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What Is the Difference Between a Police Detective and an FBI Agent?

by Beth Greenwood, studioD

Although FBI agents and police detectives are both law enforcement officers, their jobs are very different. In addition, since FBI agents are federal officers, they must meet a single standard in terms of education, experience and physical qualifications, while requirements for police detectives can vary from one state or jurisdiction to another.

Differences in Education

An FBI agent, more commonly called a special agent, must be a citizen of either the United States or the Northern Mariana Islands. You must be at least 23 years old but not older than 37, although, if you are an eligible veteran, you might be granted a special waiver. Finally, you must be able to take an assignment anywhere within the FBI’s jurisdiction. Special agents must have a bachelor’s degree and at least three years of relevant work experience. Police detectives must be U.S. citizens and at least 21 years old, according to the BLS. A high school or GED diploma is required, and you must graduate from the agency’s training academy. O*Net Online notes that 21 percent of police detectives held a college degree in 2010, and 27 percent had completed some college but did not have a degree.

Differences in Work

FBI agents work in the intelligence, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, criminal or cybercrimes divisions. They may also be part of hostage-rescue operations. Special agents can qualify in accounting, computer science or information technology, language or a category called diversified. The FBI sometimes recruits agents in other fields, such as engineering, finance or physical sciences. The primary job of a police detective is to investigate crimes. They gather facts, collect evidence, conduct interviews, observe suspects and participate in raids or arrests, according to the BLS. Most detectives specialize in crimes such as homicide, gang-related activities, robbery, auto theft or fraud. They prepare investigative reports, testify in court, and may travel to other parts of the country or overseas to extradite suspects.


Both professions tend to be male-dominated. Approximately 80 percent of the officers and agents are male. The FBI had more than 2,600 women agents as of October 2012, just under 20 percent of all special agents. Women comprise 22.8 percent of police detectives and investigators, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Lie detector tests, background checks, drug tests and extensive interviews are part of the employment process for both police detectives and special agents. Both are required to have a driver’s license.

It's Your Call

FBI agents have a national focus and may be assigned anywhere in the nation or even overseas, while police detectives typically remain in the area where they are hired. More education and work experience are required for an FBI officer than a police detective, although requirements for detectives vary depending on the state or jurisdiction. The FBI offers more opportunities for people trained in occupations other than law enforcement. Each career offers opportunities for advancement.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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