We’ve all seen the Hollywood movie version of the CIA, and it’s always the same: elusive, highly selective, seemingly untouchable, and a little paranoid. In reality, joining the CIA isn’t too different from applying for any other real world 9-5. After all, the CIA needs more than just spies and tech gurus if it’s going to run like a proper agency. There is a wide variety of salaried positions available from computer scientist to custodian, and applications are easily accessed online. Like any career however, there’s ways to ensure you have the right stuff CIA recruiters are looking for.
How to Get into the CIA
Fulfill the basic requirements. Among them, you must be a U.S. citizen, not be under the influence of illegal drugs within the last 12 months, and be 18 years of age. If you’re looking to be a “spy” (the official title is Field Operations Officer) you must be under the age of 35, and be able to fulfill the physical and psychological requirements as the CIA defines them. Once you’re hired you’ll undergo 1-3 years of training. Soundness of judgment, honesty, trustworthiness, and low susceptibility to coercion are also things the agency looks for. The full description of CIA requirements can be found on their official website. Be prepared for the most thorough background check ever, and even after you’re hired, expect random polygraph tests and drug testing.
Get a college degree. There are so many things you can do in college that can increase your value to the CIA. Improve your writing skills, you’ll need them in case you end up writing field reports. You can specialize in a particular field or learn fluency in a foreign language. Graduate school is also a plus for this reason. You can demonstrate character and personality strengths by having good grades or joining special interests groups. Often the CIA recruits on campuses via job fairs and paid internships.
Join the Military. If you don’t have a degree however, don’t despair. Many enter the CIA through military service, not college. If you’re in high school get involved in ROTC. Take the ASVAB to test your aptitude. You can do this in addition to a college degree, but neither is mandatory. The CIA wants to see that you can commit to something long term and complete it. A stint in the military or a college degree is an effective way of showing that. If you have a special aptitude such as fluency in a Middle Eastern language or culture, this can also be an asset.
Understand the Advantages/Disadvantages. Like any other job, you must weigh the pro’s and con’s to see if working for the CIA is what you want to do. It is a government position, so the positions are salaried and starting pay is not unlike that of a teacher or police officer. However, the positions are extremely secure, and perks such as retirement plans, family leave and health benefits are generous. You’ll probably be relocated, specifically to the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, but they could move you anywhere, anytime, and you don’t have much of a say in the matter. However, the CIA will cover all your moving expenses. Advancement would probably mean more hours, including foreign travel, which would mean less time at home if you have a family, not to mention the fact that you really wouldn’t be able to tell them what you do. At all.
Be willing to wait. Once you’ve applied to the CIA, the application process can take anywhere from two months to a year in some cases.
What exactly is the CIA? The CIA is not the FBI—it’s not affiliated at all with law enforcement. Basically, the CIA is responsible for gathering valuable information primarily used for government decision-making: "to collect, evaluate and disseminate foreign intelligence" and "to engage in covert action at the president's direction." Don't assume you have to be James Bond to work for the CIA. In reality, the flamboyance of a James Bond character would be a liability. The CIA needs covert, resourceful individuals who don't need to draw attention to themselves.