How to become a DEA agent?

When Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created to establish controlled substances laws and bring those producing and trafficking narcotics to justice. Upon its foundation, the DEA needed agents who could bring the agency’s goals to fruition.

Drug use continues to climb at a staggering rate. Every time agents locate and block a trafficking chain, traffickers find new routes to distribute narcotics. To protect the United States and its citizens from the fallout of illegal drug use, more DEA agents are required to combat this continuing threat.

Police and detectives as an industry sector is projected to grow 5% between 2019 and 2029, which is 1% more than the national average. With law enforcement agents earning an average of $88,060 per year and the need for agents growing, joining the DEA is increasingly appealing to those looking to pursue a career in law enforcement.

While working for the DEA is financially beneficial, it also provides additional unique opportunities. Agents get the chance to travel the world while serving their country. No single day is the same, and this variety and excitement is attractive to new recruits looking for meaningful work and a satisfying career.

What does an DEA agent do?

The daily duties for a DEA agent vary by location and case, with a schedule that can be unpredictable. Generally, their time is spent investigating crimes, completing paperwork, working with local law agencies, enforcing laws, and testifying in court. Over the course of any given day, agents also spend their time completing the following tasks:

  • Procuring and analyzing intelligence
    • Agents obtain and analyze various types of intelligence, including tactical (using information for arrests and seizures), investigative (collecting data for prosecutions), and strategic (creating policies and distributing resources).
  • Operating surveillance equipment
    • Using equipment such as drones and vehicle tracking technology, agents monitor various locations to identify and track criminals.
  • Building cases against narcotics criminals
    • DEA agents build cases to prosecute narcotics criminals using the intelligence gained through surveillance and data analysis.
  • Handling weapons, narcotics, and large sums of money
    • During drug enforcement operations, DEA agents are responsible for seizing narcotics and cash. They safeguard the money until it is transferred to the United States Marshall Service.
  • Partnering with local and global law enforcement
    • The DEA works with state and local task forces to share resources and information.
  • Sharing intelligence with officials in foreign countries
    • The DEA has 91 foreign offices in 68 different countries, which allows them to extend their operations to investigate and prosecute major drug traffickers both nationally and internationally.

Who are the type of people who work as an DEA agent?

In deciding to pursue a career in the DEA, there are certain personality traits that help drive an individual’s success as an agent. These traits include the following:

  • Integrity – As a DEA agent, it is imperative to behave ethically and have strong moral principles. Law enforcement agencies cannot function without public trust, so agents need a strong set of ethics to maintain public support and effectively carry out their duties.
  • Self-control – Agents who exhibit self-control are able to maintain their composure in high stress situations. It allows them to resist impulses that may create a more volatile situation.  
  • Stress tolerance – DEA agents often find themselves in scenarios that can create high levels of anxiety. Being able to tolerate these high stress situations allows agents to remain level-headed and make sound decisions.

How to become an DEA agent

The road to becoming a DEA agent is far from straightforward, as the agency includes several rounds of vetting to ensure potential recruits are up to standard. It can take several years to get hired as an agent, especially if you earn the recommended degree first. Listed below are the steps to becoming a DEA agent from graduating high school to getting assigned to your first posting.

  1. Earn your high school diploma or GED
  2. Earn a bachelor’s degree – optional but preferred
  3. Obtain some law enforcement experience – optional
  4. Apply to become a DEA agent – you must be a U.S. citizen between 21 and 36 years old with a valid driver’s license
  5. Take the written and oral assessment
  6. Attend a panel interview
  7. Complete the DEA Physical Task Assessment (fitness test)
  8. Take the drug test, medical test, polygraph test, and psychological assessment
  9. Complete the security clearance check  
  10. Complete basic agent training (BAT), an 18-week program at the DEA agent facility
  11. Await the final hiring decision
  12. Get assigned to a location

Bachelor’s degree

To become an agent, the DEA typically requires applicants to have a post-secondary degree from an accredited program with a minimum GPA of 2.95. They recommend earning a degree in criminal justice, public safety, or homeland security. Focusing on a law enforcement degree assures future applicants have complex knowledge of the criminal justice system, legal issues and ethics, and emergency planning and response.

While a degree is recommended, applicants without a degree can apply if they have the appropriate experience. This experience should include the following:

  • collecting and analyzing data for criminal investigations
  • conducting or participating in briefings
  • assisting law enforcement agencies with cases
  • presenting evidence in court

Individuals who have a bachelor’s degree in any field and at least 3 years of experience working in maritime, military, mechanical or information technology systems, engineering, or foreign languages are also eligible to apply.

DEA basic agent training

The DEA academy, located in Quantico, Virginia, provides both physical and academic training for all entry-level agents.

  • Physical training includes 84 hours of fitness and defensive strategies and 122 hours of firearms training. Each of the following skills are covered and help agents function appropriately in extreme and stressful situations: 
    • martial arts
    • non-lethal weapons
    • marksmanship
    • deadly force
    • tactical shooting
    • ballistic protection
    • low-light targeting
  • Academic training provides agents with the legal framework regarding performing arrests, confiscating property, and conducting tactical operations. As such, prospective agents are provided with training on the following:
    • ethics
    • information systems
    • communications
    • international relations

DEA basic agent training

The DEA academy, located in Quantico, Virginia, provides both physical and academic training for all entry-level agents.

