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How to Become a CIA Agent: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a CIA agent. Read on to research the education requirements, training information, and experience required for starting a career in the CIA. View article »

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  • 0:01 Should I Become a CIA Agent?
  • 1:28 Career Requirements
  • 2:37 Steps to Become a CIA Agent

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a CIA Agent?

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was established in 1947 to collect and deliver foreign intelligence to U.S. policymakers about issues of national security. There are a variety of positions in the CIA, the most well-known being those of the National Clandestine Service. This division of the CIA includes operations officers and collection management officers. These agents work undercover to collect valuable foreign intelligence, often in overseas locations. Related positions include those of analysts, who assess information from multiple sources regarding foreign leadership, terrorist activity, technology, and economic trends. The CIA hires scientists, engineers, and foreign language experts as well.

The CIA offers a measure of job security and good benefits to those who are able to pass the lengthy application process. Depending on the position held within the CIA, an agent may be exposed to a range of risks; for example, those who do computer surveillance experience fewer risks of physical harm than those who work undercover in the field. Many agents carry firearms and must be comfortable with a range of weaponry as well as dealing with potentially dangerous circumstances. Some individuals become CIA agents because of the excitement associated with the career of being a field agent. Others enjoy helping protect citizens by using their skills in less hands-on ways.

Career Requirements

Degree Level A bachelor's degree (or higher) is required for most positions
Degree Field International affairs, foreign studies, political science, mathematics, business administration, finance or economics, depending on the position sought
Experience Military, security, or law enforcement experience helpful but not required; experience working and living abroad is highly beneficial
Key Skills Strong interpersonal skills, leadership qualities and report writing abilities; foreign language expertise is preferred for many positions; Microsoft Office Excel, Word and PowerPoint
Additional Requirements Ability to pass extensive background checks, including medical and psychological evaluations; understanding of and interest in foreign countries and cultures; U.S. citizenship; at least 21 years old
Salary $74,872 - $136,771 per year (2015 annual range for all CIA special agents)

Sources: cia.gov

A bachelor's degree or higher is required for most positions. Depending on the position sought, relevant majors include international affairs, foreign studies, political science, mathematics, business administration, finance, or economics. Experience in the military, security, or law enforcement is helpful, but not required. Additionally, experience working and living abroad is highly beneficial, as is expertise in a foreign language. An understanding of and interest in foreign countries and cultures is also desirable.

CIA agents need strong interpersonal skills, leadership qualities, and report writing abilities as well as skills in Microsoft Office, Excel, Word, and Powerpoint. Candidates should be at least 21 years old, hold U.S. citizenship, and be able to pass extensive background checks including medical and psychological evaluations.

According to cia.gov, the annual salary range for CIA special agents as of August 2015 was $74,872 - $136,771.

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Steps to Become a CIA Agent

Step 1: Obtain a College Education

Aspiring CIA agents - particularly those who want to work as operations officers, collections management officers or analysts - usually need to earn at least a bachelor's degree. Depending upon the position, some fields of study that a prospective applicant may want to consider are international affairs, international business, national security, foreign studies, political science, business administration, economics or finance. Additionally, it's important to find a school that offers study abroad opportunities and foreign language classes.

For agency positions requiring a college degree, a minimum GPA of 3.0 is needed. To be a competitive applicant, a GPA above 3.0 is common. Since many agency positions include travel to or interaction with foreign lands, speaking another language can be beneficial and may even be required. Some of the language skills that the CIA seeks include Arabic, Spanish, Russian and all dialects of Chinese. Additionally, for many positions, work experience may be required, or it will make a candidate more competitive.

Aspiring CIA agents should enroll in a mentoring program. A few schools offer intelligence-career preparation opportunities. Students can receive mentoring from intelligence community professionals, participate in seminars and attend conferences. Traveling abroad can lead to stronger foreign language skills and enhanced knowledge of a foreign country's culture. Both of these traits are valued by the CIA.

Step 2: Pass the Clearance Process

The CIA's clearance process is often lengthy and entails a complete review of the applicant's life history, including his or her loyalty to the United States. A polygraph test is used to verify each candidate's honesty, discretion and ability to handle confidential information. Psychological and medical examinations are another important part of the clearance process. Additionally, any prior use of illegal drugs will be evaluated, and applicants must not have used illegal drugs in the 12 months prior to submitting their applications. Would-be agents are also expected to disclose any criminal convictions.

The CIA asks that candidates use discretion when sharing information about their application. Acquaintances may not have the applicant's best interest in mind and could inappropriately share the information with others.

Step 3: Work for the CIA

Within the agency, there are opportunities to join specialized departments. Applicants pursuing a position within the CIA's National Clandestine Service must complete a training program before working as collections officers or collections management officers. Political analysts, counter-terrorism analysts and other types of analysts work within the Directorate of Intelligence. While it's not required, the CIA encourages agents to participate in seminars, network with peers and pursue additional education.

CIA agents need a bachelor's degree or higher in a major such as international affairs, foreign studies, political science, or a related major, and an extensive clearance process is required. Additionally, foreign language skills and experience living abroad is beneficial.

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