Careers in federal government

HomeCareers in federal government

Introduction

The United States federal government is made up of 65 agencies, each dedicated to tackling a specific problem facing American society. Of these, federal law enforcement has expanded significantly in response to crises — from the War on Drugs, to the post-9/11 era. Occupations in this field are diverse. DEA agents, FBI agents, CIA analysts, and IT specialists all play important roles in ensuring the safety of Americans at home and abroad.

DEA agents, FBI agents, CIA analysts, and IT specialists all play important roles in ensuring the safety of Americans at home and abroad.

 

During the Trump administration, the federal bureaucracy experienced growth in agencies related to national security but cuts to others. The Biden administration is likely to seek a reversal of such policies, but jobs in federal law enforcement and national security will continue to be needed to address the ever-growing laundry list of threats, from sovereign powers and criminal enterprises, to hackers and terrorist groups.

Types of federal agencies

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

The FBI has been the U.S.’s premier law enforcement agency since the early 1900s. The Bureau is composed of 35,000 special agents and professional staff across 56 field offices and 350 satellite offices in the United States. It also maintains legal attachés in over 60 U.S. embassies around the world. The FBI has a wide jurisdiction, tackling security issues ranging from organized crime to threats to American democracy.

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

The DEA was formed by the Nixon administration to act as a single entity dedicated to carrying out the federal government’s laws on controlled substances. The Administration currently has 9,848 employees across its 239 domestic offices and 91 foreign offices.

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)

Housed within the DHS, and successor to the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), CISA is made up 2,500 employees who seek to uphold the Agency’s mission: “Defend Today, Secure Tomorrow”. Its primary function is to understand and prevent cybersecurity and physical threats to state and federal infrastructure.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Born in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, the DHS oversees the country’s domestic security agencies, including the DEA, ATF, CISA, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). With 240,000 employees, DHS is the third-largest Cabinet department in the United States.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

Founded in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acts as the nation’s eyes in the shadows, collecting and preparing intelligence, training foreign militias, and conducting covert operations overseas to safeguard the nation. The CIA employs approximately 21,575 people across 5 directorates:

  1. Analysis
  2. Operations
  3. Science and Technology
  4. Digital Innovation
  5. Support

Unlike other agencies such as the FBI, the CIA’s mandate stipulates that the agency can only conduct operations on foreign soil.

Careers in federal law enforcement

Federal law enforcement agents play the crucial role of enforcing the country’s highest laws and maintaining public safety. Some of these jobs are extremely physical. U.S. Marshals and DEA and ICE Agents are put through rigorous training courses and need to become proficient in the use of firearms.

DEA Agent

Duties and tasks

DEA agents are the nation’s frontline defense in the War on Drugs. Special agents perform a variety of demanding tasks in order drug trafficking or terrorist organizations. Their duties include the following:

  • collect evidence and ensure it is ready for prosecutors to use in courts
  • participate in multi-agency operations to take down violent drug offenders
  • carry out arrest warrants and confiscate contraband related to drug trafficking
  • disseminate relevant intelligence regarding international criminals to partners in foreign law enforcement agencies

What does it take to be a DEA agent

The rigorous nature of being a DEA agent means that applicants need to meet numerous application requirements to be considered. A DEA agent must be a U.S. citizen, have not used a controlled substance in the past 3 years, and pass a demanding physical assessment.

DEA agents must also possess a college education — at the very least, a bachelor’s degree with a minimum GPA of 2.95 — in a related field. Applicants who don’t meet degree requirements may be considered on the basis of prior experience with criminal justice-related investigations, research, reporting, or testimony based on 3 or more years of skill-specific experience in a field such as aviation or foreign languages.

Other careers in federal law enforcement

  • U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Diversion Investigators

    Median salary: $73K

    Diversion investigators (DIs) are responsible for investigating the diversion of pharmaceutical chemicals and drugs. Their primary task is to enforce the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act (CDTA), which seek to prevent legal controlled substances and chemicals from being used in illicit industries while also ensuring legal substances are able to reach the market. This job is suited to those interested in pharmacology and chemistry as well as working in law enforcement.

