Americans with a strong sense of a patriotism, a desire for adventure and an interest in foreign policy often seek public-facing jobs within the U.S. military or the U.S. State Department, where it is possible to win fame and glory.
However, there are some civic-minded U.S. citizens who choose to do essential government work that they can never discuss with family or friends.
Employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, commonly known as the CIA, regularly conduct top-secret missions whose details they typically must not share with anyone outside the agency. A career with the CIA is typically characterized by a combination of discretion and humility.
Further, although many CIA employees may state their affiliation with the agency as long as they refrain from revealing classified information, individuals who covertly work for the CIA are forbidden from revealing their true identity to strangers while employed by the CIA. Undercover CIA operatives are sometimes required to deceive, albeit for noble purposes such as thwarting terrorist attacks or rescuing hostages.
On its website, the CIA outlines and debunks many popular misconceptions about the agency’s mission and the type of work it does.
According to CIA spokesperson Chelsea Robinson, even the terminology that most outsiders use when talking about the CIA is wrong. CIA employees are called officers rather than agents, Robinson says. Within the CIA, the term agent is reserved for an informant outside the agency, usually a foreign national abroad who spies and provides information to the CIA, according to the CIA website.
“The mission of the Central Intelligence Agency is to help protect US national security by collecting foreign intelligence, informing policymakers with intelligence assessments, and conducting covert action at the behest of the President,” Robinson wrote in an email.
How to Qualify for a Job at the CIA
The CIA has several concrete eligibility requirements. Job candidates must apply for CIA positions online while inside of the U.S. through the CIA’s Career Application Center and be at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen. Potential CIA employees need to confirm that they are willing to move to the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area if they aren’t based there already, and they must pass medical and security screenings.
Emily Brandwin, a former CIA employee who earned a theater degree before joining the CIA, says the hiring process is “super-competitive.” She suggests that applicants rejected by the CIA can still do valuable public service work for a different government agency.
“It’s like auditioning for a play,” says Brandwin, who was an operations officer with the CIA’s clandestine service and initially worked as a disguise specialist for the agency. “The casting director or hiring person may say, ‘I need this instead of that.’ It’s not necessarily you or your background,” she says, adding that flexibility, an ability to follow orders and respect for chain of command are vital within the CIA.
Robinson stresses that many forms of knowledge are valuable within the CIA. “Our global mission demands that we hire a wide variety of occupations and skill sets,” she explains, noting that there are many kinds of CIA jobs, including various roles that involve collecting or interpreting intelligence information.
“We look for candidates with intellectual curiosity, interest in international affairs, foreign languages, and experience overseas,” Robinson says. “We have a strong mission for those who are looking for more meaningful work, toward a higher ideal, with interesting problems.”
Certain skills are required for any position at the CIA, according to Robinson. “All of our positions require strong leadership, communication, and organizational skills.”
Aki J. Peritz, an adjunct faculty member at American University in the District of Columbia and a former CIA analyst, notes that it is common for aspiring CIA officers to pursue degrees in political science or international relations. But he suggests that no specific academic pedigree is expected at the CIA, adding that he knew a prominent CIA official with a forestry degree.
Graphic designers and geologists occasionally work for the CIA, so there are CIA roles for all kinds of people, says Peritz, an author who has written extensively about counterterrorism efforts and whose book “Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History” is scheduled to be released later this year.
What the CIA Is Like and What CIA Officers Do
The CIA has five areas called directorates, each focusing on a specific aspect of the agency’s mission, such as science and technology. CIA personnel with differing areas of expertise can collaborate on projects via one of the agency’s multiple mission centers, which are designed to address threats to national security in an interdisciplinary way. The agency is led by a director who is nominated by a president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“Officers who work within the Directorate of Analysis are excellent puzzle-solvers who take information, often with missing pieces, and make sense of it,” Robinson explains. “Then, they deliver written reports, including products such as the President’s Daily Briefing, and brief policymakers to help them make informed decisions.”
As an analyst, Peritz combined insights from human intelligence with intercepted foreign communications plus publicly accessible information, such as media reports. “The idea is that you’re trying to get the truth to the decision-maker,” he says, noting that sometimes it is hard to differentiate fact from fiction.
Peritz, who was tasked with watching and assessing terrorist beheading videos for the CIA at one point in his agency career and has written about it, warns that CIA jobs sometimes involve confronting “gruesome, awful” realities.
“It’s really, really awful to watch a person die over and over and over again,” Peritz says, but he notes that there was a humane purpose behind it: to identify the people on camera and figure out how to prevent such tragedies. “The best-case scenario is that you are actually protecting the United States and protecting American lives,” he says, adding that he once assisted with a life-saving CIA hostage rescue effort.
Compensation for CIA professionals is often less than what they might earn if they pursued a private sector career, Peritz says, noting that CIA tech workers are often capable of securing extremely lucrative employment in Silicon Valley.
However, many CIA officers earn six-figure salaries. Pay within the CIA is highly dependent on where someone falls within the agency hierarchy. CIA job postings typically include salary ranges.
How to Decide if You Should Work for the CIA
An interest in exploring the world is a must for a potential CIA officer, as is a passion for public service, Brandwin says. Because she had a covert CIA position, one of the challenges of her job was living with “duality” and not being able to be upfront with others about who she was, she explains.
But there was also something gratifying about the act of pretending, Brandwin says. “We’re secret stealers and so that’s what was fun and intriguing to me as an actor – getting to play a role and getting to basically get trained to lie, and so it’s a very different kind of government job in that sense.”
The hours of covert assignments are extremely demanding, she adds. “With a job at the agency, especially if you’re in the clandestine service, it carries over,” Brandwin says. “You may do your cover job during the day and at night you’re doing your espionage work.”
Successes at the CIA are often extremely meaningful, even though those achievements are often hidden, Brandwin says.
Peritz suggests that even the CIA’s declassified accomplishments are sometimes undervalued. He says the CIA played a key role in stopping a major al-Qaida plot that likely would have resulted in the deaths of thousands of airline passengers only a few years after 9/11, but very few Americans are aware of this.
Potential CIA officers need to evaluate their motivations for pursuing a job at the CIA, Brandwin says.
“Make sure you’re applying to the CIA, not because it’s something you saw in the movies, but because you really want to serve,” she emphasizes. “Know that it’s not a traditional job. It’s not even a traditional government job. It’s long hours, it’s hard hours, it’s hard work, but it can be some of the most rewarding work that you’ll ever do.”
By Ilana Kowarski