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Careers in the FBI: Job Options and Education Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become an FBI linguist or special agent. Find out if one of these careers is for you. Get a quick view of the details about the degree programs, job duties, and certification and license requirements.

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There are a many job opportunities within the FBI, including working as a linguist or a special agent. The specific requirements vary with each job.

Essential Information

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), part of the U.S. Department of Justice, employs individuals with diverse skills and backgrounds in a variety of careers, most of which require at least a bachelor's degree. This article highlights two common career paths within the FBI: linguist and special agent.

Careers Linguist Special Agent
Required Education Bachelor's degree in linguistics, foreign language, or translation studies College degree
Other Requirements Fluent in a foreign language Advanced degree, professional certification, license
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 29% for all interpreters and translators -1% for all detectives and criminal investigators
Median Annual Salary (2015)* $44,190 for all interpreters and translators $77,210 for detectives and criminal investigators

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

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Career Options

To qualify for a career in the FBI as a linguist or special agent, you must complete a degree program that fits with the occupation. For example, a special agent can specialize in the field of accounting, computer science, language or law. Please continue reading for more details about each position.

Linguist

FBI linguists decipher, assess and report on information related to national security matters, typically translating material from a foreign language into English but also from English into another language. FBI linguists are fluent in English and at least one other language and are categorized into four types: contract linguist, contract language monitor, contract tester and special agent linguist.

Contract linguists translate written or audio materials that often pertain to national security matters. They may also assist with interrogations and polygraph tests. Contract linguists may begin their careers with the FBI as self-employed contractors whose hours may vary based on availability and agency needs and later advance to full-time employee status as FBI language specialists. Contract linguists typically work at a secure FBI office.

Contract language monitors translate and summarize voice recordings and written materials. Contract testers manage language fluency tests over the phone, which are given in several languages, including English. These careers are also typically contract jobs performed at FBI offices, meaning that contract language monitors and contract testers are self-employed and paid according to a formal contract that outlines fees paid for services, such as per translation or per test administered.

Special agent linguists are FBI employees who use their language and analytical expertise to perform intelligence tasks, such as gathering proof of espionage, thwarting terrorist acts, interviewing witnesses and suspects, screening wiretaps and testifying in court. Unlike contract linguists, special agent linguists are formal employees of the agency, required to meet all FBI special agent qualifications and complete the special agent hiring and training processes.

Employees of the FBI who work in a professional role, such as some linguist jobs, are paid according to the federal government's General Schedule (GS), which has numerous grades and steps that reflect an employee's duties, experience and time in the job. The FBI reports that employees may also be eligible for additional pay depending on their locality and availability. New hires coming into the FBI from the private sector must prove their education and experience matches those of a specific GS level to be eligible for pay at that rank. Contract linguists earn an hourly rate of pay that may vary based on their skills and abilities.

While there is no employment projection available for FBI-employed linguists, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that jobs for interpreters and translators in general are expected to increase 29% from 2014-2024. In May 2015, the median annual salary for interpreters and translators was $44,190.

A linguist who works for the FBI must have a bachelor's degree. Relevant majors include linguistics, foreign language, translational studies or a related field.

Majoring in linguistics teaches students about language, including how it's constructed and used, through classes in syntax, semantics, phonology and phonetics. Students also study how languages evolve and differ according to group, situation and location and also about context and how people procure or study languages. Some linguistics programs may advise students to gain proficiency in at least one language in addition to English.

Foreign language majors learn how to communicate effectively in a language other than English and to convey ideas and concepts from one language into another without losing the original speaker's or writer's meaning. Students learn writing and conversational fluency in a second language and cultural understanding. Classes usually include conversation, grammar, composition, civilization and literature.

Special Agent

Upholding more than 300 federal laws pertaining to the enforcement of laws against corporate misdeeds, fraud, bank robbery, kidnappings, organized crime, terrorism, spying, drugs and more, through investigation, intelligence and enforcement activities, FBI special agents are the key figures for preserving national security.

In addition to being U.S. or Northern Mariana Islands citizens and between the ages of 23 and 37, aspiring special agents who possess at least three years' work experience, a valid driver's license and the freedom to relocate may qualify for one of five special agent entry programs in the following fields:

  • Accounting
  • Computer Science/Information Technology
  • Language
  • Law
  • Diversified

Additionally, FBI special agents must pass physical fitness, vision and hearing tests and a medical exam. An intensive background investigation of each applicant is also conducted, which includes a polygraph test, drug test, credit check and personal interview.

The BLS classifies FBI special agents as detectives, criminal investigators and police. According to the BLS, the projected job growth for these occupations is expected to decrease 1% from 2014 to 2024. In addition, the median annual salary for law enforcement was $77,210 as of 2015. The annual mean wage for detectives and criminal investigators working for the federal government was $101,700.

Education requirements vary according to which entry program the candidate would like to join. All categories require a college degree. In most cases, relevant work experience, an advanced degree or professional certification is required as well. The FBI considers qualified applicants based on how well a candidate's skill sets meet agency needs.

Accounting

Qualified accounting candidates are either certified public accountants or have a bachelor's degree in accounting with a minimum of professional experience. A certified public accountant (CPA) license, which an accountant earns through his or her own state, indicates that specific education and professional experience criteria have been met, and the candidate has passed an exam demonstrating a professional standard of skills and abilities related to accounting tasks.

Computer Science/Information Technology

Computer science and information technology candidates must have a degree related to computer science, information technology or electrical engineering before submitting an application. In lieu of a degree in this field, candidates with Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) or Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) certification and a degree in another field may also qualify.

These professional certifications signify that candidates have a minimum level of technical knowledge and hands-on expertise in managing and troubleshooting advanced communications technologies and networks.

Language

The FBI requires language program applicants to achieve a minimum score on its Speaking Proficiency Test and on its Defense Language Proficiency Test, which includes speaking and reading components. Candidates must have a bachelor's degree and demonstrate fluency in a language that meets the FBI's current needs, such as Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Spanish, Vietnamese or Russian.

Law

Accredited law school graduates who hold a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree may enter the FBI's special agent training program through the law entry program. A J.D. degree is a post-baccalaureate degree that typically takes three years to complete and includes study of criminal, civil, tort, constitutional, tax and corporate law, as well as civil law procedures.

Diversified

Anyone with at least a bachelor's degree and minimum amount of work experience can apply to the diversified special agent program. Candidates are considered based on how their qualifications meet current FBI needs. In general, those with a bachelor's degree must have at least three years of full-time work experience, while those who also hold a post-baccalaureate degree must have at least two years of work experience before applying. Applicants to the diversified special agent entry program may hold a degree in any field of study.

FBI linguists are required to have a relevant bachelor's degree, be fluent in English and a second language, and be capable of translating text and speech from one language to the other. FBI special agents must have a degree and complete the FBI's agent training program. FBI employees can expect to go through rigorous background checks, and agents also need to meet physical fitness requirements.

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