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  • ICE Agents

    Median salary: $63K

    ICE agents are tasked with securing the country’s borders from illegal immigration and the flow of illicit goods and services. Similar to DEA and FBI agents, being an ICE agent is a physically demanding job that often involves being on the frontline of taking down illegal operations.

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  • Deputy U.S. Marshals

    Median salary: $85K

    The U.S. Marshal Service (USMS), established in 1789, is the country’s oldest law enforcement agency. Deputies enforce federal law through 7 distinct duties:

    • providing security to members of the judiciary
    • transporting prisoners
    • apprehending federal fugitives with the help of other law enforcement agencies
    • working with public and private partners to house detainees in the country’s penal system
    • participating in tactical operations in response to challenges to homeland security and national emergencies
    • asset forfeiture
    • protecting witnesses from criminal enterprises and terrorist organizations
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  • Median salary: $63K

    Budget analysts are vital in ensuring their agency or department has the budget and funds necessary to carry out their respective mission. These analysts conduct research on budget estimates, provide recommendations to leadership, and stay on top of changes to budget and financial policies. Applicants should have a background in monitoring expenditures and crafting budget reports.

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Careers in national security

As always, national security continues to be one of the most pressing issues facing the U.S. The events of the 2021 United States Capitol attack and the ongoing issue of extremism at home and abroad highlight the continued need for a healthy national security apparatus that can monitor and thwart threats before they materialize. Threats to national security come in many forms — from the terrorist group that seeks to instill fear and achieve a political goal through the use of violence, to a hacker group working on behalf of a foreign government to access sensitive information in both the private and public domains.

FBI Agent

Duties and tasks

Special agents are tasked with enforcing the laws of the federal government. No 2 workdays are alike for an FBI agent — they may spend one day writing a report detailing the threat posed by an extremist group, and the next testifying in court on a case they worked on. Some agents may work undercover over long periods of time. Special agents may also focus on a particular specialization based on their skills, such as training other agents or maintaining healthy relations with the public.

Due to how important the FBI’s mission is to maintaining national security, FBI agents should expect to work an unpredictable schedule. A special agent can often work 50 hours a week while also being on-call 24/7, including holidays and weekends.

What does it take to be an FBI agent?

Applicants to the Bureau must be U.S. citizens, obtain Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) clearance, and comply with the agency’s drug policy. Only applicants between 23 and 36 years can apply to be a special agent, as the Bureau has a mandatory retirement age of 57 for this position. Similar to DEA agents, FBI agents need to meet extensive physical, mental, and emotional requirements.  At least 6 months of driving experience is also required.

To enroll in the FBI Academy, applicants need to pass vision and hearing tests, along with a full medical review. In addition, they are required to complete a physical fitness test (PFT) consisting of 4 components — 5 for applicants in the tactical recruitment program. The PFT consists of situps, a timed 300 meter sprint, an untimed, maximum number of continuous pushups, a timed 1.5 mile run, and a maximum number of continuous pullups.

Education and experience are key to becoming a special agent.

 

Education and experience are key to becoming a special agent. Applicants should have at least a bachelor’s degree from an American accredited college or university as well as a minimum of 2 years’ work experience; advanced degree holders need only 1 year of experience.

Both special agent and intelligence analyst candidates are required to attend the FBI Academy upon successful completion of the selection process. New Agents in Training (NATs) is a 21-week program for prospective special agents. Through the Basic Field Training Course (BFTC), NATs develop skills in the use of firearms, defensive tactics, defensive driving, evidence and intelligence collection and analysis, and interviewing and negotiation techniques. BFTC for NATs is split into 2×12-week segments. Weeks 1 through 12 are focused on becoming adept at carrying out investigations in accordance with the FBI’s standards. This is done through group simulations in which candidates create threat assessments, gather intelligence, conduct investigations, and plan operations. Weeks 13 through 20 are dedicated to fine-tuning NATs’ proficiency in firearms, defensive tactics, and defensive driving.

