#23: What is it like to be a private investigator? The 7 things I wish I knew before becoming a private investigator.

What is it like to be a private investigator?  This should be the question you if you are interested in this line of work.  A private investigation career has its good points and its bad points.  Typically I think the bad points stand out more than the good points. With that being said, I probably would not be in this career unless there was something good to say about it.  Just because I talk about some of the struggles in this  industry does not mean it isn’t a good industry to be in.

When interviewing a candidate for a position as a  private investigator, I believed the best thing I could do for that potential employee who is new to the industry, is try to talk them out of the job.  If they still show interest after our conversation, then they moved on in the hiring process.

Years ago I was a supervisor with a nation-wide investigative company.  When interviewing a candidate for a position as a  private investigator, I believed the best thing I could do for that potential employee who is new to the industry, is try to talk them out of the job.  If they still show interest after our conversation, then they moved on in the hiring process.

To begin with what it’s like to be a private investigator, I am going to share some insight into some of the things that I know other investigators have disliked and some of the things I disliked about this profession. So here are some reasons you might not want to be a private investigator in no specific order.

#1.) No Set Schedule

Whether you have your own private investigation business or you work for a company you will have to be incredibly flexible with your schedule.  You can get a call to work unexpectedly for an assignment on the same day as the call, or you may have to work unexpectly longer hours during a surveillance.  You may travel several hours to a surveillance assignment and be out of town for several days.  Then just when the assignment is about to be complete the client will ask you to stay a few more days away from home.  Let me be the first to tell you this is extremely hard on a family.

If you turn down an assignment as a business owner, that client will be forced to take their business elsewhere.  When taking their business elsewhere they will likely be able to find a company that will not turn down assignments and you may never see work from that client again.

So basically picture a lifestyle where it is very difficult to plan anything due to the flexibility that a private investigator must have.  Imagine missing holidays, birthdays and being away from home for extended periods of time.  Much of this is in reference to the life of a surveillance investigator and even a domestic investigator dealing with cheating spouse cases.  Investigators supporting attorneys may have a bit more of a normal lifestyle with less travel, but there will be extended unpredictable hours of operation.

#2.)  Some Danger Involved

You might not think there is any danger associated with this industry but I can tell you first hand that there is plenty of it.  Private Investigators supporting attorney’s with gathering evidence might not find themselves in positions of danger as often as a surveillance investigator.

Insurance Fraud investigators will likely find their dangerous moments with aggressive claimants, witnesses and/or neighbors.  Early in my private investigation career I found myself being caught (the person I was watching figured out I was watching them) quite a bit.  Much of it was due to inexperience and enthusiasm.  Once the individual realizes they were being followed they are likely to make it very apparent that they know you are there.  Some individuals have followed me for extended periods and in once case approached me with a gun.  Some of my fellow coworkers in the past have been blocked in to a parking spot by the individual’s vehicle, or had knives pulled out on them.  These are just some of my experiences.  These types of situations can be very traumatizing to an investigator or anyone for that matter.  This is something to consider when conducting surveillance.

#3.) Uncomfortable Moments 

Being a private investigator requires you to have very many uncomfortable moments.  In surveillance you are required to park in a neighborhood as discreetly as possible.  Neighbors are looking in your vehicle windows, kids are playing around your vehicle, you become extremely paranoid that you are moments away from something bad happening.  In some situations neighbors confront you as to why you are parked in the area and you do your best to justify your presence in the neighborhood with a pretext.  Meanwhile, you are hoping that the person you are watching doesn’t catch wind of you being in the neighborhood and you also hope that the neighbors don’t figure out who you are or who you are watching.

When interviewing claimant’s, or witnesses, there will be uncomfortable moments where there is some defensiveness or hostility on behalf of the individual being interviewed.

#4.) No Dependable Paycheck

Whether you are a business owner or you are working for an agency, you never truly know the amount of work you will receive from week to week.  Most likely you are accustom to a dependable schedule with a check that is the same amount every week.  This is not true for the private investigation industry.  Most private investigators employed with a company will never have a guaranteed paycheck every week unless they are a salaried employee.  Most salaried employees with a private investigation agency work in an office environment.

If you are a field investigator you may work assignments for 1 to 8 hours.  A surveillance might be scheduled for eight hours but you could be compromised, lose them during the investigation, or you might not be able to determine if they are home.  Your day might be completed at the 4 hour mark and either you will have to make up the lost time on another day or the client might ask that you discontinue surveillance efforts and send them a bill.  Essentially your skills

There have been times where I have traveled 4 hours to a case to only work 4 hours and then return home.  This type of day can feel like a waste time but it is part of the job.

#5.) Wear and Tear on your vehicle

If you want to be a surveillance investigator, be prepared to put anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 miles on your vehicle in a given year.  Keep in mind all of the maintenance on your vehicle each year.

