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SoYouWanna work for the CIA?

The life of a super spy… Pick up your remote-controlled BMW in the morning, enter the Russian Defense Ministry on a laundry truck, climb through the ventilation system, use new crypto-software to crack the code to a nuclear submarine, and meet Octopussy for dinner and brandy.

We're sorry to be the bearers of bad news, but there are no James Bonds. The Central Intelligence Agency (hereafter called the "CIA") would never hire people who draw that kind of attention to themselves. That isn't to say that CIA agents don't have their fair share of secret gadgets and weapons, nor that the job isn't without adventure. The CIA is looking for a few good spies, and you could be one. The CIA is especially looking to hire Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, and women.


We want to make a couple things clear:

  • The CIA is not the same thing as the FBI. First of all, they're spelled differently. Second, the FBI is basically concerned about law enforcement, whereas the CIA is concerned with getting information to help aid the US make foreign policy decisions.

  • If you want to join the CIA, you don't have to be a spy. The majority of jobs at the CIA are actually non-spy-ish, including jobs as economists, foreign policy experts, researchers, and psychologists. But be realistic: who wouldn't want to be a spy? Well, except for all that impending death stuff.

So without further ado, let's get dangerous.

1. Know What The CIA Does

Boy, are we sneaks. American spying has existed ever since the infancy of the U.S., extending back to Nathan Hale and the Revolutionary War. The Central Intelligence Agency, however, is a relatively new organization that was created by President Truman in 1947 with the signing of National Security Act. The CIA's stated purpose: "to collect, evaluate and disseminate foreign intelligence" and "to engage in covert action at the president's direction." In the past, the agency carried out far more covert actions, many in Central America.

In the last decade, the CIA has been plagued by a number of embarrassing incidents. A few examples:

  • The CIA recently mistook the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade for a Yugoslav government building, which led to an international incident when US military forces bombed it.

  • The agency failed to predict both India's nuclear test or North Korea's missile launch, and then admitted it didn't have officers in place who could have picked up on them.

  • Aldrich Ames lived the good life at the CIA until it was discovered that he was a mole who had sent secrets to Moscow from 1985 until his arrest in 1994.

The CIA is not a policy-making organization. Instead it simply gives policy makers (e.g., the National Security Agency, the President) the information they need for good decision making. Recently the agency has taken on new responsibility by tracking terrorists, drug producers, and nuclear and chemical weapons. So in short, the Central Intelligence Agency is what makes the US intelligent on the world scene.

As the CIA's factbook expounds, the CIA is responsible for:

  • Providing accurate, evidence-based, comprehensive, and timely foreign intelligence related to national security; and

  • Conducting counterintelligence activities, special activities, and other functions related to foreign intelligence and national security as directed by the President.

Yes, it's general, but much of what the CIA does changes on a case-by-case basis. If the US is involved in a conflict, needs to respond to a foreign crisis, or suspects an international act of terrorism is going to take place, the CIA is on the case. Once they've figured out what's going on, they send the FBI in to do the dirty work of blowing the bad guys up. As far as your future employment with the CIA is concerned, the first step is to realize that it's international and advisory in nature, with a few select people (spies) doing cool things to help inform those decisions.

To learn some quick spy-speak phrases, skip on ahead to our CIA glossary. For more information about the history of the CIA and what it does, check out their online factbook.

2. Learn About The Available Positions

First and foremost, you must recognize that the CIA is a government agency; as such, the salaries are less than stellar. The exact salaries are kept top-secret (as is everything to do with the CIA's budget), but don't ever expect to make six figures - something between $30,000 - $60,000 is a lot more realistic. But don't complain; teachers, police officers, and firefighters all get paid crap too.

The CIA is divided up into four directorates (the agency's fancy word for "branches"):

  • The Directorate of Operations (referred to as the "DO"), which is responsible for collecting HUMINT (human intelligence). In other words, this is the part of the CIA that you go to when you want to be (or catch) spies. However, the DO contains only 1000-2000 of the CIA's 16,000-20,000 employees.

