The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is a sector of the government that has been quite popular in movies and on TV for years. Many top-selling novels are related to intelligence. Let's just say it, spies are sexy.
Secrecy and security keep a lot of the actual details of the job of CIA employees unknown to the general public. Between that and the known mundane tasks of working for the CIA, writers often pour a lot of juice into the severity of issues or tone of conversation.
But, how much is a CIA agent’s life really like that of the famed Jack Ryan or Jason Bourne? The CIA website and Google offer a lot of inspiration on the subject, but we’ve gone through them and compiled answers to the most common questions about the CIA.
FAQs about the CIA
How Does the CIA Recruit?
Unlike many government agencies, such as the armed forces, the CIA doesn't technically recruit. How to become part of the CIA is not much different from applying for a typical civil service job.
As positions range from administrative, clerical work to collecting information in the field, being a fit for the job you are interested in is largely a matter of majoring in a high-demand field as well as having relevant work experience.
All open positions are available to view on their website. These positions detail the job description as well as the minimum education requirements and years of experience sought. How to be a CIA officer is as simple as finding the position online and applying.
One key part of applying to work for the CIA is meeting the standards to pass a security clearance. The most common hurdle that can hold people back from obtaining a clearance is not being honest about the facts that were discovered. In many instances, what was discovered was a forgivable offense, while lying while trying to obtain a security clearance is not.
Being involved in drug use (still banned on the federal level) or other criminal activity within the past year can also disqualify you.
Can Foreigners Work for the CIA?
A common misconception is that your family has to have been in the US for generations in order to work for the CIA. The only requirement for an applicant is that they be a US citizen.
Parental citizenship is irrelevant to the CIA. A first-generation immigrant who is a US citizen is welcome to apply with the CIA.
How Long is CIA Training?
Unlike many police departments, military branches, or the FBI, the CIA doesn’t have a training course that applies to all employees. Depending on your focus, there may be nothing special outside of typical new hire indoctrination.
Full officer or spy training, however, can be very similar to boot camp. Individuals are subjected to fatigue and pushed to test cognitive abilities and stress resilience. Physical exercises are taught along with hand-to-hand combat, in addition to fighting with improvised and common weapons. Some agents will even be subject to airborne training. The general length of time for this training is about one year.
Categories of CIA Employment
As stated earlier, there are a few different avenues to take when seeking a career with the CIA: Analysis, Clandestine, STEM, Targeting, Enterprise & Support, or Foreign Language. This allows for many opportunities to be a part of the CIA while not limiting types of work. With many agencies, a particular trait is more likely to stand-out over others. With the CIA, there is something that complements a wide range of aptitudes.
CIA Analytic positions require critical thinking, collaboration, and troubleshooting. Key aspects of this path are the ability to evaluate sometimes incomplete or inconsistent information. Jobs in this section include:
- Economic Analyst.
Responsible for assessing foreign economic and financial interests that can affect US security interests. These analysts often work in regional offices focusing on macroeconomic and microeconomic issues and potential transnational matters.
Transnational economists take a broader, global approach for similar matters. May also assess known terrorist and criminal financial activities.
Qualifications include a four-year (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors, with Economics as a top preference, followed by Finance, Business Administration, and International Management; strong writing, verbal presentation skills, and critical thinking and problem-solving skills; and research experience in international affairs.
- Human Resources Analyst.
Responsible for providing workforce metrics, analysis, and reports to help facilitate senior leadership’s awareness of the workplace to better inform decision-making.
They strengthen business partnerships with customers and function as workforce analytics and strategy experts. Assessments must be analytic and actionable.
Qualifications include a four-year (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors: Business Administration, Psychology, Human Resources, Mathematics, Economics, Social Science, Physical Science, Behavioral Data Science, or Statistics; organizational and time-management skills; attention to detail; and experience in data analysis, human resources, or project management.
- Science, Technology & Weapons (STW) Analyst.
Responsible for applying scientific and technical experience to assess foreign weapons development, cyber warfare, and emerging technologies.
Works closely with regional specialists, collection officers, and other intelligence professionals. Must communicate findings to decision makers via written or verbal presentations.
Opportunities exist for travel, language and management training, and additional studies.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year degree in a field related to engineering, biology, chemistry, computer science, math, physics, or technology; critical thinking and problem solving skills; and ability conduct research on foreign affairs.
CIA Clandestine positions require integrity, dedication, and flexibility. Key aspects of this path are the ability to be self-reliant, the ability to work in a team, and an ability to pick up things on the job. Opportunities in this section include:
- Operations Officer.
Responsible for spotting, assessing, developing, handling, and recruiting non-US citizens who can access foreign intelligence crucial to our foreign policy and national security.
Duties include building relationships containing trust while assessing character and motivations. This leads to most assignments lasting several years.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year degree (applicants graduating in less than a year can be considered) - no particular major is preferred; an ability to improvise; and a willingness to be immersed in other cultures.
