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How to Become an FBI Agent: Education, Training, Application Guide

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FBI agents are responsible for the safety of American citizens, upholding the Constitution, and protecting the country from high-level domestic and international threats. On a daily basis they fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime, investigating the nation’s most dangerous criminals. America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agents combat this advanced crime with knowledge and skills not easily matched by blue-collar misconduct.

Where does the drive to work as an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation come from?  While some may have strived for a position with the FBI their entire lives, many degree-seeking citizens are just on their way to qualifying for one of the many diverse, specialized professional pathways open to them in the Bureau.

Elements of Becoming an FBI Agent

  1. Earn a degree in criminal justice, finance, science, computer technology, foreign language, etc.
  2. Take on two years of experience in a job related to the chosen major
  3. Meet age (23-37) and citizenship (United States) requirements
  4. Pass the physical fitness test, background checks, and multiple drug and polygraph tests
  5. Complete the rigorous New Agent Training

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Quick Facts About FBI Agent Careers

What Do FBI Agents Do?

FBI Special Agents work to keep our nation safe while specializing in one of many areas: cybercrime, terrorism, organized crime, murder investigations, and financial fraud, just to name a few.

How Do I Become an FBI Agent?

First, earn at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school and work for two years in an area of specialty. Meet all the basic requirements for applicants, and once accepted, go through about 20 weeks of New Agent Training with the FBI at Quantico.

Basic FBI Agent Requirements

Be between the ages of 23 and 37, possess U.S. citizenship, and have lived at least three years in America prior to applying. Complete a background check, lie detector check, drug tests, and a rigorous physical fitness test.

FBI Education Requirements

A bachelor’s degree to a PhD in one of the many specialized fields the FBI seeks.  The most popular fields are science, computer technology, law enforcement, and finance, but the FBI will accept many different possible undergraduate degree majors.

Do I Need to Know a Foreign Language?

Knowing a foreign language is one of the most desirable skills in the FBI. To increase your chances of being chosen, taking foreign languages is highly recommended.

What to Expect Working as an FBI Agent

FBI Special Agents have physically and mentally challenging careers where they may be posted to different domestic field offices or overseas locations. Travel is often required, and agents are expected to work a minimum of 50 hours per week, on call for the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

What Do FBI Agents Do?

FBI Special Agents work to keep the nation secure through Operations and Intelligence areas and many other specialized career paths.  As one of America’s most challenging careers, the FBI requires its agents possess top skills in physical and mental fitness, maintaining and defending optimal standards of conduct.  From STEM and IT fields to business analytics, arts, and communication, a variety of college graduates hold at least one of the qualifications required to work for the Bureau — a bachelor’s degree.

As with any system of government, the FBI holds different branches for its avenues of law enforcement.  This includes a National Security Branch, Information Technology Branch, Human Resources Branch, and more.  Degree holders may enter special investigations and intelligence, or fulfill roles as law enforcement support professionals in a variety of fields.  The following list encomapsses precisely what the FBI is assigned to investigate, according to their official website:

  • Counterintelligence
  • Civil Rights
  • Public Corruption
  • Terrorism
  • Organized Crime
  • White-Collar Crime
  • Cyber Crime
  • Violent Crime
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction

An FBI agent’s job ranges within and beyond arrests, conducting investigations, or analyzing data; there is also protecting witnesses, reporting, evidence response, and the strict lab services and organizational procedures keeping the Bureau’s operations running without fault.

FBI Agent Salary

According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the salary of an FBI employee can range from $28,770 to $66,996 as of 2020.  However, looking at earnings of the “Highest Paid Employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation” one will find that the average pay of the top earners can reach over $170,000. These earnings are affected not only by one’s area of expertise, but by the cost of living where agents are stationed, and other government job standards.  In other words, the Law Enforcement (LEO) payscale depends on the LEO paygrade of one’s position as well as the “Paygrade Step” an officer has risen to.

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The Scales of Expertise

The payscale distribution for the Federal Government is divided into many categories, including but not limited to:

  • GS – General Salary
  • SES – Senior Executive Service
  • SL – Senior Level Positions
  • EX – Executive Pay

GS is the most commonly populated plane of the government’s payscale.  According to the OPM, grades GS-1 through GS-3 require no education to a high school GED.  These are typically clerical or administrative positions and earn the lowest base salaries.  GS-4 to GS-6 require at least an associate’s degree.  When looking at professional or scientific positions, GS-7’s through GS-12’s can require bachelor’s to graduate-level education with pertinent years of experience in the field.  Eligibility for levels GS-13 to GS-15 requires employees to have master’s or Ph.D. degrees.