  • The Directorate of Science and Technology, which uses spy satellites (over $1 billion a pop) and other technological wizardry to gather intelligence.

  • The Directorate of Intelligence, which analyzes all the information (most of it easily available from sources like newspapers and radio) and prepares memos for briefing the president and other officials.

  • The Directorate of Administration, which handles the CIA's daily logistics and among other things would be responsible for hiring you.

Each directorate thinks that its work is the agency's most important; certainly part of working for the CIA is feeling a sense of pride and patriotism which compensates for the below-private-sector salaries.

Almost any educational background or field of study prepares one for a career at the CIA. In the last couple of years the agency has been on a hiring spree, attending numerous college recruitment fairs and trying to grab qualified candidate before they are snatched up by higher paying private-sector jobs. The CIA also has internships and graduate study opportunities available. Apparently, their strategy has worked: the number of applications in 1999 (39,000) doubled from the previous year.

Yes, many fields of study could prepare you for a career in the CIA, but some of the most highly sought experience includes:

  • Computer scientists, engineers, and programmers, needed for just about everything.
  • Economists to analyze economies (mainly the Middle East, Asia, and Africa) in order to brief policy makers.
  • Human resource people to keep the agency staffed and happy. (This is one of the easier jobs to get.)
  • Language teachers and translators to help those who cannot help themselves. In fact, fluent knowledge of any second language is a huge plus.
  • Psychologists to evaluate perspectives and keep the agency sane.
  • Specialists in paper and pulp science to make notes that self-destruct in 30 seconds or less.
  • Polygraph examiners to examine polygraphs.
  • Secretaries who, in addition to typing, get to "handle classified documents that will be used by the President."

If you are none of the above, then check out this complete list of currently available positions at the CIA.

3. Know The Requirements

In order to function, the CIA needs everyone from janitors to weapons analysts, economists, and disguise-makers. Certainly each job has specific requirements (academic and otherwise), but there are 4 requirements that every employee must meet.

  1. Medical examination: Unsurprisingly, "medical examination" is code for "drug testing." Each page of the CIA employment web page emphasizes that the agency is a "drug-free workforce." Don't panic, the agency says that past drug use does not preclude someone from working for the CIA (although "current" drug use certainly will). The reasoning is that drug use in high school and college is so widespread that a rigid rule would mean not hiring enough new employees. And just in case you're curious about how to pass a drug test, there are ways.

  2. Polygraph interview: If you think that regular job interviews are stressful, try doing one with wires connected to your body registering the level of your nervous system. In the late 80s, it was discovered that nearly all of the Cubans working for the CIA were double-agents. But polygraph technology has evolved greatly since the Reagan days, and it would be difficult to completely fool a CIA polygraph analyst. For more information about how to lie, check out "SYW lie persuasively?"

  3. Background check: The background check is extremely thorough, so if your grandmother cleaned toilets for the KGB, don't try it. It is hard to say exactly what the CIA is looking for; they certainly don't talk about it.

  4. U.S. citizenship: No citizenship, no job in the CIA. Well, that's kinda a half-truth; the CIA has plenty of foreigners on their payroll, but these are agents hired to provide information. They're not given access to classified information. They're like the freelancers of the CIA.

The first step in applying for a job is submitting a résumé. But you can't use your normal "please hire me as your ice cream scooper" résumé; the CIA has a special rigid résumé guide that only asks for what they specifically want to know. For the résumé guide and a list of area recruiters (who only offer their fax numbers), go to the official CIA homepage.

For every 100 qualified applicants to the CIA, around 50 get tentative job offers. Around 37 of these 50 offers are accepted. Once the CIA has confirmation of a candidate's interest, it begins background, medical, and polygraph testing. Of the 37 who accept the tentative offer, 17 make it through the rigorous testing.

