How to Become a FBI Special Agent

Research the requirements to become an FBI special agent. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a special agent.

Should I Become an FBI Special Agent?

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agents work for the federal government and conduct investigations in accordance with federal laws. These professionals analyze a wide range of cases; many have skills in a specific area, such as engineering or accounting.

Some special agent jobs may require frequent travel. All FBI jobs come with the possibility of injury and can be quite dangerous and stressful. However, many workers find the job of serving their communities rewarding. Most agents work full-time with the possibility of overtime.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; a higher degree may increase likelihood of hire
Degree Field Varies depending on career goals/area of interest; could include accounting, law, computer science or language studies
Experience A minimum of 3 years related work experience
Key Skills Strong verbal and written communication skills; knowledge of federal laws; knowledge of firearms and police work; other skills sets vary depending on area of specialization
Additional Requirements Candidates must be U.S. citizens ages 23-37; meet certain vision requirements; good physical health; clean criminal background; pass drug test and polygraph examination; possess valid driver's license
Salary $79,870 (2014 median salary for all detectives and criminal investigators); salary is commensurate with position

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012 reports by the FBI

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Aspiring FBI special agents must have a bachelor's degree. The type of degree depends on which entry program an individual is interested in. Currently, 5 entry programs exist for special agent candidates: computer science and information, accounting, language, law and diversified. The diversified entry program is the most inclusive position and only specifies that applicants hold a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts. On the other hand, the accounting entry program requires applicants to have an undergraduate accounting degree.

Success Tips:

  • Complete an internship. Participating in an internship can help students expand their education outside of a classroom environment and gain hands-on training in the field. Students can apply for both paid and non-paid internships directly through the FBI.
  • Consider an advanced degree. While a bachelor's degree is the required minimum for employment, possessing a higher degree could help an applicant stand out in the competitive FBI application process. A master's degree in a field like criminology could also allow applicants to enter a more specialized special agent position.
  • Build physical strength. Since a physical examination is part of the FBI hiring process, students should begin building their strength and endurance as soon as possible. Students can participate in cardiovascular and strength-training routines while still in college to ensure they can later meet all physical tests when they apply.

Step 2: Gain Related Work Experience

The average work experience required for a potential FBI special agent position is 3 years in a field related to his or her degree. The FBI seeks candidates with specific critical skills, including knowledge of accounting, engineering, law, military, science or foreign languages, so professional full-time work in these areas is preferred by some agencies.

Step 3: Complete the FBI Application Process

Because of the sensitivity of FBI special agent work, all applicants must pass an extensive background check, a polygraph and a drug test. Individuals cannot have a felony conviction or default on student loans. The background check involves a thorough investigation into all records, including a credit check, as well as interviews with family, friends, colleagues and other people an applicant has had contact with throughout his or her life. The background check process can take several months.

Additionally, FBI special agents must meet strict physical fitness standards. Applicants are required to complete a physical examination by a doctor and submit their medical records to the agency. They must meet specific vision and hearing requirements. They also need to pass a physical fitness self-assessment test that includes completing a maximum number of sit-ups and push-ups, as well as a timed 300-meter sprint and 1.5-mile run.

Step 4: Complete Training

Once an applicant has passed all the necessary requirements and tests, he or she then must complete 20 weeks of on-campus training at the FBI Academy. FBI special agent training consists of classroom time and hands-on instruction, such as firearm training, as well as Web-based instruction. Upon completion, graduates are sworn in as FBI special agents. They are then assigned to a field office where they begin a 2-year probationary period that is guided by a special agent mentor to help them apply their training to new assignments.

Step 5: Pursue Continuing Education

FBI special agents can continue their education throughout their careers by applying for training in specialized areas of the FBI. For example, special agents interested in learning more about criminal behavior could apply for training offered by the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI. Agents interested in learning more about counterintelligence could attend the Intelligence Training Section offered by the FBI Academy.

Step 6: Get Promoted

All FBI special agents are assigned the same government clearance level at the beginning of their career. Over time, agents become eligible for advancement to higher levels and a corresponding pay raise or promotion.

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