- Specialized Skills Officer (SSO).
Responsible for conducting and supporting operations by applying technical skills in specialized military fields and/or experience in media, communications, advertising, marketing, crisis management, issue advocacy, or technology development.
Duties can include experience with aviation, maritime, civil affairs, and psychological or information operations. SSOs are mainly stationed at the CIA headquarters, but there are several opportunities for travel and temporary assignments elsewhere.
This position requires a five-year contract. Qualifications for this job include a four-year degree (applicants graduating in less than a year can be considered) - no particular major is preferred. SSOs must have experience in media, business, finance, law, commercial or military diving, maritime, counterintelligence, or military aviation careers.
- Staff Operations Officer.
Responsible for applying specialized expertise of clandestine operations, operational tradecraft, and intelligence priorities while offering strategy, guidance, and operational case management.
Duties can include operational activities or covert action. These positions are mainly stationed at the CIA headquarters, but there are several opportunities for travel and temporary assignments elsewhere.
This position requires a five-year contract. Qualifications for this job include a four-year degree (applicants graduating in less than a year can be considered) - no particular major is preferred.
Desired traits in applicants include being action- and results-oriented; possessing strong verbal and written skills; being able to develop and maintain networks across the government; and exude a confident and authoritative voice in operational decisions.
CIA STEM positions require creativity, agility, and innovation. Key aspects of this path focus on ensuring that the CIA can adapt to the constantly-changing technical issues of this century. Opportunities in this section include:
- Architect/Facilities Project Manager.
Responsible for providing custom products, facilities, and services for internal Agency customers. While managing and coordinating facilities projects, they perform project planning; project implementation; developing Statements of Work and estimates; managing customer expectations; monitoring cost, schedules, and performance; identifying potential risks; and performing quality assurance.
Travel is required, including to hardship territories.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors: Architecture, Interior Design, Architectural Engineering, or relevant on-the-job work experience can be accepted to substitute four years of education; project management experience; analytic skills; and an in-depth knowledge of building codes, Americans with Disabilities (ADA) requirements, and mechanical/electrical systems.
- Data Scientist.
Responsible for organizing and interpreting data to provide to US decision makers, promote successful operations, and shape CIA technology/resource investments.
Using advanced technology and techniques to develop algorithms that catch patterns and relationships contained within large volumes of raw data.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors: Computational Social Science, Computer Science, Data Analytics, Economics, Engineering, Geospatial Analysis, Mathematics, Quantitative Finance, or Statistics; creativity; initiative; and troubleshooting skills.
- Software Engineer.
Responsible for focusing on the cyber arena to specialize in the design, development, integration, and implementation of new tools, techniques and systems to support cyber operations.
Will collaborate with a team to produce innovative solutions to some of the most pressing challenges. Opportunities are available for domestic and foreign travel.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year degree (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors: Computer Science, Software or Computer Engineering, or Cyber Security (advanced degrees preferred); knowledge of computer science fundamentals, data structures, and operating systems; ability to document and demonstrate solutions; and familiarity with C/C++.
CIA Targeting positions require curiosity, problem-solving skills, and initiative. Key aspects of this path focus on leveraging information to enable operations, collection, or analytic assessments. Opportunities in this section include:
- Digital Targeter.
Responsible for analyzing and exploiting all-source information to drive blended operations to advance intelligence objectives.
Digital Targeters are investigative, pragmatic, and operationally-driven. They apply specialized tradecraft, tolls, and data to innovate digital solutions and to solve challenges on elusive targets.
Opportunities may include domestic and foreign travel. Assignments may also provide additional technical and specialized training.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors: Computer Science, Mathematics, or International Affairs; the ability to navigate the mobile environment; and critical thinking skills.
Preferred qualifications include experience with programming and algorithmic techniques, as well as foreign languages.
- Targeting Analyst.
Responsible for uniting analysis and operations to maximize the impact of resources against key agencies who pose a threat to US interests.
CIA targeting analysts use unique data, specialized tools, and network analysis to identify key threats to the US, determine opportunities to disrupt them, and evaluate the cost-benefit of following through with proposed operations.
Functional topics of this career can include weapons proliferation, narcotics trafficking, and counterintelligence. Opportunities may include domestic and foreign travel.
Analysts are encouraged to pursue additional training in their fields.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors: Foreign Area Study, International Relations, Political Science, History, National Security Studies, International Trade, Business, Economics, or Finance; strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills; strong verbal and written communication skills; and an interest in international affairs.
- Targeting Officer.
Responsible for identifying the people, organizations, and relationships with access to US foreign intelligence information, and finding opportunities to disrupt terrorist attacks, drug networks, illegal arms trade, and cyber and counterintelligence threats.