Outside of these basic requirements, any of the positions requiring a college degree asks for a minimum 3.0 GPA. The CIA also has a particular interest for higher degrees (especially PhDs). Naturally, these specific educational requirements vary depending on the specific job. For instance, to become a CIA economist, you need at least a Master's degree and a GPA of 3.2 or higher. To be a specialist in paper and pulp science, one must have an "understanding of commercial bindery, assembly, and fabrication practices."

4. Know The Benefits And Drawbacks

There are tons of obvious benefits and drawbacks to working for the CIA. Obvious benefit: it sounds really cool to say you work there. Obvious drawback: sucky pay. But here are some of the benefits and drawbacks with which you might not be so familiar.


  • The CIA will cover your moving expenses and ship up to 18,000 pounds of your stuff. Isn't that ducky?

  • If you happen to work at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, VA (which will probably be the case), you can expect many of the quality of life perks that would be available in a similar corporate environment, including: casual dress when appropriate, fully-equipped fitness facilities, a jogging track, walking paths, access to entertainment tickets, on-site dry cleaners, film processing, and a barber shop.

  • The CIA sponsors many of its employees for full or part-time schooling at area universities, such as Georgetown, George Mason University, and the University of Virginia. For college students, there's a program that offers tuition assistance and summer jobs in exchange for promising to work at the CIA after graduation.

  • The CIA takes good care of its workers. From retirement plans to family leave to vacation time to health benefits, you won't get screwed over when it comes to preparing for your twilight years.

  • Patriotism is cited as one of the main reasons for working at the CIA. It is an intangible form of compensation that to some extent balances the lower-than-private-sector government salaries. Most CIA employees would say they are not in it for the money.


  • You're not really allowed to tell anybody what you do at work. This is especially true if you train to become a "clandestine service operation officer" (A.K.A. "spy"). So we hope you can keep a secret.

  • You'll probably have to relocate to Virginia, where the headquarters is located. If you ever get placed in another city/country, you'll probably have no say over where. And as you advance through the ranks, the chances of foreign travel increase. So if you and your family are not travel freaks, you might want to reconsider.

  • Did we mention the rotten pay?

5. Become A Spy

George J. Tenet, the current Director of Central Intelligence, has put an emphasis on strengthening the human component of the CIA's intelligence gathering force. Most people think that spying has gone completely digital, thanks to great advances in satellite and code-breaking technology. However, most encryption technology is so complicated, that even the CIA can't crack it. Also, satellites were good for watching missile silos during the Cold War, but they can't really watch terrorists, drug-traffickers, secret weapons programs, and leaders of rogue nations. For those activities, you still need well-trained old-fashioned spies.

The Directorate of Operations (which we briefly talked about in step 2) is the branch that runs covert operations and recruits foreign agents. The DO employs 1000-2000 people, and when hiring, looks for "an extraordinary individual who wants more than just a job," someone with "superior intellectual ability, toughness of mind and a high degree of personality" who can work in "fast-moving, ambiguous and unstructured situations." Y'know… spy stuff.

In order to become a spy, you have to fulfill the requirements we talked about in step 3 PLUS a whole bunch of other requirements. According to Gil Medeiros, CIA Director of Recruiting, "You have to have a certain set of foreign-language [and cultural] skills...before we'll even talk to you." Favored are Asian- and Arab-Americans and those who can help in other so-called "hard-target" countries.

A common misconception is that CIA has agents, when they actually have case officers who work on getting information and finding others who can get them information. There are two types of officers in the DO:

  • Field operations officers: The "spies" who recruit agents in other countries.
  • Staff operations officers: Their support team in Langley, VA.

To apply for being either a field operation or staff operation officer, you must fulfill the following requirements:

  • You must be under 35 years old.

  • You must have gotten a Bachelor's or Master's degree and have received at least a 3.0. Particularly good majors to have include: business, international relations, economics, biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering (especially nuclear engineering).

  • You must have top-notch writing skills. You'll be writing many field reports.

  • If you're married, your spouse must be a U.S. citizen.

  • It helps if you are 100% fluent in another language… especially one of those "hard-target" languages.

