How does one become an FBI (or similar) agent?
April 1, 2013 7:28 PM   Subscribe

I'm a late-twenties adult finishing my BA a little late. I'm still a little unsure as to what I'd like to do, but I've always had an interest in solving crimes. What are my options for doing this as a career, preferably NOT for a local police department, at least in the long term?

So... crazy thing. I'm interested in being a detective or agent, like for the FBI or a similar agency, as a potential career. I wouldn't want to become a police officer unless it was necessary step toward that goal (i.e. if the route to becoming an FBI agent is through law enforcement). Same with joining the military.

As I said, I'm currently getting my BA. I'm attending a very good university, majoring in psychology. It would be difficult, but not impossible, to change majors because I'm attending part-time and only take six courses per year, thus any extra courses just add to the years I have left. I could not speed up my degree or go full-time. Currently my GPA is a little over 3.5 but could certainly be higher depending on how important it was to my career goals. I am also learning a second language, with an end-goal of fluency, but it's not Spanish. My current job is in research.

What would I need to do to achieve this career goal? I'm looking for any and all answers. Should I change majors? Do I need to learn more languages? What advanced degree(s) should I look into? If it matters, I could definitely submatriculate into a Masters in Criminology at my university, but again, I have no idea if that would help. Is it possible I'm already too old, or that it's too late for other reasons? I have no criminal record, not even a traffic ticket on my record.

If it matters, working for the FBI would be more interesting than the DEA, and solving murders would be more interesting than catching terrorists. I'll be around to answer any relevant questions. Thanks!
posted by ancient star to Law & Government (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Here's one answer put up by the FBI itself a few years ago.

Here's another breakdown by Wikihow.
posted by iadacanavon at 7:43 PM on April 1, 2013


Derp! Thank you! Any other advice, tips, etc are welcome, but I'm going to mark that as best answer.
posted by ancient star at 7:52 PM on April 1, 2013


Consider that there are more federal law enforcement agencies than you know. The Department of Justice alone has six different agencies. Homeland Security has another half dozen or so.

How about your state? California, the most populous state, has seven agencies.

Every single one of these have Web sites with "careers" links with instructions and guidelines.

Do some homework and get to work!

Psst. Look into the Coast Guard. Law enforcement on the high seas. Plus, you might get to rescue people for a living.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:55 PM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Follow up question: I see the list of languages... if I were to learn a third language, what language would be the best bet? The language I'm currently learning is not on that list.
posted by ancient star at 7:55 PM on April 1, 2013


If you have a foreign language skill, the critical languages we seek are: Arabic (all dialects), Chinese, Korean, Russian, Hebrew, Swahili, Albanian, Indonesian, Pashto, Punjabi, and Vietnamese. Spanish is also considered a critical foreign language. However, you would have to speak at a high level of proficiency (3+ or higher) in order to be considered for further testing. Occasionally, the work experience requirement can be waived if you speak a critical language and show proficiency.

from the FBI site
posted by jacalata at 8:01 PM on April 1, 2013


(hard to say which third language would be 'best' without knowing at least what your current second language is and what your current level is)
posted by jacalata at 8:02 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you want to be an FBI special agent, there are four general categories for eligibility:

* lawyers (this is the great majority of FBI special agents)
* accountants
* foreign language (this essentially means native speaker of an in-demand language)
* miscellaneous (this is pretty hard)

You talk about languages in your question and follow-up, but unless you have near-native fluency in an in-demand language, it won't do much for you. Could you listen to two native speakers talking to each other in slang and at native speed and understand it all? How about 100% of a newcast? Could you even write your question in another language without consulting a reference? (I don't know what language you are studying, but I don't know why you don't share what it is. It might help you will other careers, but we don't know because you won't tell us) +3 proficiency is quite a high bar. To give you an idea, 5 proficiency is complete native fluency to the point where you can pass for a native because you know old commercial jingles ("Hey, Mikey likes it!"), pop culture references, and other such things. You are probably not going to be a competitive candidate on linguistic grounds because you are competing with native speakers.

Also, you talk about solving murders, but federal law enforcement is generally not involved in murder investigations because there is no federal murder statute. The FBI only gets involved in interstate murders. If you are interested in solving murders, I recommend joining the local police force and working your way up to detective. I know you say that is not your preference, but if you want to work on murders, that is where the work is.

IF you really want to work in federal law enforcement, you need to look at the various agencies and see what fits your skill set and would interest you. FBI Special Agent is very, very hard. You should look at the US Marshals, Secret Service (most likely to be fighting counterfeiting, not protecting POTUS), Coast Guard, and the like.

If languages is really your thing, you might give the Foreign Service a look. It is not law enforcement but it is federal employment with use of foreign language skills.

I'm a multilingual lawyer, FWIW. I looked at the FBI sometime in the late 1990s.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:14 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I wasn't intentionally hiding my language. I'm currently learning French. I don't think I could get there via the foreign language route, but thanks for the info!