There are many companies out there that supply a surveillance vehicle, pay for your fuel or pay you mileage.  In most cases investigators are only paid mileage which is passed on to the client.  If you are a business owner you can pass on the costs to the client or eat some of the cost and write it off at the end of the year.  Just keep in mind that the life of your vehicle will be much shorter as a surveillance investigator.

#6.) It can be expensive

Just simply running a private investigation business can be extremely costly.  Consider gas prices, insurance, maintenance on your vehicle, phone lines, fax lines, office space (if needed), advertisement, purchasing equipment and licensing fees.

If you are working for someone, you typically need to maintain/purchase your own equipment (computer, video camera, covert cameras, computer, cell phone, digital recorder, tri-pod, mono-pod).  If work slows down for the company you are working for, you will either have to live off of what you saved over the year or find something to replace that income temporarily.  This is something I and many other investigators have had to deal with throughout our careers.

#7.)  You are only as good as your last investigation

“You are only as good as your last investigation” is something you will most likely hear throughout your career.  Insurance companies will only remember you “typically” for the last assignment you worked.  If the surveillance you performed was lousy, then that might be how they remember you or the company you work for.  It doesn’t matter how may surveillance cases you knocked out of the park, or how many great interviews you obtained, clients have short memories.  It seems like a tough life to live, but if you keep that in mind with every assignment, you will likely keep the company you are working for, or the client happy.

Exceptions to the rule

Your experience as a private investigator will not be the same as mine or any other investigator.  You will likely feel much of the frustrations I and many other investigators have dealt with over the years.  There are awesome and gratifying experiences as a private investigator, but I believe in preparing for the worst parts and enjoying the good moments as they come.

That wraps up some general issues with the industry that you should be prepared for.  There are plenty of other topics I could have discussed but I will save it for a future post.  Thank you for reading and be safe.

 If you have any questions or just want to say hi, be sure to stop by my Facebook page.  I don’t talk about this page much but its a good way to get your questions answered quickly.  Be sure to click the LIKE  button to keep in touch.

If you would like to known how much Private Investigators Make, Click Here.

32 comments

  1. Spot on! Of course, I would add a bit about how the majority of potential private clients are either tyrekickers or barking mad but, as you stated, individual experiences may vary.

    • Yes I agree. There are potential clients with a variety of personalities and requests. That is just another perk of running a business :). There are several areas of specialization that could keep someone from getting too many calls of that nature. Screening clients is an article all by itself.

  2. Great article on promoting the realities of the business. (Fix the typo in your headline – “knew”)

    One point – there is no reason to not have dependable income in this business, even in a down economy. While this is not a business where you can predict future income, you and INSURE your future income with an effective marketing that you consistently put into practice. If your marketing is hit and miss then you can expect your income to follow the same erratic pattern.

    We’ve opened three new offices in the last two years which is arguably the worst economy any of us have experienced.

    Keep up the articles – I enjoy reading them as they reflect the reality of what we do!

    • Thanks Atlanta for the kind words and the typo catch :). That is what I get for not proof reading it a second time. Congrats on the growth of your company even in a tough economy.

  3. That is an awesome list, great job.

  4. Andrew, this review is awesome! After reading the post it makes me want to be a PI even more. The unknown is what makes me excited. In your other article I mentioned that I am in career transition from corporate to PI. After I pass the state license exam late this year I am going to search for entry level employment which I recall you saying in a different blog can be very challenging. Are you aware of any national firms that do business in Texas that could be a starting point for a rookie? I have 12 years experience in sales, customer service, and have an extreme passion to begin a PI career. I also have a Bachelors in Business. Any advice for my situation? Thanks.

    • I think one of the biggest questions for many new investigators is how to get your foot in the door. My post “How to build experience and land a PI job” covers some of the way to build experience that is needed. The bachelors in business (in my opinion) is a good feather to have in your cap when trying to get hired on with a company. There are many nation wide insurance investigation companies that conduct business in Texas. I recently came across a company that was hiring interns with their company. I don’t know if that was in Texas but it would be a good starting point. This company’s website is ICS

      Many smaller firms are willing to bring surveillance investigators on board with little experience, however the pay will be lower. You have inspired me to write an article on this topic in the future.

  5. Thanks for the lead! I applied for an intern position on their website. I will let you know if they contact me. I look forward to your future articles.