Government jobs are paid on a scale, and trainees for the FBI start at a GS-10 level, where pay starts at $50,246 per year. As agents progress, even staying at the GS-10 scale, there are different levels that can bring pay all the way up to $65,321 annually. In addition, the base pay has a cost of living bonus that is at a default of 15.95% for all areas of the country, so at the lowest pay grade special agents make almost 16% more than base salary. The cost of living bump can vary between about 16% to all the way up to 41% of base pay, meaning that FBI agents who work out of a field office in a high cost area will get a larger increase in their pay. While New York City and San Francisco offer the highest cost of living additions, agents in Kansas City, Detroit, and many smaller offices still receive a hefty increase.

In general, FBI agents are some of the most highly skilled and compensated people working in law enforcement. Remembering that a cost of living bonus is added on top of all base salaries, the compensation for FBI agents is quite high.

FBI Education Requirements

Top 5 Majors for Becoming an FBI Agent

The Federal Bureau of Investigations is an elite organization that requires a fast array of skills and abilities. It not only needs people who can break down doors, make arrests, and perform with precision in dangerous situations, it also demands experts in computer technology, finances, and foreign languages.

The minimum FBI education requirement is a bachelor’s degree.  Many agents possess master’s degrees or higher, especially those working in leadership and technical positions.  While some employers may skim over a GPA, the FBI requires a 3.0 or higher.

So what are the best majors for an FBI agent?  Learn just how many degrees, traditional and online, will qualify U.S. citizens to work for the FBI, below.

Computer Science & Information Technology

This category of degrees holds a vast amount of data highly valued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  While browsing these programs, it can be noted that the areas of Data Science, Network Administration, Software Development and Design, and other CS-IT degrees are extremely precious to every type of organization.  This already competitive environment deepens its worth to the FBI through pathways such as Cybersecurity, Network Security, Computer Engineering,  and Geographic Information Systems.  When pursuing a degree in this field, consider programs that hold both regional and programmatic accreditation such as the ABET-accredited Information Assurance

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Law Enforcement

The FBI is by definition a law enforcement agency.  Much of the FBI consists of individuals with local law enforcement and military service backgrounds.  The upholdance of the Constitution depends on the integrity, devotion, ethics and skills of investigators and crime fighters.  Their physical abilities and deep understanding of U.S. laws is a standard of conduct not easily matched.  Law enforcement officials may find work for the FBI to be an obvious or seamless transition into a highly rewarding and taxing career.  Top law enforcement-related FBI majors include Criminology, Forensic Science, and Criminal Justice.

The FBI is by definition a law enforcement agency.  Much of the FBI consists of individuals with local law enforcement and military service backgrounds.  The upholdance of the Constitution depends on the integrity, devotion, ethics and skills of investigators and crime fighters.  Their physical abilities and deep understanding of U.S. laws is a standard of conduct not easily matched.  Law enforcement officials may find work for the FBI to be an obvious or seamless transition into a highly rewarding and taxing career.  Top law enforcement-related FBI majors include Criminology, Forensic Science, and Criminal Justice.

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Science

Hard sciences are some of the best prospective fields to enter when pursuing work with the FBI.  FBI scientists typically work in the Laboratory Division, Cyber Division, Operational Technology Division, etc.  Degrees offered in branches of science, such as Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, provide students with abilities in analysis, techniques in investigation and problem-solving, and the knowledge and precision to stand out in a field that is as expansive as it is competitive.  Becoming an FBI agent in a hard science field can lead to exciting opportunities not typically seen in the private sector.

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Finance

White-collar criminals function on many levels, and fraud and financial theft are two of the top issues dealt with by the FBI.  Individuals with a deep understanding in Accounting, Business, and Finance can flex their skills in analysis, problem-solving and mathematical reasoning to overturn criminal masterminds on a national to international scale.  Earning a degree in areas of Finance and Business Administration can lead to an excellent grasp of business ethics, corporate finance, investments, and more.  Pursuing this pathway could lead to a high-ranking career with the FBI. 

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Foreign Language

One of the most desirable skills for an FBI agent is a proficiency with a foreign language.  The FBI seeks those with a concrete understanding of languages and dialects spanning Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Punjabi, Indonesian, Pashto, and many, many more.  As the FBI serves the nation on international levels, even some aptitude in a foreign language can be beneficial to agents working in any branch.  To obtain advanced proficiency in a language and work for the FBI as a special agent, earning a bachelor’s degree can be the first, most accessible step.  