Opportunities may include domestic and foreign travel. Overseas travel is competitive, and are multi-year assignments. This position requires a five-year contract.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year degree (applicants graduating in less than a year can be considered) - no particular major is preferred; integrity; strong verbal and written communication skills; flexibility and adaptability; drawn to complex tasks; and finding innovative solutions to obstacles.
Enterprise & Support Careers
CIA Enterprise & Support Career positions require individuals to be skilled, mission-driven, and impactful. This portion of the CIA is a collection of several services that aren’t related to intelligence, but are necessary for a large entity to function.
These services include Business Management, Accounting & Finance; Medical; Security; Legal and Oversight; Logistics; Arts, Design, Publishing & Production; Geography, Cartography & GIS; Library & Information Science; Education & Training; Human Resources; Trades & Labor; Administrative Support; and Facilities & Infrastructure.
A few of the vast opportunities in Enterprise & Support include:
- Inspector General Criminal Investigator.
Responsibilities include conducting investigations into alleged instances of fraud, abuse, waste, and wrongdoing involving the CIA’s personnel, programs, and worldwide operations.
The Office of the Inspector General is an independent component of the CIA. Duties include conducting interviews, taking sworn statements, gathering evidence, administering oaths, analyzing data, preparing reports, and providing testimony.
There is frequent interaction with other law enforcement agencies and the Department of Justice. Some travel may be required for this position.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year (minimum) degree; three years of federal investigative experience; strong communication skills with ability to interact with a broad cross-section of society; and strong written and verbal communication skills.
The maximum age for this position is 37 at the time of acceptance of employment unless the applicant has previous federal law enforcement experience. Applicants must also complete a rigorous Criminal Investigator Training Program.
- Electronic Publishing Specialist.
Responsible for creating publications from scratch or from pre-defined specifications; developing new product templates; writing, editing and formatting content for publications and websites; document conversion for multiple output formats (print, web and mobile); developing and maintaining websites on the internet or various intranets; ensuring consistent application of style, typography and other design elements to products; and managing time and deliverables within the scope of a production schedule.
A part of Imaging & Publishing Support, they offer traditional and digital printing, multimedia support, photographic support, online publishing, digital archiving, and copier management services providing high-volume, high-quality, color and B&W, classified and unclassified printing services.
Qualifications for this job include a two- or four-year degree in Graphic Design or Publishing, or a related field. Six years of relevant work experience can waive the education requirements.
Must be familiar with website development, content management, publication and graphic design, preparing files and documents for printing processes.
- Education & Training Specialist.
Responsible for developing and delivering programs using blended learning environments and creating course management systems.
This position will speak with seasoned intelligence professionals to improve the knowledge and skills of officers to carry out their tasks.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors: Instructional Design, Educational Technology, or something related to education such as adult learning; ability to experiment with changing techniques and technologies; and ability to work independently and interdependently.
Previous experience in training development is preferred.
Foreign Language Careers
CIA Foreign Language positions require expertise, drive, and insight. Key aspects of this path focus on ensuring that the CIA can communicate with people in other countries and understand the local, cultural nuances.
Opportunities in this section include:
- Directorate of Operations Language Officer.
Responsible for using foreign language and cultural experience to produce translations and interpretations for operations.
CIA Language Officers are the key to foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and covert action. They hold near-native fluency in one or more of the following: Arabic, Chinese Mandarin, Dari/Pashto, Korean, Persian/Farsi, Russian, Japanese, or Vietnamese. Overseas assignments are highly competitive.
Language Officers receive specialized training to learn and maintain foreign language skills. Qualifications for this job include a four-year (minimum) degree; excellent communication skills; integrity; flexibility; improvisation; cross-cultural sensitivity; and a willingness to establish strong personal relationships.
- Foreign Language Instructor.
Responsible for delivering programs that provide language and cultural education to intelligence professionals.
Foreign Language Instructors must have an advanced proficiency in their language(s) of choice. (List of languages available here.)
Qualifications for this job include a four-year (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors: Education, Foreign Languages, or Linguistics; native-like fluency in your language; and demonstrated knowledge of a destination’s history, culture, politics, and economy.
- Open Source Exploitation Officer.
Responsible for discovering and assessing foreign-based publicly-accessible information, referred to as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).
OSINT can include the regular and social media, datasets, and academic papers. Exploitation Officers develop plans that use new tools and methods to research open source information.
Opportunities for domestic and foreign travel are available.
Qualifications for this job include a four-year (minimum) degree in a field related to the following majors: Area Studies, International Studies, Media Studies, Political Studies, National Security Studies, Geography/GIS, Foreign Language/Linguistics, or STEM degrees; strong critical thinking, analytic, and research skills; strong written and verbal communication skills; ability to work within a diverse team; and a familiarity with public information.
Experience with foreign language or a desire to learn is a plus.