  6. Andrew,

    Thanks so much for the article. I’m currently a senior in high school and I am interesting in becoming a Private Investigator. The only thing i’m unsure of is whether I should get an Associates degree or Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice. I don’t have much time to decide. I can start filling out college application now, but i’m waiting to find out more. If you could please let me know I would greatly appreciate it. So I can find out faster could you please email me? Thanks. -Tyler

  7. Andrew,
    I’m about to turn 21 and took a couple years off of college (mistake!). I am thinking about being a PI but I have no idea where to start. Is a college degree in Criminal Justice (or any other field) required? I’ve read about some of the licensing requirements in TN, but I keep finding differing opinions. Please help! 🙂

    • Hi Alexa,

      Before pursing this line of work I would first read some articles that I have written for those interested in this line of work or listen to podcasts #2, #3, and #4. From the little licensing research I have done with other states, a college degree is not required. What a degree can do is supplement experience requirements in some states. If you haven’t already done so go to the licensing website for TN and reach out to the Tennessee association of licensed investigators. They should be able to answer licensing questions for you state. Here are some links: http://tn.gov/commerce/boards/pi/pirReq.shtml and http://www.talpi.org/. Subscribe to the P.I. Advice Podcast and to this blog. Let me know how those resources work out for you.

      Andrew

  8. I am trying to figure out if I would like to become a PI or a cop and I currently cannot figure out wich I would enjoy more so I have doing some research. If I were to get my PI lisence and open my own business, what kind of work do you think is more likely to come my way?

    • Hi Rachel,

      I am not quite sure what you mean when you ask what kind of work will come your way. Potentially no work will come your way if your a private investigator. Just because you open for business doesn’t mean work comes in. You have to hustle for it, be good at it, and build relationships. And that doesn’t happen overnight.

      Why do you want to be a private investigator or a police officer?

  9. Hi Andrew!I like all your comments.I’m interested in a PI career;if I take the course at a technical school,would that be enough education for me to find employment or do I have to have a criminal justice degree?

    • Hi Frantz,

      You must look at the requirements for your area. If in the United States then check the licensing requirements for your state. I don’t know a whole lot about the requirements in other countries.

  10. Hi.Andrew I am Betty Lawrence from South-Africa .in Limpopo Polokwane . I am still new as a P.I and very interested to be come a good P.I…and i like all your comments it encourage me more to work in that field….I did apply for a Senior Investigator post.I knew with all this comment I will go far.Thanks

    • Hi Betty. I wish you much luck with you Private Investigator Journey and your recent a application for a Senior Investigator Post. Let me know how it goes!

      Andrew

  11. Great tips if you want to become a private investigator. I like everything that was said and was a great read.

    Troy

  12. Ive had an itch to be a PI since i was a child. I’m twenty-eight and looking into a PI school/course. The law interests me as Ive also contemplated a career as a lawyer. I have some school under my belt but no degrees as of right now. I guess my question is once i get my state license, knowing i don’t have a degree, is it still possible for me to obtain work? Or will it be a significant obstacle to get around? I realize they won’t fall into my lap, but assuming I can find POTENTIAL clients.. will I be able to persuade them to hire me with no degree or experience? Once I have a client or two or three I plan to hopefully have made that process easier due to my small but growing history of hopefully happy customers. Thanks for your feedback if you get to me… id prefer an email, Ive never been on this site before but its very enticing, kudos.

    • Hi John,

      I don’t know what state you are in (assuming you are in the US). But if you are in a state that allows you to get your PI License (for your own business) then it really just comes down to you marketing yourself to find clients.

      I would recommend trying to work for someone first to gain some experience so you can learn different aspects of the job to provide a quality product to future clients when you have your own business.

      Andrew

  13. Hi Andrew,
    Great article! I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a private investigator but I don’t think I’ll be able to. As fun and dangerous as it sounds, my parents would never allow it. They want me to be a doctor. (I’m still in school by the way)
    I’m writing a story in which the main character is a private investigator and I was wondering if private investigators have connections with the police or ‘underground’ people like you see on TV. I’m asking you as I want the story to be as realistic as possible.

    Thanks

    • Some private investigator’s are prior law enforcement and may have friends that help them with information that they might not normally get. I have police officer friends and family members but it doesn’t help me get away with anything. I don’t have connections with “underground” people and most private investigator’s don’t. Police officers are more likely to have connections with people on the streets then a private investigator would. We in many different cities and states and usually we are not trying to be noticed for the most part.

      If we are openly trying to find out information (find witnesses or evidence) we (generally speaking) don’t have contacts on the streets. We as private investigator’s are information gatherers. Some specialize in different things but for the most part we collect information.

      As for your career path, being a doctor doesn’t sound to bad. Saving lives and keeping people healthy is a great occupation!

      Just because you are going to be a doctor doesn’t mean you can’t follow this website, podcast or watch my videos. Maybe being a private investigator can be a hobby or side job once you have become a doctor.

