How to become a criminal investigator (including skills)

Updated 30 June 2023

A criminal investigator is an integral part of law enforcement and represents a more specialised role within the police force. Law enforcement is a broad career path, with plenty of opportunities to specialise and experience different day-to-day roles. Knowing how to become a criminal investigator can help you decide if you want to pursue a career. In this article, we explore what a criminal investigator is, how to become a criminal investigator and the skills that may help to excel in this position.

What is a criminal investigator?

Criminal investigators are law enforcement professionals who specialise in solving crimes through crime scene analysis, sourcing evidence and critical thinking. A criminal investigator works either for or alongside a police force with the intention of supporting them in catching criminals via evidence gathering, forensic analysis and giving evidence in court. Criminal investigation is a specialised role that focuses on the details of a case rather than performing arrests.

Criminal investigators play a vital role in bringing suspects to justice as they're often the ones who provide the evidence for the judge to make a ruling. A criminal investigator may choose to specialise in more advanced work further on in their career. It's common for an investigator to consider specialising in different fields such as cybercrime or forensics depending on their own experience and skill level. While criminal investigators may work in a desk or lab environment, it's not uncommon for them to also work in the field when gathering evidence.

Related: How to become a crime scene investigator

How to become a criminal investigator

Learning how to become a criminal investigator entails building a range of skills and experience in law enforcement. Building relevant skills and demonstrating a passion for the field can help you stand out during the application process. The following steps may help you become a criminal investigator:

1. Research the role

Starting a criminal investigator position requires a number of different soft and hard skills, many of which are employed in high-pressure, stressful situations. Before you begin building your application and reviewing potential job roles, take the time to research the profession, any qualifications that may be necessary, the training you may undergo and how you might respond to some of the pressures of the position. This allows you to visualise how you're going to get to the position of a criminal investigator, including the skills and training you may undertake.

Related: 33 HMRC criminal investigator job interview questions

2. Earn a degree

While not all criminal investigators have a formal education, it largely depends on the police force and the position you're applying for. All roles require a secondary education and many ask for evidence of A-levels. If you have a degree in a field such as forensics or criminology, your application may be more appealing compared to other applicants. These degrees help an individual build the right skills and knowledge to be successful in the role, learning more about criminal behaviour and how an investigator may find and use evidence correctly.

3. Build your CV

If you want to experience success in becoming a criminal investigator, consider building your CV before applying for a position. Your CV may highlight relevant skills that relate to the job description, while also demonstrating any useful qualifications. If you have a higher-education degree, mention this near the top of your CV so any screening recruiters can identify your specialist knowledge.

Base the layout of your CV in a way that shows the most relevant information first and then works down. You may consider tailoring your CV and cover letter to each individual position that you apply for. By creating a bespoke cover letter, you can highlight your potential for a role while also demonstrating that you have the right qualities to work in law enforcement. This is the ideal opportunity to also show your work ethic to potential recruiters, a key part of building trust with new employers.

Related:

  • Crime scene investigator (CSI) CV skills and how to improve

  • What is the average salary of a private investigator?

4. Undergo a background check

A key part of working in any form of law enforcement is first undergoing a background check. This proves that you're fit for a position in the field, while also highlighting any previous convictions you may have. Although a criminal record doesn't always result in a failed application, it may mean declaring any previous convictions. Background checks are mandatory for any position in the law enforcement sector.

5. Work in an internship position

Internships and entry-level positions can help an individual build experience and open up the door to potential opportunities within the criminal investigation career path. These positions often provide an aspiring investigator with the chance to learn from more senior forensic investigators, with the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the process of sourcing evidence. You may consider extending an internship to gain more experience or use the experience you've built to earn a full-time position.

6. Earn a full-time position

Once you start working in a full-time position, take the time to learn more about different advancements in the field of criminal investigation. This allows you to stay relevant within the role and raises the potential for success going forward. You can also use this time to build your network of contacts, which can lead to career advancement opportunities in the future and the potential for collaboration. During your time as a criminal investigator, take the time to apply for any development courses that allow you to expand your professional skill set.

7. Build on your transferable skills

Being a criminal investigator requires a mix of transferable, emotional skills and specialist training. These soft skills allow a criminal investigator to effectively gather and analyse evidence for different cases, which can lead to justice for criminals. You can build your skills in a number of roles and during your time as a criminal investigator.

Related: Transferable skills: definitions and examples

What skills does a criminal investigator benefit from?

The core skills for a criminal investigator include the ability to analyse large amounts of evidence and data and knowing how to apply critical thinking skills to link this evidence with key points within the case. It's crucial that a criminal investigator also utilises these skills in potentially stressful situations that require a calm head and the ability to work to tight deadlines. The core skills a criminal investigator needs are:

Analysis

Analytical skills allow a criminal investigator to properly analyse a crime scene and the associated evidence, with the intent of linking it to a case. These skills help an investigator properly understand how evidence may link together and how that relates to the wider case. Since cases may include multiple crime scenes and pieces of evidence, analytical skills help an investigator stay on task and measure how they're all linked.

Related: Comprehensive guide to starting a criminal justice career

Attention to detail

It's crucial to have detail-oriented skills as this allows them to spot inconsistencies in evidence, case files or other vital parts of an investigation. Having good attention to detail may help an investigator effectively record evidence they find such as blood samples and help them when writing up their reports and presenting their findings back to superiors or a court proceeding. An investigator may utilise both attention-to-detail skills alongside critical-thinking skills to ensure an efficient and thorough investigation.

Composure

As with most law enforcement roles, pressure is a necessary part of the field. A criminal investigator often has to experience stressful or distressing circumstances and still remain calm at all times. It may help an investigator to remain detached from any high-pressure situations and in the majority of cases, well-being and health services are available to help them work through particularly challenging cases. It's crucial for an investigator to remain realistic about what they may face and understand the potential for pressure.

Related: How to reduce anxiety in the workplace (with steps)

Confidentiality

For a criminal investigator, confidentiality is a key part of the role. It's useful for the safety of the case that an investigator keeps any evidence they find confidential. If evidence in an active case was to leak, it may cause significant damage to the success of the case and obstruct the potential for justice. An investigator has to respect the chain of evidence and follow strict regulations about handling, storing and retrieving evidence.

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