• Image about Tom Shamshak

Even the best sleuth wouldn’t be able to recognize today’s breed of private investigator.

Julie Triessl feels rejuvenated. The middle-aged former librarian and museum cataloger is happier, is more extroverted, and has even lost 50 pounds. What is the subject of her inspiring new romance? Private investigation. Sitting in her dining room next to a two-foot stack of class materials and personal notes from a seven-course program at Boston University, Triessl is clearly elated to be an investigator and research specialist. “My life hasn’t been the same since,” she says, beaming. “It’s the ultimate research project!”

The term private investigator usually conjures up images of hard-drinking, trench-coat-clad individuals skulking in the shadows and tackling heavies, à la Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, or of the dashing, smooth-talking professional armed with charm, à la Magnum, P.I. But that’s not reality, as Triessl proves. Private investigation is a legitimate, organized business that’s also not easy to crack.

“Most companies won’t even hire you unless you’re ex–law enforcement, ex–Secret Service, or ex-FBI,” reveals Jim Pero, owner of the New England firm A Tech Investigation Services. “It’s a very difficult field to break into. There’s an overwhelming supply of police officers or military police officers who are retiring every single year, so we’re able to obtain them.”

Boston University, though, is helping wannabe gumshoes channel their inner Sam Spade.

The students attending BU’s PI program hail from a variety of backgrounds -- including insurance, finance, engineering, prison security, human resources, social work, and journalism -- and have gone on to numerous jobs at federal and state agencies and respected PI firms.

“We attract an awful lot of women into the program; [women] do not currently make up a huge part of the PI population,” notes Ruth Ann Murray, director of the Center for Professional Education at BU. She was inspired to start the PI course in 2005 after learning that the University of Tennessee had a small but successful program. “I felt that the large number of law practices and insurance companies in Boston would make this a likely city for such a program.”

Murray then connected with noted PI Tom Shamshak. The duo, along with a team of subject-matter experts and instructional designers, assembled a six-month, 170-hour curriculum that includes courses like Surveillance 101 and Practice Management for Professional Investigators. The teachers are professional, practicing PIs and attorneys. Approximately 86 students have graduated since 2006. An online program also launched in July.

A former police chief of two Massachusetts towns, 59-year-old Shamshak runs Shamshak Investigative Services and specializes in criminal-defense investigations. He has appeared on CNN, Fox News, Court TV, and 20/20. A passionate, sharply dressed man, Shamshak oozes drama and loves telling stories. He invokes terms like dragon slayer and truth seeker when discussing his travails cutting through others’ sloppy investigative work on criminal defense, missing persons, and unsolved murder cases.