The information for other agencies is greatly appreciated, thanks!
posted by ancient star at 8:38 PM on April 1, 2013


I'd recommend doing some networking and meeting some FBI agents and talking to them about their jobs. I was really keen on joining the FBI, and after I made friends with some agents and learned a lot about their jobs it helped me make up my mind to go a different direction.

Also, another federal law enforcement option for you could be NCIS or one of the equivalent military investigative agencies. I worked extensively with NCIS and while it wasn't as prestigious as the FBI, the agents' quality of life was generally higher, and NCIS was less of a bureaucracy.

Also, it puzzles me when you say that solving murders would be more interesting than catching terrorists--you realize a lot of what the FBI does is counter terrorism and almost nothing they do is solving murders?
posted by MoonOrb at 8:39 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


If it matters, working for the FBI would be more interesting than the DEA, and solving murders would be more interesting than catching terrorists.

Sorry, those two statements should have been made separately. I'm not specifically looking to work for the FBI solving murders; that was just to give you an idea of my range of interests.

Lots of great info so far, thanks!
posted by ancient star at 9:01 PM on April 1, 2013


You talk about languages in your question and follow-up, but unless you have near-native fluency in an in-demand language, it won't do much for you. Could you listen to two native speakers talking to each other in slang and at native speed and understand it all? How about 100% of a newcast? Could you even write your question in another language without consulting a reference?

Native-like proficiency is definitely in high demand, but it is not a requirement. Plenty of people who work for the "three-letter agencies" and specifically do language analysis work have lower proficiency.

I'd recommend doing some networking and meeting some FBI agents and talking to them about their jobs.

Respectfully, unless one lives around DC, where you have a pretty high probability of socially knowing someone who works for one of the agencies, it might be tough to round up FBI agents, and they may not be able to talk about their jobs except in the vaguest of generalities.
posted by Nomyte at 9:05 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Some of the agencies do college recruiting fairs (I'm not sure if FBI does). You might talk to someone in your college's career office to see if they ever come to your college, and if they have the name of a contact person in the recruitment/hiring section of the agency who might be able to answer some of your questions about the qualifications/preparation they are most looking for.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:28 PM on April 1, 2013


If you go to the USAJobs web site (usajobs.gov) you can search for open job announcements and limit it to FBI. I'm getting none, but that's not surprising at the moment, since we're in a "hiring freeze" situation for the whole federal government. Quotes because that's not really true, but it's supposedly "damn good reason, critical vacancy"-only, not just general recruiting.
posted by ctmf at 9:38 PM on April 1, 2013


I think starting at this page on the FBI's site and working through the links gives you the most thorough/comprehensive information for how to become an FBI agent.
posted by tiger tiger at 12:14 AM on April 2, 2013


A couple of notes I wish to add. The federal government has A LOT of law enforcement groups, as mentioned earlier. The State Department even has one, it's called the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and yes, they do do investigations.

From my limited knowledge (I've only attempted to apply to Foreign Service), government jobs take a long time to get into. The examination, interview, and background check process can take up to years, so be prepared for that. One of the ways that you can boost your chances is by joining the military.
posted by FJT at 12:31 AM on April 2, 2013


FYI, as pure anecdata, I know three people who worked at FBI and now work at other federal law enforcement agencies. To a person they say working for the FBI was incredibly difficult and unfun (not challenging in a fun way, difficult in a horrible way), and they wouldn't recommend working for the FBI to anyone else.

Pure anecdata - I am not in law enforcement and have never worked for the FBI.
posted by arnicae at 4:51 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of my friends was a "Justice Department agent" (she was mysterious about that one) and now works for the US Marshals and loves it. In her case, she's able to be married and have 3 kids and have a fairly normal life while catching bad guys (or whatever it is she does).
posted by hydropsyche at 7:02 AM on April 2, 2013


FYI, since no one else has mentioned it, getting hired by the FBI is a long, long process. A few years ago, I interviewed with them in June, and got an email that they were moving on to the next phase (submitting my transcripts, starting background checks, etc.) in November. And I think the background check phase took six months to a year? I told them I was no longer interested at that point, as I'd already taken another job, so I can't tell you how long the entire process would have taken, but it's definitely not a quick turnaround.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:39 AM on April 2, 2013


I have a bit of a wild idea for you: the French Foreign Legion. Once you've done a stint with them you will stand out to any law enforcement agency, and you might even learn some Arabic.
posted by mareli at 9:48 AM on April 2, 2013


Since you indicated that you don't necessarily want to be in the FBI specifically, but you want to work on solving murders you might want to check out David Simon's amazing non-fiction book about working as a homicide detective. He is a journalist from Baltimore who spent a year hanging out in the homicide unit and then he wrote a book about it. Unfortunately the book does not really go into detail about becoming a homicide detective except for through years of local police work.

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
posted by forkisbetter at 10:27 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


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