  • Your starting salary ranges from $34,000-52,000 depending on experience. This experience might consist of an ability to speak Farsi or other difficult languages. Or computer expertise that would enable an agent to fool the global data networks that have made using fake identification more difficult.

As far as what you can expect in your training, much of it is kept secret for obvious reasons. But here's the general timeline for gaining admittance into the Clandestine Service Trainee Program. You'll go through an average of 1-3 years of preparation (during which you'll be both an Operations Desk Officer and a Collection Management Officer). If you are to become a field officer, you will also spend time at "the Farm," the CIA's training ground at Camp Peary near Williamsburg, VA. The course there has been called "Outward Bound with guns," and requires a few days in a swamp escaping human predators. Officers also learn how to gather information at cocktail parties, set up clandestine meetings, see if they are being tailed, use short wave radios and secure communications gear, and write reports for their superiors. During a "jail sequence," officer recruits are put in a cell, deprived of food, water, and sleep, and then interrogated for nearly two days.

There is a short cut. If, for instance, you've been in the military or already know tons about the Middle East and speak a Middle Eastern language with fluency, you can apply directly into the CST Program. Send your cover letter to CST Division, ATTN: 98-IC, P.O. Box 12002, Dept. INTERNET, Arlington, VA 22209-2002.

And now you're ready to apply to join the CIA! Just go to the CIA homepage, fill out the form, and wait to see what happens.

One more thing: just for good measure, we've added a glossary onto this article, just so you can use some fancy words in any interviews to prove that you're serious. And even if you don't get the job, you can still scare people by throwing these phrases around.


Agent (Asset): Foreigner recruited by a CIA case officer.

Base: CIA post that is smaller than a station.

Case Officer: A member of the Directorate of Operations (DO) who recruits and directs agents.

CI (Counterintelligence): Information and action against foreign espionage.

Clandestine Service: The same thing as the Directorate of Operations.

Collection: The gathering of raw intelligence info.

Cover: Official or unofficial position held by a member of the Directorate of Operations.

Covert Operation: Secret operation often done at the direction of the President. The Bay of Pigs invasion, for example.

Dead Drop: Secret location for agents and case officers to exchange information. The KGB used to use a hollow tree trunk in Washington, D.C.

Defector: Someone of interest to the CIA who has left his or her country of citizenship.

Denied Area: Country where the US has no diplomatic or military presence.

Developmental: A potential agent courted by a case officer.

Diplomatic Cover: A fake diplomatic position that protects a case officer from prosecution.

Dissemination: Distribution of intelligence.

Double Agent: Agent who is actually working for another government, normally feeding misinformation to the CIA. In the late 1980s, it was discovered that nearly all Cuban agents were working for Castro and passing on misinformation to the CIA.

False Flag: Agent, officer, or operation disguised to appear as if run by another country.

Handle (also called a vulnerability): Information, money, or other means for a case officer to exert control over an agent.

Hard-Target Country: Nation that the CIA considers to be difficult for spying, such as North Korea, China, France, Iran, and Russia.

HUMINT (human intelligence): Intelligence collected by the Directorate of Operations.

IMINT (imagery intelligence): Satellite imagery from spy satellites costing over $1 billion each, so exceptionally detailed that the numbers on license plates are visible.

Institutional Recruitment: Agent who can be passed down from case officer to case officer.

Legend: False identity of a case officer, often that of a real person, albeit a dead one.

Nonofficial Cover (NOC): A fake or real private sector job used by a case officer as a cover.

PNG: Eviction of a diplomat by declaring him or her a persona non grata, usually for spying. The benefit of official cover is that case officers are kicked out of a country instead of being thrown in jail.

SIGINT (signals intelligence): Intelligence gained by intercepting electronic communications.

Station: A major CIA post.

Takedown: Destruction of a network of foreign agents.

Walk-ins: Agents who are not recruited but instead offer their services.

SoYouWanna know more? Check out our full-length article SYW lie persuasively?