How to Work for the CIA

Do You Want to Be a Spy?

Surveillance Briefcase
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Would you like to be a spy? Shhhh! Don't answer that. The agency usually thought to be synonymous with spying on behalf of the United States government, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), has two precise rules for applicants. Rule number 1: don't tell anyone you're applying for a job. Rule number 2: Don't tell anyone you are even thinking of applying!

In other words, if you want to find out how to work for the CIA, don't ask anyone. Doing that would give away your aspirations, and therefore break both those rules. You can, however, read this article, which spells it all out for you. 

CIA Careers

If the idea of being a spy is appealing, consider working for a specific arm of the CIA—the Directorate of Operations (DO), formerly called the National Clandestine Service (NCS). The DO is the component of the CIA that is responsible for covertly collecting human intelligence (aka spying). These are the entry-level positions that are available for job candidates after they have completed an extensive training program. 

  • Core Collectors and Operations Officers usually work overseas, recruiting and handling foreign sources of human intelligence.
  • Core Collectors and Collection Management Officers also spend the majority of their careers working abroad. They manage the collection of human intelligence and evaluate and disseminate it to the U.S. foreign policy community and intelligence community analysts.
  • Staff Operations Officers are the liaisons between DO stateside headquarters and overseas field officers. They spend most of their time in Washington but may have temporary overseas assignments. They are experts in either a particular region or a transnational target, for example, terrorism or crime.
  • Specialized Skills Officers work either at Washington headquarters or overseas. They utilize their experience in the military, or their language, technical, or media skills, to conduct or support CIA operations. Job titles that fall under this category include targeting officer, language officer, paramilitary officer, program and plans officer, and information resource officer.

Entry-Level CIA Careers

Entry-level job candidates can join the Directorate of Operations as trainees in the Professional Trainee Program, the Clandestine Service Trainee Program, or the Headquarters Based Trainee Program. The job for which a candidate applies and his or her level of experience determines the program he or she enters.

Those who want to become core collectors enter either through the Professional Trainee Program or the Clandestine Service Trainee Program, depending on their prior experience. Individuals who have several years of work or military experience will go directly into the Clandestine Service Trainee Program. Those with only a college degree have to enter the Professional Trainee Program before eventually moving into the Clandestine Service Trainee Program.

Applicants who want to work at CIA headquarters, such as those who are seeking positions as staff operations officers and specialized skills officers, take part in the Headquarters Based Trainee Program. When the training period ends, the DO will place the candidate on a career track agency officials deem appropriate for his or her demonstrated skills and the agency's needs.

Job Qualifications

All entry-level job applicants need a bachelor's degree with a grade point average of at least 3.0. Those who want to train to become core collectors must be proficient in a foreign language. Applicants for headquarters-based jobs must have a demonstrated interest in international affairs. While candidates can have degrees in a variety of disciplines, those who studied international business, finance, international relations, economics, physical science, or nuclear, biological or chemical engineering are considered the most desirable.

U.S. citizenship is a requirement for all positions, and every candidate must qualify for security clearance.

In addition to educational background, specific soft skills are essential to one's success in a CIA career. These are personal qualities with which individuals are born or acquire through life experiences outside the classroom. First is the ability to deal with job stress because spying is a career rife with it. Other necessary qualities include superior judgment, the ability to multitask and manage time well, and excellent writing, listening, and verbal communication skills. Strong problem solving and critical thinking abilities are also essential.

A willingness to continuously learn is also important. The capacity to work with others is imperative because CIA officers often are part of a team.

The Application Process

Apply for a job online at the CIA's website if you want to work for the Directorate of Operations. There you will also find complete details about the application process. First, create an account, but only if you plan to complete your application over the next three days. After that period, your account will be disabled whether or not it is done. You will receive an on-screen confirmation—rather than an email one—after submitting your application. You can apply for up to four positions at once.

Once your application is accepted, if it is, pre-employment processing may take up to one year. During that time expect to have personal interviews, medical and psychological testing, drug testing, and a polygraph. You will also be subject to an extensive background check, through which the DO will ensure you have no allegiances to other countries, are trustworthy, can't be coerced, and are willing to protect sensitive information.

Pros and Cons of Working for the CIA Directorate of Operations

If you want intrigue, the DO has it. Even the pages containing information about career opportunities read like a spy novel. For instance, the word "spy" is nowhere to be found, and applicants are warned never to reveal their intentions.

A life undercover isn't for everyone, though. One must keep his or her identity hidden from others. And because the work is covert, there is little public recognition for a job well done. The agency, however, rewards and recognizes its employees internally.

DO officers serving overseas receive competitive pay. Their benefits include housing for themselves and their families. Their children get educational benefits. There is also the opportunity to travel around the world.