People who enjoy righting wrongs and seeking justice should consider a career as a law enforcement officer and investigator at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, one of the world’s preeminent crime-fighting and intelligence agencies.
Someone who wants to work for the FBI should understand that not everyone at the FBI is a special agent.
“The agents are the workforce that do the forward-facing investigative piece of our mission,” explains Peter Sursi, an FBI senior executive who oversees the agency’s recruiting and hiring. “Behind the agents, there are all these support operators, including 3,000 intelligence analysts. We have tactical analysts, IT specialists, forensic examiners, forensic accountants, computer scientists, lawyers, and then — another step back — the whole administrative part of the bureau.”
What It Takes to Become an FBI Agent
Anyone who dreams of becoming an FBI special agent should know the eligibility requirements for the job, which are outlined on the FBI website. To name a few, a job candidate needs to possess a bachelor’s degree, some post-college work experience and U.S. citizenship. He or she must be capable of acquiring a top-secret security clearance and complying with the FBI’s restrictions on drug use.
Because the mandatory retirement age for FBI special agents is 57 and agents must complete 20 years of service to qualify for retirement benefits, job applicants who previously have not worked for the FBI typically must be between 23 and 36 years old, but this rule doesn’t generally apply to military veterans. Honorably or generally discharged veterans may qualify for exemptions to age requirements, especially if they suffered an injury in the line of duty.
An aspiring FBI agent will also need to receive medical clearance from the FBI’s chief medical officer, who assesses the applicant’s overall health and long-term physical stamina. Applicants need to meet the FBI’s physical fitness standards. These standards are designed to ensure that a person is in good enough shape to work as an agent, since the job sometimes requires physical confrontations with criminals and may involve the use of deadly force.
Sursi says that prospective FBI agents often fear taking the fitness test, but he says the FBI’s fitness standards are not so strenuous as to require Olympian-level athleticism. The FBI recently introduced a dry run trial fitness exam that aspiring agents can take without risk of failure so that they can gauge how close they are to meeting the FBI’s fitness requirements and figure out what additional fitness training they need to do, if any. FBI agents are expected to maintain physical fitness throughout their careers as agents, Sursi notes.
Sursi says he looks for the following character traits when evaluating potential special agents: commitment to performing public service, communication skills, integrity and empathy.
People solely interested in money or career advancement aren’t a good fit for FBI agent roles, Sursi says. “Here at the bureau, our core mission is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution, and I think that is something that we hold very close to us in a very personal way every day.”
Sursi notes that an unfortunate misconception about FBI special agent careers is that they are accessible only to white males, but he emphasizes that both men and women become special agents and there are special agents of various races.
“We are really committed to making sure that the ranks of the FBI agent population look like the American population to ensure our legitimacy as a law enforcement agency, so that’s very important to us,” he says.
William V. Pelfrey Jr. — chair of Virginia Commonwealth University‘s homeland security and emergency preparedness program and a full professor within the university’s criminal justice department — says many of his students have become FBI agents. He notes that certain undergraduate courses are particularly valuable for an FBI career, including courses in accounting and computer science, since the FBI often investigates white-collar crimes.
Graduate degrees in law or social science fields like psychology tend to make people more competitive for FBI agent positions, says Pelfrey, who has a Ph.D. in criminal justice. Other beneficial credentials are a Certified Public Accountant designation, postgraduate certifications in cybersecurity or a master’s degree in a science, technology, engineering or math discipline, he says.
Pelfrey recommends that aspiring FBI agents look for post-college jobs where they can cultivate investigative skills, including jobs that involve conducting background investigations, risk assessments and financial investigations.
FBI agents can come from a variety of academic backgrounds, Sursi says, noting that the FBI likes to recruit agents with differing and complementary skill sets. One trait that FBI agents tend to share, he says, is a desire to have a positive influence on society. “They want to feel connected to a bigger whole and a huge sense of purpose and a sense of mission.”
What It’s Like to Be an FBI Agent
FBI agents have demanding jobs with irregular hours, and they often need to tackle challenging assignments on the spur of the moment. FBI agent roles are suitable only for people who are adaptable, Sursi explains, not those who require a rigid routine. “You’re definitely giving a little bit of control over to the organization, and you have to be OK with that,” he adds.
Persistence when searching for answers to puzzling questions is also a key component of the job, Sursi emphasizes. “You have to be the kind of person that gets very stubborn about digging deeper and figuring out what is going on, and you want to do things the right way and see beyond the surface of things.”
Compensation for FBI agents varies depending on where in the U.S. they are stationed and how high they are in the FBI hierarchy. New FBI agents receive a locality pay bonus that varies depending on where in the U.S. they are placed, which supplements their base salary. The combination starting out typically ranges from $50,000 to $65,000, according to Sursi. Agents also collect a signficant availability pay bonus, which is meant to compensate them for constantly being on call.
Some FBI agents, particularly those stationed at remote field offices, investigate a variety of crimes whereas experienced FBI agents in some locations have a particular “subject matter expertise,” Sursi says.
Pelfrey notes that although the FBI does have a renowned Hostage Rescue Team, it is unlikely that any particular FBI agent will get placed on that team, and the same is true of the FBI’s prestigious National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, which focuses on criminal profiling. There are few positions within these areas of the FBI and competition for them is fierce, he says.
One thing that attracts many people to the FBI is the excitement and “variability” inherent in those careers, Pelfrey says. “That’s part of what makes the FBI such an interesting agency. Their responsibilities and tasks vary widely, which means as you progress through your career, you’re going to get your feet into a bunch of different kinds of work.”
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