by Brendan Burke
Private investigation is a great career choice for young people just getting started in the work world. Here’s why.
1. It doesn’t require a college education (but your degree is useful, too).
If you already have a college or university education, that’s great! Research and writing are critical skills for any investigator. But if you just want to get started in this career, don’t think you need to go to college. While certain specialities might require a specialized background, there isn’t a specific post-secondary field of study that will make you into an expert PI.*
An investigator is a like a tradesperson: the best education comes from doing the work.
You probably already have some experience that would be useful. Even if your background is “just” retail or serving, that means you know about inventory, reconciling, dealing with the public, thinking on your feet, and handling cash. Any work experience at all means you know how to be reliable, punctual, trustworthy, and people-focused.
These are all good attributes to have, because PIs are in a service business.
Your work experience can apply in other ways. For example, if you ever have to work undercover in a place of business, experience in that type of workplace will go a long way in helping you fit in. PIs often go undercover in workplaces to do drug, theft, harassment, and other types of investigations. So diversity of experience and background is a good thing in this field.
Give serious thought to how the skills and attributes you have developed can be useful in an investigator’s work—collecting, processing, and disseminating information—and how you can be flexible and creative. No matter what type of investigations you conduct, this is the job: approaching a problem in an organized way and using your brainpower to solve it.
*note: Each state has its own requirements for working as a private investigator—some require licensing and/or different kinds of previous experience. Be sure and research the laws in your state before hanging a shingle.
2. It’s different every day, and you can make a real difference.
Most of my work is criminal defense. In working homicide, robberies, and sexual assault cases, I’ve collected physical evidence, interviewed witnesses, and helped lawyers prepare for trial. But the great thing about this job is you can do a lot of different things, and no two cases are the same. In addition to my criminal defense work, I’ve done everything from background checks for major corporate clients, to romance scam investigations, to reuniting estranged family members.
I don’t work a lot of domestic cases, but it felt pretty good when I helped a father get custody of his kids. He was a decent, hardworking guy, and the mother was unstable, involved with hard drugs and sketchy people. I conducted witness interviews and collected physical and video evidence to show the conditions the kids were living in. It remains one of my most interesting cases. I got to use all my different PI skills together, and it had a happy ending.
3. You won’t be micromanaged.
New investigators often get their start with surveillance files. You’ll be given clear instructions, but (in my experience) you won’t be micromanaged. You’ll be expected to think on your feet and act quickly—no small feat, especially when surveillance goes mobile, which it often does in insurance fraud investigations.
A week of 12-hour shifts can seem like a drag, until something happens and it really is exciting. It really can be like a Hollywood movie.
Some people really enjoy surveillance investigations, and you may well be one of these people. It’s what people most often imagine when they think of a PI’s job, because it’s the bulk of the work out there.
A good surveillance investigator will have a good career. You can stay busy and make good money. Not a bad place to start. And you won’t be spending your days in a cubicle.
4. The industry needs fresh perspectives and ideas.
Social media investigation is a hot topic in this business, but it’s really not so different than using the Yellow Pages or Polk City Directory, the way my predecessors did back in the day. To me, it’s always been part of an investigation.
Even though I grew up with the Web, IRC and ICQ, I didn’t grow up with Snapchat, Kik, or Instagram. If you are in your 20s, you are much more “native” to these ecosystems, their culture, and their quirks. An older PI might not think to check activity on a Steam account.
I’m in my mid-30s; technically I’m a millennial too. I’ve been in the industry for the better part of a decade, and I’m relatively young for a business owner in the PI field. But before long, I will be a crusty old investigator who doesn’t understand why the kids are obsessed with their neural implants and robot companions. Social media in its current form may well become the Polk City Directory of 2049.
The private investigation business will always need fresh ideas and new ways to do things. Those ideas might come from you.
About the author:
Brendan Burke is a private investigator specializing in criminal defense, accredited investigation trainer, and owner of Gilliam Burke Investigations. He has been featured in Mental Floss magazine and on CBC Radio.