One of the questions I am most often asked about the Agency is, “How’d you get in?” Whether from a reader of espionage novels who assumes a grey beard from some good old boys club tapped me on the shoulder or a college student aspiring to become a “spy”, they all bring their own preconceived notions about the process. And what I have learned is that at least for case officers of my generation, everyone’s “origin story” as a spy is unique.
Mine began while a comfortably middle class, average student with good language skills at a large state university in the south. A typical frat guy, I had spent far more time drinking beer and chasing girls (not always in that order) than I did on my academics (fortunately I got the chance to redeem myself in grad school later). As my time in school began to draw to an end, I all of a sudden had to start thinking about what to do with my life in the real world.
I dutifully went down to the career services interview to begin signing up for interviews that would likely have me stuck in a cube wearing a tie for the next 30 years. And all I really knew I wanted was to do something international, using language skills, and that would allow me to build an identity unique from my father’s (not that his was bad, it wasn’t, I just wanted to become my own man and do things that he hadn’t done).
So in between the Bechtel and Coca Cola interview sign-up sheets, I saw one for the CIA. Huh, that’s interesting I thought. My grandfathers had both served in the US military in WWII; Top Gun had got me thinking about the military. Maybe there was another way I could serve. I had no real idea what it meant or involved (this was pre-Google), but thought it sounded pretty cool so I signed up for an interview.
A few days later, I found myself sitting in front of a real live CIA officer. I was underwhelmed. He looked more like an academic than a bad ass. And as he reviewed my resume and transcript, he too was underwhelmed. He looked up at me over the pages and said, “You really aren’t qualified for many of the roles we are hiring for. I’m looking for strong analysts and scientists, folks with more experience and maturity. In fact, the only role you might be qualified for is as an operations officer. You know, the guys who have to go out and collect information, recruiting spies etc. Are you sure you are really interested in that?” I thought to myself, “That sounds like the only job I’d be interested in, the rest of those jobs sound boring.” What I said to him was, “Sir, I’ve wanted to do that my whole life.” Ok, so maybe I was stretching it a little, but what the heck, it was a career that would rely upon my ability to lie.
He said, “I’ll put you through to the next stage, but since you signed up for a public interview, and the role you are applying for is a [REDACTED] role, we need to send you a public rejection letter (I still have that letter). That way, if anyone asks, you can tell them you applied on a lark, and it ended quickly. But in the meantime, be at this address in another city, at this specific time and date, and we will start your [REDACTED] process then. Don’t tell anyone, including your family or girlfriend. The process is long and you likely won’t make it through. Good luck.”
Thus began a roughly 10 month process of interviews, tests, trips to the DC area, psych exams, polygraphs etc all to see if they would select me. I finished up school, graduated and took another job, having heard nothing but that the process was continuing forward. I knew it was getting close though when they started my background investigation, as they had mentioned that as the last step. I got a little nervous when I heard they sent two investigators to my fraternity house to interview the brothers about me. Fortunately, the investigators kept an appropriate sense of humor as they were told stories about my purported closeted deviant sexual behaviors, support for various and sundry international workers causes and association with shady underworld figures. The tales were so outlandish I have no idea how the investigators kept straight faces.
But in the end I made it through, and reported to NoVa to begin my entry on duty (EOD) and initial training. My mom asked me the other day what the Agency saw in the then 21 year old me and how I managed to keep it all from the family, including the travel, until time for the background investigation. I wasn’t sure at the time really, and still wonder myself sometimes, but at least part of it was my ability to go through it without their knowledge or help. It turned out to be a pretty good fit though and for the next decade through multiple tours abroad was some of the most fun and fulfilling work I would do.
The path into the Agency today is much more easily understood and followed. The Agency continues to send representatives to career centers, trade shows and hiring fairs. For most applicants, however, their process now starts with a trip to the CIA’s career page on cia.gov. Whether a student looking to learn more or explore internships, or a college graduate with many years of experience, your path in starts here. There is a wealth of information, not just about what specific opportunities are available right now, but about the Agency in general, the various types of jobs, life inside etc.
By the way, networking can be helpful in the information process. There are many former CIA officers (and other members of the Intelligence Community) active in public forums such as Facebook and Twitter. There are few better sources to learn from than those who have done the thing you aspire to. Reach out to them and ask. But be respectful, do your diligence and don’t ask them for info you could get yourself in a Google search. Don’t expect them to be able to help you get in however. The days of the old boys club shepherding folks through the process are long gone, and that is largely for the best.
The Agency rightly notes that the application is long, arduous and intrusive. They attempt to answer questions about the background investigation (yes a polygraph is mandatory), previous drug use (hint: your state’s stand on legalization is irrelevant, federal statute trumps) and even applying from overseas (don’t, just wait until you come home), among a myriad of other questions you might or will have. Even your consumption of movies and music can matter (yeah, years of illegal downloading on BitTorrent and other P2P sites might prevent you from getting a security clearance).
Are there any absolute musts to get in to the Agency? Yes, you MUST be a US citizen and you MUST be over the age of 18. It is worth noting that while not always mandatory, for the majority of Agency jobs, a college degree is required. That specifically includes most overseas and analysts positions. In fact, for those roles they often prefer advanced degrees.
Additionally, you cannot serve out your US military service obligation at the Agency, nor is the Agency a veteran preference agency. That said, many Agency officers have military experience and it is a well-trod, well understood skill set needed within the Agency.
Once you explore all the career information on the CIA’s website and are ready to start, you will submit your resume and application online there. Do not follow up with hard copy, faxed or emailed resumes. It won’t help your application in any way. Make sure you follow all the instructions in detail, remember, you are hoping to make yourself stand out, don’t let typos or failure to follow instructions take you out of the running.
Getting in remains as selective as ever, if not more so. The CIA receives more than 10,000 resumes per month, including many from individuals who are equally or better qualified than you might be. They are often unable to get back to each individual so they note that if you have not heard back from them within 45 days after submission of your application, they will not be pursuing an offer of employment with you. If this is your case, well, don’t get too discouraged, if your education or experience changes in significant ways, you can always reapply.
If there is interest, you will get a follow up email (from a .gov email address) or phone call (usually from someone with only a first name and no named Agency referencing your application). In this case, you will be at the front of a process that can take up to two years, but averages 9-12 months.
And if you make it through that process, well, we welcome you to a unique opportunity to serve your nation in the shadows on her first line of defense. It is fulfilling, challenging, engaging and sometimes risky. And as Al Pacino noted in The Recruit, “Our failures are known…our successes are not.” Our nation needs her best and brightest to step up to that challenge.