How to Become a CIA Linguist

Research the requirements to become a CIA linguist. Learn about the job description and duties, and go over the step-by-step process to start a career as a CIA linguist.

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  • 0:02 CIA Linguist Career Info
  • 2:00 Learn About Requirements
  • 2:48 Get Bachelor's Degree
  • 3:52 Complete CIA Application

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CIA Linguist Career Info

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) gathers intelligence at the global level for national security purposes. To accomplish this mission, the agency needs individuals with near-native foreign language skills to conduct research. These individuals are referred to as linguists. The duties of a CIA linguist also include working as a language officer for the agency's Directorate of Operations, formerly known as Clandestine Services. These individuals translate and interpret in support of various operations around the world. CIA linguists also serve as foreign language instructors, teaching up to 16 different languages to other intelligence professionals within the agency.

CIA linguists enjoy a measure of job security, competitive wages, and good benefits in working for a federal government agency. The cases they work on may be high-risk and contain sensitive data. Like other interpreters and translators, CIA linguists usually work full-time, although their hours are often irregular and schedules may include periods of travel. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on the salaries of interpreters or translators in general, an individual employed by the CIA may receive a higher salary based on the information available on the CIA's online job postings page. So, while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found interpreters and translators to earn a median annual salary of $44,190 in 2015, the CIA reported paying foreign language instructors a salary ranging between $63,789 to $118,069.

Learn About Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree needed for overseas officers, intelligence analysts, and other non-clerical positions; advanced degree preferred
Degree Field A foreign language desired by CIA
Experience Understanding of international affairs, time spent living in foreign country where language is used
Key Skills Personal integrity, sound judgment, loyalty to U.S., reliability, non-conflicting allegiances, and compliance with protecting sensitive information; good written and oral communication skills; ability to travel and work overseas; near-native or advanced foreign language skills and ability to pass analytical writing tests; Internet research skills
Additional Requirements U.S. citizenship, extensive background investigation including drug test and polygraph, as well as mental, physical, and medical examinations
Salary $44,190 (2015 median salary for interpreters/translators)
$63,798 to $118,069 (CIA salary range for Foreign Language Instructors)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Central Intelligence Agency

The CIA seeks individuals who are at least 18 years of age and who have native or near-native skills in a foreign language sought by the agency. These languages include Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Korean, Pashto, Persian or Farsi, Russian, and Somali. Individuals interested in working as CIA foreign language instructors must have 2-4 years of teaching experience in a desired foreign language, as well as demonstrated knowledge of that country's culture, politics, economy, and history. Advanced proficiency in English is also required. Language officers also undertake specialized training and work closely with CIA field collectors.

Get Bachelor's Degree

Individuals interested in becoming language officers or foreign language instructors need a bachelor's degree for employment. An advanced degree is often preferred. Applicants may want to consider a major in a language or culture that is in demand by the CIA. Some colleges list CIA careers among the occupations students can pursue with a foreign language degree.

While in school, students should consider applying for a CIA Language Student position. The CIA offers employment opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students, including internships and co-op programs. These students work during the summer and college breaks assisting intelligence professionals, which could help aspiring linguists make contacts within the agency. The CIA offers employment to full-time graduate students as Open Source Officers, which are salaried positions that allow them to use their foreign language skills to gather public information in a foreign country.

Complete CIA Application

The application process for becoming a CIA linguist is a lengthy one that takes from a minimum of two months to potentially more than a year. Applications are only accepted online. The CIA says it receives more than 10,000 resumes a month, and if applicants do not hear back from the agency within 45 days, they are not likely to be offered a position.

All applicants should be discrete in mentioning their interest in the CIA to friends and family members due to the sensitive nature of the work. By applying for work at the CIA, applicants are giving their consent for a background investigation. Applicants of interest undergo polygraph tests to check the veracity of the information provided, as well as comprehensive drug tests.

Although the core elements of a language may remain constant, cultural shifts can create new slang, and the more up-to-date an individual is with these changes the more marketable they will be to CIA employers. Therefore, it is important to remain apprised of various political, economic, social, and cultural developments that affect how languages are used.

To recap, those individuals who want to become interpreters, translators, and linguists for the CIA should make sure they meet CIA requirements, earn at least a bachelor's degree, complete an internship, and submit an application to the CIA.

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