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Become a Narcotics Agent: Step-by-Step Career Guide

In this video, we'll take a look at the steps involved in becoming a narcotics agent, including the education, training and experience required, in addition to some general information about the position itself. View article »

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  • 0:02 Narcotics Agents
  • 0:59 Step 1: Education &…
  • 1:51 Step 2: Join a Law…
  • 2:25 Step 3: Gain Work Experience

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Video Transcript

Narcotics Agents

As a member of law enforcement, a narcotics agent investigates drug-related offenses at local, state, and federal levels, and often works under cover to gather evidence and arrest suspected drug offenders. They may also testify in court about what they witnessed. Narcotics agents are employed either by local police departments or at the federal level by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Many agents focus on specific illicit drug-related offenses, usually entailing the large-scale import and/or export of drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and psychedelics. Although some agents make arrests for small-scale possession or distribution offenses, many agents choose to employ a top-down approach involving the infiltration of international organizations or gangs that control the production, demand, and distribution of illegal substances.

Education Level High school diploma at minimum; college degree required for federal level jobs
Degree Field Criminology, psychology, or a related field
Training Law enforcement academy
Key Skills Extensive knowledge of the legal system regarding illicit drugs, communication and interpersonal skills, strong intuitive abilities, ability and openness to work undercover, networking
Experience Work experience as a police officer is required
Salary (2015) $77,210 (median salary for detectives and criminal investigators)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics- Occupational Employment Statistics- Detectives/Criminal Investigators.

Step 1: Meet Educational & Background Requirements

Most local and state jobs in law enforcement require at least a high school diploma, although a college degree or one or two years of college coursework is preferred. Federal law enforcement jobs require at least a bachelor's degree and related experience. Various college courses may prepare students for eventual police and narcotics work, including political science, economics, foreign languages, computer science, or engineering.

Applicants for law enforcement positions must be U.S. citizens of at least 21 years of age and meet tough personal and physical qualifications. Requirements for a narcotics agent vary by employer, but may include completion of physical and psychological exams, drug screening, and a polygraph test. Some positions may only be available to citizens who do not have a history of drug use or prior felony convictions.

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Step 2: Join a Law Enforcement Agency

Individuals typically need experience as a law enforcement officer before they may pursue a position as a narcotics agent. Individuals may seek entry-level opportunities at their local police department, state sheriff's department, or similar agency. Applicants must complete a training academy and other requirements before they're sworn in as peace officers.

Individuals interested in a law enforcement position at a federal agency, such as the FBI or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, must undergo extensive screening and training, with each agency having specific training requirements.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

After a few years working in law enforcement, individuals may pursue a position as a narcotics agent. Narcotics agents most often work undercover to gather evidence and arrest suspected drug offenders. Agents then serve as witnesses for prosecutors in court.

Agents must be able to work independently and perform surveillance for extended periods of time. They may need to travel frequently and spend stretches of time away from home. Agents may attend various workshops and classes to maintain their training in technology, drug identification, and self-defense.

Narcotics agents may also seek advancement to management and leadership positions. An experienced agent may work on larger investigations and lead investigations. Or he or she may transfer to administrative positions within a narcotics department. An individual may be promoted to a senior agent, agent-in-charge, or a director. Promotion criteria vary by employer, but advancements are typically based on years of service, skills attained, and performance evaluations.

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't collect wage or employment data for narcotics agents specifically, it does collect information about criminal investigators. The BLS reports that all detectives and criminal investigators earn a median annual salary of $77,210 as of May 2015.

In summary, becoming a narcotics agent consists of meeting educational and background requirements, joining a law enforcement agency, and gaining work experience.

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