viejo, California.
I have to say: It has been, and continues to be, a fun and fulfilling ride.
Here are some thoughts I have for those considering a career in private investigation.
It’s not romantic
Every TV show and movie ever made about private investigators has gotten it wrong. I have often said, “It is more like Colombo than it is Magnum.”
There are only rare moments of glamour. Much of PI work is sheer drudgery, involving hours upon hours of surveillance, interviews and computer work.
It doesn’t pay well
Most private investigators don’t make a whole lot of money, especially in the beginning. In fact, you might end up doing a great deal of work for not much more than minimum wage. Granted, money isn’t everything, but a lot of people think it’s way ahead of whatever is in second place.
If you think job satisfaction will outweigh the low income, then go for it. As you gain experience, you may end up making more money, but at the entry level, private investigation can be a very hard way to make a living.
Not every case is extraordinary
In the beginning, I didn’t have any money, so I had to take any case that I could. Sometimes I refer to this as how I established a “full-service investigative agency.”
My first case was given to me by another private investigator. The client had been convicted of raping his step-daughter. My initial gut reaction was that this guy was guilty as sin, but as I had nothing else to do, I looked into the case further. It turned out that the guy was innocent, he had been set up by his wife and his step-daughter, and the step-daughter was dating the district attorney who had convicted the father.
Pretty good first case, but you rarely get cases like that. Most of the time, things are pretty straightforward. The business owner suspects employees are stealing, and you find them. The wife suspects her husband is cheating on her, and she’s right.
Do you have any experience?
Most private investigators are former law enforcement agents. Do you know when you’re operating within the law and when you might have stepped outside the boundaries? Perhaps you’ve worked as a paralegal or as an insurance investigator.
Can you work ridiculously long hours?
You have to watch people when there’s actually something to see. If you can’t watch a cheating husband who’s visiting his girlfriend at 6am when he’s supposedly out jogging because YOU have to sleep in, you’re not PI material. If you can’t observe a night watchman who might be engaging in corporate espionage at 2am, go back to bed and find another career. And if you’re not okay with sitting behind the wheel of your car all day long, not even taking a bathroom break, so you can catch a deadbeat dad as he comes out of his house, give your career options a second thought.
First step: Get your license
The general first-step is to contact the governing agency in the state where you reside that oversees the licensing of private investigators. Get an informational packet and see what the requirements are to sit and take the licensing exam. Without a license, you will go nowhere fast.
Do not spend your hard earned money on a school that allegedly will help you get your license. Their certificate is useless in the real world. Ask them how many graduates received jobs after the completion of the course.
Be realistic in your career path. Keep in mind there are hundreds of law enforcement officials at every level that immediately qualify to sit for the exam. For example, in California the main requirement is to have 6,000 hours of investigative experience, which is three years of time. You will be competing with those agent and officers who are retiring and want a part-time job, or simply those who want a career change. This is not meant to be discouraging, but a reality and fact check for you when going into the process. Understand from the outset, that you will be in competition with former agents of the DEA, FBI, IRS or Secret Service – as well as a multitude of other former law enforcement officials.
Sometimes being a PI seems like a thankless task, and it’s not for everyone. Personally, it works for me.