Career Profile: Federal Agent
The first thing most people think of when they here the term ‘special agent’ is the FBI. In reality, the FBI is only one of almost 100 federal law enforcement agencies that employ special agents.
Special agents serve in all three branches of government – the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch – and many of the independent federal agencies, commissions, and government corporations. Examples of these agencies include the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Social Security Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, Amtrak, and the Smithsonian Institution. Even the Library of Congress employs special agents who investigate crimes of fraud committed against the Library.
Federal agents investigate everything robbery to murder to internal fraud, waste and abuse to postal fraud to terrorism. If there is a federal law on the books, there is an agency responsible for investigating violations against it. Because of the great variety of crimes investigated by special agents, many of the specialized agencies are looking for candidates with a specialized knowledge; for example, a person with a background or interest in the environment has no fewer than 10 agencies to choose from. A person who likes to travel could consider a career with the State Department, the Secret Service, the FBI, or even the Peace Corps (just to name a few).
What can you expect if you’re a federal agent? Well, probably not what you see Jack Bauer doing every week. But, like Jack, you will be working long hours investigating some very serious crimes that impact all American citizens. Because of the long hours most federal agents are required to work (a minimum of 50 hours per week), they usually receive Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEAP), a 25% premium of their base salary, which generally starts at over $50k per year. Expect to be moved around every few years and expect frequent travel. Many agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, ICE, and components of the DOD, now have resident offices in foreign countries. So, if you want to see the world, this may be the path you want to take.
Because of the demand for federal law enforcement jobs, and the high profile cases the agencies are involved in, getting hired is much tougher than at other law enforcement jobs. Even with a military or law enforcement background, most agencies now require a minimum of a four year degree, but would prefer an advanced degree. This means that unless you were in the top percentile in your undergraduate class, you should seriously consider an advanced degree.