  • Physical training includes 84 hours of fitness and defensive strategies and 122 hours of firearms training. Each of the following skills are covered and help agents function appropriately in extreme and stressful situations: 
    • martial arts
    • non-lethal weapons
    • marksmanship
    • deadly force
    • tactical shooting
    • ballistic protection
    • low-light targeting
  • Academic training provides agents with the legal framework regarding performing arrests, confiscating property, and conducting tactical operations. As such, prospective agents are provided with training on the following:
    • ethics
    • information systems
    • communications
    • international relations

Salary and demand outlook for DEA agents

The DEA employs nearly 10,000 people with a yearly budget of over 3 billion dollars. This is a competitive field and therefore requires trained individuals. California, Washington D.C, and Alaska rank the highest in terms of salary earnings, and even when the salary is adjusted to reflect the cost of living in that particular state those three still remain in the top 7. Although a bachelor’s degree is a minimum requirement to begin a career as a DEA agent, earnings are noticeably higher when the individual has a master’s or doctorate degree.

Highest salary states

1.

California

$77,542

Average salary

2.

District of Columbia

$76,691

Average salary

3.

Alaska

$74,496

Average salary

4.

New York

$74,290

Average salary

5.

New Jersey

$74,118

Average salary

6.

Massachusetts

$73,809

Average salary

7.

Connecticut

$73,175

Average salary

How experience affects earnings

Planning your career as an DEA agent

The majority of people start close to the bottom and work their way up in an organization. In similar fashion, cost accountants can rise within the ranks or explore the following career options:

Agent trainee

Trainees are prospective agents who participate in a training program that includes 18 weeks of field training. Trainees are provided instruction on drug identification, evidence handling, surveillance, undercover operations, interviewing and interrogation, and confidential sources. New agents are evaluated on their understanding of in-class instruction as well as their performance in a physical evaluation.

Special agent

These agents spend most of their time in the field gathering evidence, arresting subjects, seizing assets, and working with national and international intelligence agencies to target suspected criminals.

Supervising special agent

Supervising special agents are first line supervisors who lead a team of 5-10 agents throughout an investigation, tracking their progress and determining a plan of action. In identifying agents to promote, the DEA chooses individuals based on merit and fitness reports. These agents report directly to the assistant special agent in charge.

Assistant special agent in charge (ASAC)

ASACs are second line supervisors who manage several investigative units. Much like a supervising special agent, the DEA promotes agents to ASAC based on availability, and experience.

Special agent in charge (SAC)

The SAC is the head of a specific region or office and supervises the ASACs. They are the highest-ranking DEA agent in their region and are directly assigned by officials from the Department of Justice.   

DEA agents can also choose from a variety of specializations as they progress professionally such as those listed below:

Diversion investigator

These investigators enforce the Controlled Substances Act by preventing these substances from being illegally distributed or dispensed. DEA agents who want to become a diversion investigator should have a background in pharmacology, chemistry, or medicine. 

Intelligence research specialist

As a research specialist, agents are mainly responsible for pattern analysis and cyber investigations. They use data to provide intelligence to DEA field agents. To become an intelligence research specialist, agents complete the Basic Intelligence Research Specialist training course at the DEA training academy.  

Foreign-deployed advisory and support teams (FAST)

Agents in this unit provide direct tactical responses to immediate and emerging threats. As one of the most elite special forces units, FAST agents perform covert infiltrations of hostile zones with the most advanced tactical skills and firepower to capture drug kingpins and terrorists. To become a member of FAST, agents are initially evaluated based on their physical condition and situational decision-making skills before completing an 18-week training program. If selected, agents then receive additional training from the U.S. special operations command.

Tools of the trade

  • Narcotics analyzers and field drug testing tools
    • These tools help agents remotely detect narcotics, stimulants, depressants, and hallucinogens.
  • Drones
    • The DEA uses drones as a means of identifying illegal activity, such as the sale or distribution of narcotics.
  • Geolocation technology
    • Geolocation allows the DEA to track the physical location of suspects by collecting data from their electronic devices.
  • Financial tracing technology
    • Using financial tracing technology, the DEA can track monetary transactions to locate drug sales.
  • Target pointer software (NDPIX)
    • The National Drug Pointer Index (NDPIX) connects officers and agents working on the same case to improve communication, strengthen cases, and protect agents.

Working as a DEA agent is both dangerous and challenging, but also comes with its share of rewards. If you want to work in a dynamic environment where you can make a big impact on the safety of U.S. citizens, then the career path of a DEA agent may be right for you.

Association of Federal Narcotics Agents (AFNA)

AFNA is a group whose members include current and former DEA agents. The AFNA's mission is to promote connections between former agents.

National Association of Black Narcotics Agents (NABNA)

NABNA works with the minority community to help recruit diverse individuals to work as DEA agents. They also work directly with the DEA with hiring individuals from minority communities.

National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition (NNOAC)

The NNOAC collaborates with various state narcotic associations to lobby for legislation that enhances the country's narcotic enforcement efficacy.

Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association (NEOA)

The NEOA consists of members from state and local police, FBI, customs, and DEA. Their mission is to educate the public on the dangers of drug abuse.