DEA Agent Career and Job Functions

Do you have what it takes to become a DEA agent?

DEA Agent
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Illegal and illicit drug use is a problem that touches nearly every aspect of society. The drug trade has been tied to terrorism, as well as to all sorts of other illegal and harmful behaviors across the world.

The Drug Enforcement Agency was created as part of the Department of Justice to combat the effects of drug trafficking in the U.S. If you want to work toward eradicating the illegal sale and use of drugs and associated criminal activities, you might want to consider a career as a DEA special agent.

Job Functions and the Work Environment of DEA Special Agents

DEA agents have a unique and special role in law enforcement. They're assigned to investigate every facet of the illegal drug industry, so they may be sent to work anywhere in the country or even the world, including assignments to remote and perhaps even undesirable locations.

DEA special agents work closely with state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as fellow federal law enforcement associates. They help to coordinate investigations and enforcement efforts. Drug enforcement agents are just as likely to work behind the scenes in support of local efforts as they are to take the lead in enforcing federal drug policy. The job of a drug enforcement agent often includes:

  • Conducting surveillance
  • Report writing
  • Preparing and obtaining search and arrest warrants
  • Coordinating federal, state and local drug enforcement efforts
  • Participating in undercover operations
  • Tracking and arresting suspected criminals
  • Providing courtroom testimony
  • Handling weapons, drugs and large sums of money
  • Conducting and coordinating investigations

A career as a DEA agent comes with some special risks, chiefly in the area of undercover work. Undercover agents may be tasked with transporting large amounts of illegal drugs or money. They rarely carry law enforcement credentials because of the danger of being discovered. They may be subject to arrest by local law enforcement officers who are unaware of their activities, in addition to risks posed by interacting with the criminal element.

Education and Skill Requirements for DEA Agents

Being hired as a DEA agent can be a competitive challenge. Candidates must be at least 21 years old and younger than 37 at the time of appointment. The DEA has some strict hiring standards. A rigorous background investigation includes a polygraph exam and psychological screening. Candidates must also undergo a physical abilities test to ensure that they're physically capable of performing the job.

According to the agency, the most competitive candidates will have at least a four-year degree in criminal justice or a related program such as police science or criminology. Preferably, they will hold a master's degree in criminal justice or criminology. Most also have previous experience in law enforcement and many have military backgrounds. 

Fluency in a foreign language is a major plus, especially Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese or Nigerian. Skills in computer science, finance, and accounting, economics, and engineering are also a plus.

Prospective agents undergo an intensive 18-week training program at the DEA Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia after they're hired. Agents receive their first duty assignment during this training. Candidates must agree to be assigned anywhere the agency requires them to go as a condition of employment.

Job Growth and Salary Outlook for Drug Enforcement Special Agents

Drug enforcement is an ongoing issue that requires constant attention, so the landscape of federal drug policy is constantly changing. This means new challenges and new opportunities may be on the horizon for agents at any time. It also means that a need for drug enforcement agents will continue.

As with most federal law enforcement jobs, the DEA conducts periodic hiring campaigns. Prospective candidates are encouraged to contact their nearest DEA recruiting office to stay up to date with employment opportunities within the agency.

First-year agents can expect to earn a base salary of between $33,477 and $53,234 as of 2016, depending on the location of their first assignment and the nature of their past experience. They can earn from $37,309 to $41,612 during their training period. They're also eligible for law enforcement availability pay (LEAP), which can earn them more each year. DEA agents may become eligible for promotions and salaries of more than $90,000 a year after four years of service.

Is a Career As a DEA Agent Right for You?

The Drug Enforcement Agency provides unique perspectives and challenges for law enforcement agents. If you feel strongly about curtailing illegal drug trafficking and you don't mind getting your hands dirty, you may find that a job as a DEA agent may just be the perfect criminology career for you.