So you want to be a spy. If movies and TV shows are to be believed, you’ll need to show that you’re a bit of a disconnected loner with some sociopathic tendencies, be able to drink heavily, and show an ability to kill with a variety of weapons. Of course in the real world most of the above would immediately disqualify you from a job in the intelligence community.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) doesn’t have job openings for assassins, and most of its employees are more likely to spend their days at a desk. The reality is that the CIA is like many other government agencies – it isn’t professionals who can’t work well as part of a team, as some movies and TV shows would have you believe.
“The thing that will make you successful in a career at the CIA or other intelligence agencies is going to be an attention to detail,” explained Dr. Charles A. Morgan, M.D., MA, professor in the Department of National Security at the University of New Haven.
One thing almost all employees at the CIA will have in common is that they earned at least a bachelor’s degree and many may have a master’s degree as well. Many have attended top tier schools and aim for high scores. The type of degree matters too. Generally, the intelligence community is looking for those with degrees in geography, library science, history, international studies, politics, national security, statistics, law and accounting, while computer science, cybersecurity and those with degrees in language and foreign cultures are also sought after.
It isn’t unheard of for theater majors and MBAs to be hired at the CIA either. That is because the CIA has literally hundreds of positions from accountants to mechanics to analysts. What the CIA doesn’t really have are spies.
“The CIA is a broad organization,” Morgan, who worked as a medical doctor at the CIA, told ClearanceJobs. “So they are looking for anything that a large corporation might require. In the case of many of these professional careers, however, they are very selective and only want those who have board certifications. Only 5% of doctors are board certified, so that means that the CIA is looking for people who are far more experienced than others in those fields.”
Communication Skills Matter
In addition to having at least a bachelor’s degree and a fairly high GPA, the CIA expects candidates to be able to have good communication skills.
“They are certainly looking at people who can write clearly and succinctly,” said Morgan. “You have to be able to write quickly and distill the information. Critical thinking and writing are really important.”
It may come as a surprise to many, but Morgan added that the CIA wants people who are open to reading. Intelligence is about gathering facts, and while that can include interviews or surveillance, a lot of the information comes from written reports. It is a great deal of reading between the lines.
While movies and TV shows may suggest that the CIA is made up of loners who work on their own, the truth is that the agency is a big team. Working well with others is crucial.
“To be considered for employment at the CIA you have to show that you can get along with other people,” explained Morgan. “Rarely do you work alone, so you have to be able to work well with others. If you have a history of confrontation and can’t be part of a team that is really going to be a problem.”
Dealing With Stress
Another misconception about the world of the intelligence community is that it is nonstop action and adventure. Most CIA employees work in the D.C. area, and while there are postings around the world, employees are still likely to be bound to a desk.
The hours can be long and irregular, and it can involve a lot of tedium.
Other times, especially during a crisis, the hours can be long and stressful. Individuals applying to the CIA need to be able to deal with stress.
“The issue stress tolerance is a serious one,” said Morgan. “Those with anxiety issues aren’t going to be a good fit. But the CIA also wants to hire those who think before they act. Those with anger issues, or who can’t handle responsibility also won’t work well at the CIA.”
The intelligence community takes background investigations as seriously as any part of the government, and those who apply to the CIA will need to expect that their background will thoroughly investigated, and on a regular basis.
“The CIA is going to look in your finances, your use of alcohol, sexual behaviors and prior problems with the law,” said Morgan. “This is much like any security clearance background check. The CIA wants to know that you can manage money and are not in debt. They want to know that you’re not promiscuous and have a wild sex life that could result in compromise and that you generally have a regulated life. Drinking isn’t a issue, but DUIs and problems with alcohol are considered – just as past trouble with the law.”
The intelligence community may also pay attention to what potential employees may have done in the past, including organizations they belonged to or even what has been said online.
“I tell my students today that they if they are thinking of a career in government to be careful what they post online,” added Morgan.
Generally, the CIA is about looking for those who can be professional.
“The CIA still expects to train you, and that includes for the technical parts of the job,” said Morgan. “What they want is someone who is a professional and can do their job in a new environment.”