What Is It Like to Be a Special Agent?

Career Information

Detail of the scene of an accident or crime
••• David McGlynn/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

A special agent, sometimes called a detective or criminal investigator, gathers facts and collects evidence to determine if there have been violations of local, state, or federal laws. 

One may specialize in a particular type of crime. For example, a special agent may investigate fraudulent online activity, homicides, or burglaries.

Quick Facts

  • In 2016, special agents earned a median annual salary of $78,120. 
  • There were 119,000 people employed in this field in 2014 (U.S.).
  • They worked for local and state law enforcement agencies as well as federal law enforcement agencies like the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Bureau of Homeland Security.
  • Part-time jobs in this field are highly unusual. Most positions are full-time and often include overtime.
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, special agents will experience slower than average job growth through 2024. Job prospects, however, will be better for applicants with bachelor's degrees, and military and investigative experience. Those who speak more than one language will also have an advantage. 

Roles and Responsibilities 

  • "Examine records, collect physical and documentary evidence, and establish contacts with law enforcement personnel and the public"
  • "Conduct interviews or interrogations of complainants, victims, witnesses, and subject"
  • "Assess original in-depth investigations for weaknesses and/or areas needing further attention"
  • "Prepare appropriate administrative and investigative reports and forms"
  • "Prepare written statements/affidavits from suspects, victims, and witnesses to crimes or relevant matters"
  • "Give testimony in courts of law pertaining to investigations regarding evidence obtained, as necessary"

The Truth About Being a Special Agent

Since their services are needed at all hours of the day and night, special agents may be scheduled to work at any time. Those with more experience usually get to work the most desirable hours, so if you are just starting out, expect to be scheduled nights, weekends, and holidays.

Working in this field is, of course, dangerous. There is a high risk of injury since special agents can be wounded by suspects or receive injuries during high-speed car chases. Following proper procedures can help lessen the chances of something going wrong. This is also an emotionally and physically stressful job. One never knows what will come up during his or her shift and must be ready to deal with all types of situations.

Education and Training

Before becoming a special agent, one usually gets experience working as a police officer. A high school diploma is the minimum requirement for anyone who wants to begin a career in law enforcement, but many local and state agencies also require some college coursework or even a degree. Typically one must be at least 21 years old, pass a test for physical fitness, and undergo a background check and a polygraph (lie detector).

Local law enforcement agencies put all recruits through a police academy. Large agencies have their own training facilities, but smaller ones, for example, a police department in a small town, may send their recruits off to be trained in a regional academy. Upon graduation, one begins his or her on-the-job training.

If you want to become an FBI agent, you must get a bachelor's degree. You will also need at least three years of work experience. Please see the FBI website for more information.

What Soft Skills Do You Need?

What does it take to be a special agent? Certain personal qualities, commonly referred to as soft skills, will help you succeed in this occupation.

Organizational and Time Management Skills: These skills will help you complete the mountains of paperwork that will be a regular part of your job.
Problem Solving: You must be able to quickly solve, in the best way possible, whatever problems come up.
Interpersonal Skills: This set of skills will help you interact with suspects, victims, and colleagues. You must be perceptive and empathetic to understand others' perspectives and anticipate their actions.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

Here are some requirements from actual job announcements on Indeed.com:

  • "Be able to effectively testify in court"
  • "Ability to perform physical labor and withstand physical exertion"
  • "Remain calm under heavy duress"
  • "Mental and physical fitness"
  • "Must possess a valid automobile driver's license at the time of appointment"

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Related Occupations

Description Median Annual Wage (2014) Minimum Required Education/Training
Intelligence Analyst Gathers and analyzes evidence to prevent organized crime activities $78,120 Bachelor's Degree
Fish and Game Warden Prevents violations of fish and game laws $51,730 Bachelor's Degree
Fire Investigator Gathers and analyzes evidence from fires to determine their causes $58,440 Previous experience as a firefighter
Retail Loss Prevention Specialist Develops procedures to help prevent inventory loss in retail establishments $28,720 HS or Equivalency Diploma

Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 (visited September 18, 2017).
Employment and Training Administration, US Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited September 18, 2017).