As federal employees, special agents get access to a variety of health benefits, as well as life insurance and savings funds.

 

Special agents get to enjoy the considerable employee benefits offered to the federal workforce in addition to funds given to their families. As federal employees, special agents get access to a variety of health benefits, as well as life insurance and savings funds. Employees of the FBI can also take advantage of student loan repayment programs that cover up to $10,000 per year (and a maximum of $60,000 in a lifetime), reimbursement for pursuing a certificate or a degree as part of professional development, and a sabbatical program to give employees the ability to further develop critical skills.

Total employment

138,000

Projected growth (2018-2028)

N/A

Degree required

Bachelor’s degree

Under the Directorate of Analysis (DoA), CIA analysts supply U.S. officials with timely and actionable information for crafting policy responses. There are several different kinds of analysts within the DoA that concentrate on specific issues or disciplines.

For example, a leadership analyst is focused on crafting and presenting assessments of relevant foreign actors such as politicians, or major decision makers. Leadership analysts need to understand the complexities of these actors’ ideologies, ambitions, constraints, and how they influence society. U.S. policymakers then use such analyses to understand how to interact with or counter foreign actors. A military analyst would perform similar assignments but with a focus on understanding the capabilities of foreign militaries and seeking possible shortcomings.

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An analyst with the CIA does not need to have a degree in criminal justice or political science to succeed, as the nature of the field demands input from a wide spectrum of disciplines, but these 2 particular areas of study are nonetheless useful. Candidates must be competent in written and oral communications, as U.S. officials require clear information to ensure their policies are appropriate to the issues they are facing.

The CIA has a list of desired qualifications on top of the basic requirements. Candidates for analyst positions in the agency should ideally possess the following:

  • a passion for international politics
  • an understanding of U.S. national security interests
  • proficiency in at least one foreign language
  • solid writing and presenting skills
  • previous research experience in international affairs

Veterans are highly sought after for positions across the CIA and are afforded unique opportunities. Veterans who are still active members of the military (i.e., not retired) but are not in uniformed service get to enjoy full annual leave credit and use their service to earn credit that goes into their Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). On top of these benefits, certain eligible veterans are able to participate in Operation Warfighter, which helps participants work part-time jobs with the Agency while recovering from their injuries.

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Other careers in national security

  • Intelligence analyst (IA)

    Median salary: $72K

    IAs turn information collected through a variety of methods into reports that help policymakers better understand a particular situation. IAs are vital in shoring up gaps in intelligence, verifying information by cross-referencing with multiple sources, and keeping tabs on developments in their field of expertise. Intelligence analyst positions are ideal for individuals with excellent research and writing skills and a thorough knowledge of a relevant subject, such as a particular country or threat.

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  • Foreign language advisor (FLA)

    Median salary: $58K

    Foreign languages are an invaluable skill in the national security field. FLAs utilize their language skills to help policymakers and language analysts by developing training curriculums and ensuring their respective agencies find the best candidates to fill open language positions, as well as providing other forms of guidance. FLAs from the CIA’s Directorate of Support assist fellow CIA officers in developing the language skills they need to live and work abroad effectively. FLAs may also be required to travel overseas to provide language support.

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  • Network vulnerability analyst (NVAs)

    Median salary: $73K

    An NVA uses their background in computer science to create countermeasures in response to possible cyber threats. They are tasked with finding weaknesses in network systems that could be exploited and affect the outcomes of operations. Individuals with a computer science background and an interest in cybersecurity are ideal candidates.

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  • Cryptanalytic diagnostician (CD)

    Median salary: $73K

    Experts in encryption and cryptanalytic methods, cryptanalytic diagnosticians seek to understand and unravel signals or other data to drive the collection of intelligence. A career as a CD is ideal for individuals who are capable of breaking down complex mathematical problems.

