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Become a DEA Agent: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a special agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in this video. Learn about the job description and duties, and see the step-by-step process to start a career as a DEA special agent.

Should I Become a DEA Agent?

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) enforces the country's laws and regulations regarding controlled substances. The DEA seeks to arrest and prosecute any individual or organization that traffics illegal drugs in the U.S. Special agents carry out this mission by conducting investigations, collecting and preparing evidence, working undercover, arresting offenders and confiscating illegal drugs, among other activities.

Many law enforcement officers, including DEA agents, are at risk of physical injury as a result of their potentially dangerous encounters with people breaking the law. Although the work can be physically and mentally taxing, many who work in law enforcement find protecting their communities by upholding the law to be emotionally rewarding.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree or higher
Degree Field Criminal justice, criminology, sociology or other
Licensure and/or Certification Take oath of office as a federal law enforcement officer
Experience Applicants without a degree but who have extensive experience in drug-related investigations or substantial skills as a maritime pilot, accountant, auditor, military member or law enforcement officer, or in information systems, foreign language or other desired area may be considered
Key Skills Strong written and oral communication skills, proven judgment, interpersonal skills, self-management, integrity and honesty, teamwork, computer skills; must pass tactical, intelligence, and firearms training, among others
Salary $79,870 (annual salary for detectives and criminal investigators as of May 2014); salary is based upon a pay grade system

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Individuals interested in becoming a special agent will need to possess at least a bachelor's degree with a Grade Point Average of 2.95 or higher. Degree majors in criminology, sociology or a related field may help prepare individuals for work as an agent. Other ways to become a more competitive applicant is to major in a foreign language or other special skill area desired by the DEA.

Success Tip:

  • Seek a DEA Internship. The DEA offers student and intern programs to introduce college students to law enforcement careers. For example, the Student Educational Employment Program (SEEP) lets students observe firsthand the daily business of combating drug smuggling. Students must be at least age 16, attending full-time in an accredited degree program and a U.S. citizen to be eligible for these programs.

Step 2: Obtain Relevant Work Experience

Applicants without a bachelor's degree but with relevant work experience may be eligible to become a special agent. For example, the DEA seeks individuals with substantive experience in law enforcement investigations related to narcotics, which includes providing information toward prosecution and testifying in court. It also desires applicants who have at least three years of experience in specific areas of skill, such as a maritime pilot, auditor, accountant, military investigations, foreign language and other areas.

Step 3: Apply for a DEA Special Agent Position

The first step for DEA applicants is to attend a special agent applicant orientation at a field division office. The hiring process may take 12 months or longer. The process includes written and panel interviews, a drug test, medical exam, physical test, polygraph examination, psychological assessment and a background investigation. Applicants must be at least age 21, a U.S. citizen with a valid state driver's license, able to meet security clearance requirements and able to pass physical and medical condition requirements.

Step 4: Complete DEA Basic Agent Training

Newly hired applicants must successfully complete an 18-week Basic Agent Training program to become a special agent. This training is held at a DEA training academy at Quantico, VA. Trainees reside and attend classes at the academy. They must pass rigorous training related to firearms, physical fitness, defensive tactics, practical applications, tactics and intelligence. Upon completion, trainees are sworn in as special agents and are sent to their first assignment.

Step 5: Advance in the Field

There are promotions available for DEA special agents. DEA special agents are hired at a pay grade ranging from GS-7 to GS-9. In four years it is possible to work up to a GS-13 pay grade which translates to up to $92,500 per year. In order to receive a promotion, a DEA special agent must prove themselves on the field and may be required to pass exams that asses physical and mental skill levels.

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