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Other Useful Degrees for the FBI

Candidates for the FBI can be several types of degree-holding citizens.  This type of law enforcement utilizes a diverse range of tactics, knowledge and skills to catch criminals and defend the nation from threats.  With the right application, almost any serious degree can be useful to someone interested in becoming an FBI agent.  The study of human behavior and the mind can be pursued through Psychology, Sociology, or Law degrees, and utilized in investigations, court cases, and more.  Other useful degrees include Human Resources, Marketing, International Studies, English, Journalism, and Visual Arts.  The FBI looks for a hybrid set of skills and abilities, hiring people with many different types of degrees as long as the applicant can meet all other requirements for the job.

Minors for Prospective FBI Agents

All of the majors listed above would make an excellent minor of study for anyone interested in becoming an FBI agent. For example, majoring in Criminal Justice with a minor in Finance would be an excellent combination, and would likely set up a seamless pathway for a career working in the FBI’s white-collar crime division. An agent who majored in Computer Science with a minor in International Studies would help the FBI investigate cybersecurity risks from outside threats.

Internships with the FBI

While studying to earn a bachelor’s, master’s or PhD, students can apply for a 10-week paid Honors Internship with the FBI. This is a great way to explore the career possibilities of working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The application process for this program is rigorous, just as applying for any job with the Bureau can be.

The FBI actively recruits top students in numerous fields, so students interested in a career with the FBI may find the internship route to be a desirable and fulfilling pathway. Though it takes time to become an FBI Special Agent, it is never too early to consider the requirements while gathering the educational qualifications for the job.

FBI Agent Requirements

The Basic Requirements

Along with the educational requirements of becoming an agent of the FBI are the rigorous, stringent Basic Requirements.  These include age, citizenship, fitness, and an applicant’s overall background. 

  • First and foremost, only U.S. citizens may apply for a position. Non-citizens will not be considered. Applicants need to have lived in the United States for the last three to five years. The age range to qualify for a position as an FBI agent is 23 to 37 years old. While certain waivers are available, only people who meet this age category will be considered for the position. This is to ensure not only mental maturity and experience, but also physical strength and endurance.
  • The application process will include a meticulous background check and security clearance. This is more than the standard records inquiry that employees might meet with other positions, as the FBI will look into employment, medical history, military records, law enforcement, credit, and more. FBI applicants must go through written tests, a detailed criminal background check, numerous drug tests, and even a polygraph, or lie detector test.
  • FBI agent qualifications include a rigorous physical fitness test (PFT), one of the most daunting challenges of the application process.  This test includes exercises such as sit-ups and push-ups, and extends to sprints, mile runs, and more.  The FBI provides a preparation guide to all those seeking employment as an FBI agent.  To make the preparation for this test more accessible, applicants can download the FBI Physical Fitness Test App.
  • Medical testing is also required for aspiring agents, assuring that the applicant does not have any underlying physical condition that could cause trouble later in their career. Applicants should also have had their driver’s license for at least six months before applying.

Visit the FBI’s website for more information on application requirements.

The Final Requirement: Prior Years of Experience

Even after all the previous requirements; the age restrictions, the fitness mandates, and the educational demands, aspiring agents still need at least two years of relatable experience.  However, with the possession of a graduate degree, the requirement may be dropped to one year.

This experience will have to apply to one’s desired area of employment.  To work in cybersecurity, agents may bring up to three years of prior experience managing information technologies or building computer databases. 

Many FBI agents will bring well over three years of law enforcement experience, especially in the area of investigations. For those working in the financial area, experience could include working in a public accounting firm or managing the finances of a large company.

FBI Employment Disqualifiers

Like all employers, the FBI understands that people make mistakes, especially when young. However, due to the highly-secure and nationally-important nature of the position, FBI agents will be held to a much higher standard when it comes to criminal history. While small offenses (traffic tickets, for example) will not eliminate one from contention, a misdemeanor will lower chances, especially if it occurred at an adult age. A felony will essentially eliminate applicants from the position. Even seemingly minor and non-criminal issues, like defaulting on student loans, can result in elimination from the job.

Other disqualifying issues include conviction for domestic violence, failing to pay child support, failing to file tax returns, or not meeting the FBI drug use guidelines. Not only does the Bureau have strict guidelines that agents must not use drugs, but a major disqualifier is lying about past drug use on an application. Candidates must not have used marijuana, even with a medical prescription, within the three years prior to applying.

What to Expect Working as an FBI Agent

FBI Agent Training at Quantico

Once the rigorous requirements to become an FBI agent are passed and a new agent is hired to work for the Bureau, the official education and training begins. Before beginning field work, FBI agents must pass through New Agent Training at the FBI Academy. This approximately 20-week course is one of the most difficult training programs law enforcement officials will ever go through, and it will test both physical and mental limits.