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Careers in cybersecurity

The threat of cyberwarfare has grown significantly in the last 20 years. Rival states and lone wolf hackers seek to breach the firewalls of the U.S. government and corporations to gain access to critical infrastructure or information. Careers in cybersecurity can vary between maintaining network security as a network operations specialist or conducting investigations of cyber-related incidents as a digital forensics examiner. The careers discussed in this section require intimate knowledge of the principles and best practices of cybersecurity.

Total employment

184,220

Projected growth (2018-2028)

N/A

Degree required

Relevant experience or a Ph.D

IT specialists with CISA play an invaluable role in the agency’s mission of safeguarding America’s physical and online infrastructure. These specialists can be housed in one of several geographically separated divisions: Infrastructure Security Division, Cybersecurity Division, Emergency Communications Division, National Risk Management Center, and other organizational units. Regardless of an IT specialist’s assigned division, their typical workday may include any of the following:

  • enforcing laws, regulations, or directives by implementing security requirements
  • evaluating security incident response policies
  • taking note of serious incidents as they arise
  • providing counsel to relevant actors on how to address information security challenges
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An IT specialist in a national security or federal law enforcement agency must meet requirements similar to other positions, such as intelligence analyst. IT specialists are required to be U.S. citizens, be able to obtain whatever security clearance is necessary for the position they are applying for, and pass a drug test.

The GS-09 grade level IT specialist position with CISA requires applicants to have relevant experience in 4 competencies:

  • attention to detail when understanding software in order to make improvements
  • excellent customer service in IT-related matters
  • the ability to effectively translate technical information for a non-technical audience
  • solving IT-related problems

IT specialists will also need to demonstrate 1 year of specialized experience. An advanced degree in a relevant discipline, like computer science or information science, can be used in place of work experience. Candidates seeking to qualify for a GS-11 grade level position will have to demonstrate all 4 of the aforementioned competencies as well as having relevant experience or a Ph.D.

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Other careers in cyber security

  • Cyber incident response

    Median salary: $74K

    Incident responders tackle cyber incidents within the network environment or enclave by collecting pertinent information on intrusion artifacts, conducting trend analysis, and reporting on threats or creating after-action reviews.

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  • Digital forensics and analysis

    Median salary: $75K

    Digital forensic examiners conduct investigations into cybersecurity-related events to improve network vulnerability mitigation.

  • Security networks and systems engineering

    Median salary: $89K

    Network operations specialists (NOS) are charged with maintaining network services and systems to ensure the security of sensitive information. NOS applicants should be skilled in computer protection components and the threats to these systems.

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  • Cybersecurity analysis

    Median salary: $77K

    Cybersecurity analysts utilize cyber defense tools to monitor and produce reports analyzing cyber threats and how policymakers can address them. Potential candidates should have a background in cybersecurity and wide-ranging knowledge of relevant laws, security threats, and the actors involved in cyber warfare.

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Who is best suited to work in the federal government

Federal employees in national security or law enforcement are given the heavy burden of ensuring no harm comes to those they are sworn to protect and serve. Aspiring public servants should have a passion for their craft, whether that be avionics, computers, or foreign languages. They also need proper tools and resources for managing the unique demands of their positions. The careers mentioned here can be grueling work, but can also be extremely rewarding.

Conclusion

The coming decade poses significant challenges to the security of the United States. Ongoing issues with organized crime, extremism (at home and abroad), escalation of tensions with long-standing geopolitical rivals, and the continued rise of cyber terrorism requires the federal government to seek out individuals with the skills and experience to counter these numerous threats. Acquiring a job in the federal government — especially in law enforcement and national security — is not an easy task. Many of these jobs require candidates to go through arduous examination processes that test their physical, emotional, and intellectual faculties. While challenging, these jobs are vital in ensuring the continued security of the U.S.

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