Criminal investigators solve crimes by evaluating crime scenes, collecting evidence, and interviewing witnesses and suspects. They work for city, state, or federal agencies and private investigation firms. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that jobs for private investigators will increase by 6% through 2032, while employment of police detectives will increase by 3%.
Becoming a criminal investigator requires a combination of education, experience, and, for specific jobs, police academy training. While earning an online degree isn’t mandatory for this career, it can open doors to various job opportunities and give candidates an edge during the hiring process.
This article reviews how to become a criminal investigator, which online degrees are most beneficial to students who want to pursue these types of jobs and the career and salary outlook for criminal investigators.
Criminal Investigator Education Requirements
The type of education an individual needs to become a criminal investigator depends on their specific work environment.
The minimum education requirement for most criminal investigators working at private firms is a high school diploma or GED. These positions rely on on-the-job training, through shadowing or formal training programs, to give employees the skills to investigate crimes.
Individuals who want to work as investigators for local or state police departments must complete police academy training and have a high school diploma or GED. Police academy training typically takes three to six months and includes training in police strategy, weapon use, criminal and civil law, mental and physical preparation, community collaboration, and investigation techniques.
Although having a college degree isn’t an industry standard for police officers, it is becoming more common for police departments to seek applicants with some college experience. Choosing to pursue a college degree before enrolling in a police academy is a personal decision based on a variety of factors. Still, there are multiple benefits to following this path.
Benefits of earning a degree for criminal investigators
Having a college degree opens up more job opportunities for aspiring criminal investigators. For example, individuals who want to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) must have a bachelor’s degree. At the local and state levels, police departments may prefer to hire or promote individuals who have an associate or bachelor’s degree over those who don’t.
An educational background in criminal justice or a related field will also give students an edge in their police academy training, as they will already be familiar with many of the concepts and skills they’ll further develop in the academy.
The more educated a police officer is, the more likely they are to earn a high salary. According to Salary.com, police officers with an associate degree earn between $61,431 and $63,918, while those with a bachelor’s degree make between $61,807 and $64,336.
Learning about criminal investigation and law enforcement practices in an academic setting also gives students well-rounded training and hands-on learning experience before they enter the field, setting them up for success in a dynamic and fast-paced field.
Best Majors for Criminal Investigators
A forensic science degree focuses on collecting and analyzing evidence, a crucial part of criminal investigations. Students learn to investigate crimes and crime scenes according to the law and analyze and interpret information from crime scenes, including fingerprints, DNA samples, and digital evidence like photos, videos, and audio recordings. This degree combines principles from biological science, criminal justice, and criminology.
Criminal justice degree programs train students in the various aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system, including law enforcement, court systems, and corrections. While it’s essential for criminal investigators to understand how the overall criminal justice system works, those specifically interested in the investigation aspect of criminal justice should seek out a program that specializes in investigative methods and practices.
Criminology studies crime and criminal behaviors and how it impacts society. A criminology degree will help aspiring investigators develop their investigation skills and understand the underlying social, cultural, psychological, and economic factors that can lead to crime. Students in criminology degree programs can focus on particular types of crime, like cybercrime.
Sociologists study human social relationships and institutions, including crime and criminal justice. Earning a sociology degree can build a solid foundation for a career as a criminal investigator, as the curriculum helps students understand the various individual and societal causes of crimes, which can be helpful for investigators as they seek to interpret evidence and understand the motivations for criminal acts. Many sociology programs offer a concentration in criminology, which is considered a subfield of sociology.
While sociology focuses on the big-picture societal causes of crime, forensic psychology seeks to understand the individual behaviors and personalities that lead to criminal acts. Earning a forensic psychology degree can help investigators when interviewing suspects and witnesses, as it equips them with a deeper understanding of why individuals commit crimes and the skills needed to gather evidence and confessions successfully. Forensic psychology is a relatively new subfield, and degree options may be limited, but this is an ideal option for individuals interested in the psychological factors that drive criminal behavior.
Explore Criminal Justice and Related Degree Programs
- Online Associate in Criminal Justice
- Online Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice
- Online Bachelor’s in Criminology
- Online Bachelor’s in Forensic Science and Crime Scene Investigation
- Online Bachelor’s in Forensic Psychology
- Online Master’s in Crime Scene Investigation
- Online Master’s in Criminal Justice
- Online Master’s in Criminology
- Online Master’s in Forensic Science
- Online Master’s in Forensic Psychology
Determine Which Degree Fits Your Needs
Degree programs for the various areas of study that can lead to criminal investigator careers exist at all levels, including associate, bachelor’s, and master’s. Many schools also offer undergraduate and graduate certificates in these areas.
One of the first steps students should take if they’re considering pursuing higher education for their criminal investigation career is determining, based on their current education level, what degree is most appropriate:
|Standard Minimum Completion Time
|Types of Degrees
|Associate of Arts (AA)
Associate of Science (AS)
|— Students with no prior college experience who want to prepare for entry-level jobs
|Bachelor of Arts (BA)
Bachelor of Science (BS)
|— Students with no prior college experience or some undergraduate credits who want to prepare for entry- and mid-level jobs
|Master of Arts (MA)
Master of Science (MS)
|— Students with a bachelor’s degree in a related field who want to advance into high-level positions
— Students with a bachelor’s degree in a non-related field who want to switch careers
|6 month-1 year
|— Students with a bachelor’s degree who want to gain additional skills or switch careers without earning another degree
Criminal Investigator Salary and Career Outlook
According to the BLS, overall employment for private detectives and investigators will increase by 6% through 2032, with demand driven by lawsuits, fraud, and interpersonal mistrust. The BLS predicts that there will be, on average, 3,800 new job openings per year for private detectives and investigators. The median annual wage for private investigators and detectives is $52,120, although individuals who work for the government earn a median annual salary of $64,220.
For detectives who work on police forces and law enforcement agencies, overall employment is expected to increase by 3% over the next decade. There will be about 1,700 new job openings for criminal investigators, on average, each year through 2032, according to the BLS. The median annual wage for criminal investigators and detectives who work for law enforcement agencies is $86,280.
How to Choose the Criminal Investigator Program That’s Right For You
The first step in choosing the program that best suits your needs is to determine what those needs are. Review the different areas of study that will prepare you for a criminal investigation career, and decide which one most closely aligns with your interests and goals. Now is also an excellent time to establish your logistical needs, including whether you’ll enroll full-time or part-time and prefer a synchronous or asynchronous program.
Once you’ve established some parameters, you can begin researching programs by visiting schools’ websites, speaking to program representatives and admissions counselors, following programs on social media, and participating in virtual open houses and information sessions, if available. Be sure to confirm that the programs you’re considering are offered by accredited institutions, as this can affect your eligibility for financial aid, jobs, and future educational opportunities.
During the research process, you should also find out the application process, as this varies based on degree level and individual school. In addition to a completed application and application fee, most schools require official transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, a resume, and SAT or ACT scores.
You’ll also want to confirm the total program cost and what financial aid resources are available, including scholarships, grants, and fellowships. If you want to be considered for federal student aid, including student loans, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students employed while earning their degree can inquire about tuition assistance benefits with their employer.