In over 800 hours of training, agents will be subject to four major concentrations: 

  • Academics
  • Case exercises
  • Firearms training
  • Operational skills

Hogan’s Alley, the famous mock town built by Hollywood set designers and populated by actors imitating criminals and terrorists, is a location for some of the realistic case studies for recruits during basic training. Finally, agents have to pass the arduous physical fitness tests that include sit-ups, sprints, push-ups, mile runs, and sprints.

Continuing Education & Training

Upon completion of the New Agent Training program, agents are finally ready to contribute to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, but their education and development is far from over. Even the most experienced FBI agents will go through training programs that keep them at the forefront of law enforcement techniques. The FBI’s training programs include tactical training, leadership development, driving skills, and basic field training courses.

FBI Special Agents are expected to adhere to the highest standards of integrity and conduct, and will be required to maintain their physical fitness throughout their careers at the Bureau. Maintaining a Top Secret SCI clearance is a mandatory part of the job, so after passing the rigorous requirements to get the job, agents keep their personal and professional standards of conduct high. Throughout this career, agents will be monitored to make sure they are fit, mentally, physically, and morally, to serve in the job.

Careers with the FBI

There are numerous job tracks at the FBI. On the Operation & Intelligence side, there are Special Agents, Intelligence Analysts, Surveillance Specialists, Forensic Accountants and Language Analysts. Other career paths include Information Technology (IT), STEM, Arts and Communications, Business Analysis and Administration, Facilities and Logistics, Legal, Medical, Counseling, and Police and Security. Depending on the job type, FBI employees may work in any of the field offices around the United States, overseas, or be stationed at the FBI Laboratory or National Headquarters.  Applicants should research the options available to them in order to best capitalize their skills and represent the Bureau with the best of their abilities.

Closely Related Careers

There are hundreds of different career options that are closely related to working as an FBI agent. These include different law enforcement organizations, both at a local and national level, and security and investigation jobs. Jobs closely linked to FBI agents include police officers, sheriffs, private investigators, game wardens, cybersecurity experts, and correctional officers. Those preparing for a career as a Special Agent may find themselves more attracted to a related career, perhaps working for a large corporation or nonprofit organization, protecting the financial, legal, or human rights of Americans. There is also the option of moving up into the FBI after working in one of these jobs, into positions that include intelligence analyst and leadership roles.

The Job Environment for an FBI Agent

What does the world look like after one becomes an FBI agent?  On a daily basis, where are the jobs located, and who works in the offices?  What tools are needed for a specific job?  It turns out, the work environment for FBI agents is just as diverse as their educational backgrounds.

FBI special agents are placed in cities all over the country and overseas, and travel is often a mandatory part of the job. Depending on the specific position, an FBI agent may spend an entire day in an office, sorting through documents and working on a computer, or on location at a crime scene, logging evidence and building an investigation. They may also spend a day or more in a courtroom, providing expert witness information during criminal cases. Of course, an FBI agent’s work can be dangerous, as they are often responsible for catching violent criminals and making arrests.

The Pros & Cons of Becoming an FBI Agent

Like all jobs, becoming an FBI agent has its advantages and disadvantages. There are highly-rewarding aspects of the career, as well as reasons why many people don’t make it as an agent.

When working as an FBI agent, one carries the pride that comes with serving the country for the greater good. Agents are taking dangerous criminals off the streets and helping to preserve the rights of citizens. Depending on the area of work, FBI agents may protect the country from terrorism, cyber hackers, organized crime, and domestic threats. Satisfaction rests in working for a highly-elite organization that only takes the best candidates in the nation.

There are certainly drawbacks to a career as an FBI agent. The job is highly stressful, and agents may be subject to dangerous situations where their lives and the lives of others are at risk. Agents will take on long, seemingly endless hours (a minimum of 50 hours per week is required), ready for duty at a moment’s notice. FBI agents are on duty 24 hours a day, prepared to face traumatic situations and violent, often ghastly crime scenes; scenes that can rattle even the steadiest of people.

An Honor-Bearing and Rewarding Career

The career of an FBI agent is waiting for dedicated, capable applicants. Just to be considered for the job, agents must meet some of the most stringent requirements in the country. When the rigorous process of education, applying, training, and testing is complete, agents have a career that allows them to serve the country and their fellow citizens every single day. From the office to the field, the life of an FBI agent is exciting, challenging, and rewarding.

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