With so many unique circumstances and unpredictable timelines, every security clearance applicant could use a little reassurance. Is it normal for a polygraph instructor to tell me I passed? What does it mean if my references get checked before my subject interview? That’s the gist of a recent question on the ClearanceJobs Blog: Is this normal?

The original poster wrote:

“Would someone please explain to me why it takes so long to meet with your BI [Background Investigator] for a SI [Subject Interview]?


TS/SCI – DoD (Fed – MD – IC Agency) Timeline:

Applied – 2017
Interview – December ‘17
CJO [Conditional Job Offer] – February ‘18
SF-86 Submitted – March ‘18
Contacted by Security in ref to missing info – March ‘18
Credit pulled – Aug ‘18
Poly/Psych – Feb ‘19 (inconclusive Poly)
2nd Poly March 22nd ‘19 (passed)

Radio silence since…

(Sprinkle in random phone calls over the last year and a half from recruiting office telling me that “we are still very much interested…”)

Is this timeline normal and right where it needs to be?

And is there any rhyme or reason as to whom would be contacted first… Ie, Me for Subject Interview or my references?”

If you find yourself wondering if your experience is normal, remember that the security clearance process works a lot like the aging process. There are some things everyone will go through, but they’ll look a little different for everyone.

There are a lot of variables, but the clearance process always has three stages: initiation, investigation, and adjudication. Here’s what you can expect from each of these three steps.

Stage One: Initiation

The initiation stage consists of filling out and submitting your SF-86 form. This is a pretty straightforward step and the only stage of the security clearance process that applicants can control. Since you can anticipate delays at all the other stages of the process, work hard to get this one right. Fill out the SF-86 as thoroughly, completely, correctly, and honestly as possible. Accurate reference contact information, a spouse’s Social Security Number, and honest disclosure of finances are easy ways to get through this first stage quickly and painlessly. If you fail to provide the information necessary, your SF-86 will be returned to you and the process will be stalled until you provide all the necessary info.

Filling out paperwork may not seem like sexy, James Bond-style espionage, but your cleared career can’t exist without it – so do it right.

Stage Two: Investigation

Here comes the fun part. The investigation stage is the information gathering stage. Every clearance holder can expect these milestones in Stage Two:

  • Checking references
  • Employment verification
  • Credit check

Depending on which clearance level you’re being considered for, Stage Two may also include a subject interview or a polygraph exam.

What makes this stage so fun? It’s completely unpredictable. Will the investigators run your credit check or conduct your background interview first? Will the investigator contact your references before your subject interview? Who knows?! There is no rhyme or reason or expected timeline. Whether each milestone happens quickly or slowly doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on whether your clearance will be approved or denied. It will truly vary for everyone.

If you’re in Stage Two, don’t panic, don’t jump to conclusions. Just sit tight and “embrace the suck.”

Stage Three: Adjudication

You’re in the homestretch. The adjudication stage happens once all the information has been gathered and the government is ready to make a decision. An adjudicator will look at all the information gathered in Stage Two and use it to determine whether you are trustworthy and suitable to have access to sensitive information. The adjudicator will judge your information based on the 13 adjudicative guidelines.

Like Stage Two, there is no clear timeline of when you can expect to hear a decision. With that said, Stage Three should take less time than Stage Two. It could take three weeks – it could take 6 months. Again, patience is the name of the game.

The security clearance process is not for the faint of heart. It demands a lot of patience and can cause a lot of uncertainty. But it is a necessary step to ensure that those protecting America’s secrets are trustworthy and qualified. But if you’re one of the patriotic Americans who bears through it in order to serve this country, well…shucks. Thanks for being awesome.


Much about the clearance process resembles the Pirate’s Code: “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” This case-by-case system is meant to consider the whole person, increase process security, and allow the lowest-risk/highest-need candidates to complete the process. However, it also creates a  lot of questions for applicants. For this reason, ClearanceJobs maintains ClearanceJobsBlog.com – a forum where clearance seekers can ask the cleared community for advice on their specific security concerns. Ask CJ explores questions posed  on the ClearanceJobs Blog forum

If you have a tough security clearance question, you can post your questions or concerns on ClearanceJobsBlog.com.


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Caroline's background is in public policy, non-profit fundraising, and - oddly enough - park rangering. Though she once dreamed of serving America secretly in the CIA, she's grateful she's gotten to serve America publicly - both through the National Park Service and right here at ClearanceJobs.