Novels, movies, TV shows and video games have all created a modern mythos of what it is like to be a “spy.” One common theme across many works of fiction is what is involved in the training. While these fictional spies and secret agents engage in fantastical “top secret” missions to “take out” enemy assets – including hard and soft targets – the actual training part isn’t really all that far removed from reality.

Down to the Basics

If you’re going to be a “spy” working for the United States of America it will be for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the independent U.S government organization that is responsible for providing national security intelligence to the President of the United States and other senior policy makers. In many cases the training that one goes through to work at the CIA is very much what one might expect, even if the job is quite different.

“Coming to work at the CIA is not like coming to work at a technical company or a big retail chain,” Ron Patrick, the CIA’s head of recruitment, told when discussing the agency’s recruitment strategies. “You are serving your country. You are serving your family, your friends.”

The CIA’s mission is to act as the first line of defense in national security matters. This doesn’t actually involve “taking out” enemy agents or conducting James Bond style missions. Rather it is through the collection and analysis of information about national adversaries, and providing that information to decision makers at the highest levels.

Moreover the CIA is actually a single organization that consists of four basic groups: the National Clandestine Service, the Directorate of Intelligence, the Directorate of Science & Technology and the Directorate of Support. Together these four groups collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence to the POTUS and other top government officials. This is known as “the intelligence cycle.”

CIA Hiring Requirments

To be considered for a career at the CIA one must be a U.S. citizen and must possess at least a bachelor’s degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0; having a history of traveling or living abroad, a sensitivity to other cultures and a fluency in foreign languages will help greatly. CIA candidates should also have solid communication abilities and must pass at least one polygraph – lie detector – test. Applicants can also expect to undergo reexaminations and continuing drug screening throughout their career.

A legal background can also help get one’s foot in the door – just as it would for those interested in a career at the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), or other government agencies.

“Thanks to Hollywood, when a person hears the acronym ‘CIA,’ they usually think of secret agents and spies but the reality is there are a myriad of careers within the CIA,” said Geoffrey Ball, president of “These range from those in cyber security to analysts, engineers, and legal services.”

Having a legal background will definitely be an asset to landing a position in the CIA’s legal division, explained Ball, as the agency is always on the lookout for highly skilled attorneys, paralegals, law clerks, and legal advisors.

“If, however, your goal is to specifically become a ‘spy,’ or what the CIA refer to as Clandestine Service within their Directorate of Operations (DO),  having a legal background will not necessarily grant you any specific advantage,” noted Ball. “What’s more important is having a college degree, exceptional writing skills, analytical skills, problem-solving abilities, and highly developed interpersonal skills. Overseas experience and knowing a foreign language are also a big plus.”

spy training = Specialized Skills

CIA candidates must be prepared for some serious mental stress. One aspect that works of fiction often get very right about the life of a field agent and analysts alike is that it is far from a nine to five job, so anyone looking to punch out and spend the evening in front of the TV should stick to Tom Clancy novels. A real spy analyst can expect to endure long hours without sleep and few comforts.

During these long stretches one must still maintain intense concentration despite fatigue and even the very possible threat of physical danger. The CIA will test a recruit during training to ensure that the candidate is up to the tasks, and this involves pushing the cognitive abilities and resilience in stressful situations as much as any tests of brute or raw physical strength.

The basic physical training is not that far removed from what someone joining the military would go through. This could include exercises and regimes to get the candidate in the best physical shape, along with extensive hand-to-hand combat skill tests and even the teaching of skills to fight with improvised weapons. Airborne training – as in jumping out of a plane with a parachute – may also be part of training for some agents.

Not everyone will use these more physical skills in their careers at the CIA. Many agents will do more far more walking and talking than they do running and jumping.

“If you want a job that that demands that you’re physically active where you’ll be in hostile situations day and night the military is the way to go,” said Christopher Burgess, a 30-veteran of the CIA. “The CIA requires much of the physical training, but for many the combat and physical skills aren’t really used day in and day out.”

Instead, CIA training – which occurs at an undisclosed location-  is about getting in shape in mind as well as body.

“This is the James Bond training program,” added Burgess, who is now CEO of Prevendra, a security, privacy and intelligence entity. “It could include weapons and survival training, but it is also four to five months where candidates are trained in the art of intelligence collection.”

Your Mission: If you Choose to Accept It

Mission locations will also determine the level and even types of training that one may experience.

“The guy who spends his days sitting in an office doesn’t need the same level of weapons training as others,” said Burgess. “However, the guy who is going to Kabul (Afghanistan) might need weapons as well as other survival skills.

“There is training for those in the signals and intelligence arm,” Burgess added. “These are the people that handle disguises, video and audio detection and other surveillance gathering devices. That is where you see your ‘rocket scientist’ types.”

This type of advanced training can run the gamut from learning about devices such as using pin hole cameras, to piloting a small submarine, to the latest in tools to crack computer encryption. This is the somewhat secret James Bond stuff that people expect. Just without the invisible car or jet packs.

Continuing Education

One important part of CIA training is that it never really ends. Just as doctors, engineers and other careers today require advanced continuing study so too does the modern spy. Depending on the next assignment it could be further language training, which Burgess noted could involve as little as six weeks to become familiar with a language to a full year of deep learning to be fluent in a new foreign tongue.

“Language skills are something you have to continually brush up as these are absolutely essential to the success of your job in the field,” said Burgess. “It is hard to conduct an interview if you can’t communicate with them!”

Throughout one’s career other specialized training will be given. Topics of ethnics, counter intelligence and management will also be provided.

“You’re going to be training often,” said former CIA officer Jason Hanson Founder and CEO of Spy Escape & Evasion and, who spent six years working for the agency. “There are lots of skills that perish quickly if you don’t train often.”

life after the CIA

Employees at the CIA might be quick to point out it isn’t just another job, but even for those who spend years training there comes a time when it is time to move on. The CIA’s training can be ideal for helping those not only transition to another career, but can provide many excellent post-agency opportunities.

“The training is incredible, and could be used in a variety of jobs,” said Hanson, who offered a few examples: “Private security overseas, bodyguard work in the U.S., law enforcement and private detective work, to name a few. A person should have no problem finding a job.”

No Parades for the CIA

While those in the military may march in parades and wear their medals proudly, the CIA must serve in the shadows. That’s where their laurels must remain as well.

“Reward is never public, so if you want to be a silent contributor while serving your nation then your personality would suit the CIA,” said Burgess. “Many success stories won’t be told or see the light of day, only failures will be attached to your hip publicly. It takes its toll, which is why I retired at age 50.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.