      Andrew

      • Thanks Andrew, your feedback really helps. I’m actually not in America or ever been there for that matter but that doesn’t matter.
        As for the doctor thing, I’ve been trying to talk my parents out of it so they said I could get any well paying job that could support a family. A doctor is too much work and I would never have time to do hobbies so I’m looking for a job that lets me have time to do other things, like writing. Being a doctor seems like a good thing saving lives and all but it’s very taxing. Being a part time PI seems ok, I’ll look into it.

  14. I have worked in private investigation for 26 years. I have worked solely in the insurance defense industry and have avoided the domestic and criminal defense cases. In my 26 years, I have worked for independent “mom & pop” companies to regional sized companies to some of the largest national companies. For the last 2 years, I partnered up with 2 other individuals and we operate a successful regional company that also has a lot of nationwide clients. I learned in the beginning of my career to save money for a rainy day. What I’m about to tell you applies to Surveillance Investigators. As most investigators can agree on….it’s crazy-ass busy during the Spring, Summer and early Fall months. The days are long and it’s not unusual to work 12 to 14 hour days. The overtime is GREAT. As a beginning investigator, I recommend putting yourself on a strict budget and sticking to that budget. Stick to the budget and save all your overtime earnings. Trust me….it will get you through the slow winter months, which are normally November thru February. If you are fortunate to work for a company that reimburses you for mileage, take half your mileage reimbursement and put it back into your general bank account (for gas and maintenance and repairs) and put the other half into that savings account where you bank your overtime earnings. Here is an example: You drive 2000 miles in a month. Your company reimburses you $0.50/mile. You will be reimbursed $1000 tax free dollars. Since I have always chosen to drive fuel efficient vehicles (Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, etc) for surveillance, I might spend at the most $400-$450 a month in gas. So out of that $1000 mileage reimbursement, I put $500 into my general bank account and $500 into savings. Let me tell you, if you save your overtime earnings and put half your mileage reimbursement in savings…..at the end of the year you will open your bank statement and be pleasantly surprised. On average, I would generally save $12,000 – $15,000 a year sticking to this formula. But again, this requires sticking to a set budget and being disciplined. Now obviously, if you have a newer model car, you can go years without any high dollar repairs. If you drive a high mileage vehicle, you will see your savings dwindle as you are constantly dumping money into vehicle repairs.

    Another factor to consider when dealing with an inconsistent workload…..who are you working for??? If you work for a small “mom & pop” company that is operating from a bedroom in their home and they only have 1 or 2 field investigators, chances are the work will dry up during the Winter months and will probably be inconsistent during the busy season. If you can get your foot in the door with a well known regional company or nationwide company, the odds are A LOT better that you will always have consistent work hours, reimbursed mileage and a lot of overtime hours during the busy season. Some of the better known national companies that hire inexperienced/green investigators are ICS Merrill, G4S, HUB Enterprises, Global Options and Veracity Research Company (VRC). Some of the bigger regional companies (in California) are Horsemen, Apex, Frasco and RJN. These regional companies will sometimes hire inexperienced/green investigators. Their job postings typically say “Trainee”. I recommend getting hired at a national company, learn the ropes, put up with the abuse for a year or two and then try to get hired at a regional company.

    • Well said Dennis. Agree with everything you said. Thank you for the thoughtful comment sharing some great advice!

      Andrew

      • Thank you Andrew. This is a GREAT website. For the last 8 years and still currently, I have had an active role in recruiting, hiring, training and development of new surveillance investigators. With your blessing, I would like to include a link to your website in my training procedure manual. There is a lot of good information on your website that I feel would be extremely beneficial to a new/green investigator. Of course I would credit your name with the link/website. I am not one to plagiarize another persons work product. I believe in giving credit where credit is due. Keep up the good work with this website.

  15. Hi Andrew,

    This is an awesome and informative website. I am currently in the process of obtaining my PI license in the state of TN.
    How can get in touch with you if I have questions I’d like to ask? I am unable to locate your FB page.

    • You can get to my FB page through main page of my website. I you have questions you can ask through my contact page or my FB page.

      Andrew

  16. Hello Andrew,
    I am a bachelors prepared nurse with a 15 year career combining bedside experience, and more recently in health consulting. I live in the state of Kansas but not far from the Missouri state line. In terms of my career I must admit that nursing, although rewarding in many ways, has never left me feeling as though I had found my calling. I, like another reader, have dreamt of a PI career since childhood. My favorite games revolved around mysteries and following clues. Now I am at a point in life where I am considering a drastic career change. Recognizing I am older (late thirties) and I have no PI training of any kind, nor any connections or relevant experience in field investigations (i.e. survalence), how do you recommend I market myself to a potential employer? I’ve seen previous advice from you that smaller firms are more willing to welcome onboard investigators with little experience. What specifically are these firms or others seeking in a job candidate?

    Kelly

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