What Security and Intelligence Agents Do
Individuals in careers with security and intelligence agencies like MI5 and MI6 (SIS) in the UK, America’s FBI and CIA, Canada’s CSIS, and Australia’s ASIO and ASIS play vital roles in protecting the security of their nations and help keep citizens safe. Each agency has unique roles to fulfill, ranging from special agents, to intelligence analysts, surveillance, forensic accountants, linguists, and more. Depending on one’s area of expertise, an individual is usually either responsible for gathering sensitive information or analyzing it.
Who would enjoy a career in Security & Intelligence?
People who work in security and intelligence are generally considered the best and the brightest their countries have to offer. They’re not only brilliant and well-studied, but also critical thinkers and experts in their specific areas. Most agencies also require those who apply to be citizens of their country, with several years of recent residency, and to be able to pass background checks, including those for top security clearances.
Moreover, most have ongoing fitness requirements, so being healthy and dedicated to wellness, as well as living a clean life, is essential. Because of the immense requirements, and the fact that it tends to be a lifestyle, rather than a career, jobs with security and intelligence agencies tend to attract true patriots who are loyal to their countries, and see the role as more of a calling than a profession. Those with leadership, communication, and project/ time management skills do best.
Who mightn't like the career?
Media and the big screen sometimes portray agency jobs as being full of action, like the James Bond movies. The reality is far less glamourous, and involves considerably more deskwork. For this reason, it’s important that those interested in entering the field learn all they can about the positions they seek before pursuing a career.
In addition, those who enter into these careers must be committed to a lifestyle of honest and ethical behavior, in part because their careers will likely end if any unethical behavior in one’s personal or professional life is detected, and also due to the sensitive natures of the positions. Lastly, working for an agency can dominate one’s life, as travel or relocation may be required at a moment’s notice, and working more than 50 hours each week is required in some agencies. For this reason, having a family and achieving work/life balance are especially challenging. Although it goes without saying, maintaining confidentiality is key for these roles, as in many intelligence roles you’ll not be able to share work stories at the dinner table with family and friends.
Getting into a job with a security and intelligence agency is not easy, but due to the wide variance in positions available, almost any degree path may be of benefit. For example, someone with a finance degree may be able to work as a forensic accountant, helping an agency solve financial crimes, whereas someone with an IT background might be able to help solve computer crimes or gather digital and virtual evidence. Many agencies do not even specify specific degrees they’re looking for, though certain agencies or positions may require a law enforcement or military background. For more information, see:
- MI5 Career Info
- MI6 (SIS) Career Info
- FBI Special Agent Requirements
- CIA Special Agent Requirements
- CSIS Career Requirements
- ASIO Career Basics
- How do you get a job as a spy at ASIO or ASIS?
The application process for most agencies is lengthy, and it can often take nine months or longer to be hired. Candidates are also thoroughly screened before the interview process, and a non-disclosure agreement is often required before completing an interview. However, there are some guides to interviewing available. It’s also worth noting that a few agencies have graduate and internship programs as well, providing a clear entry path for an elite few.
- MI5 Interview Preparation
- MI5 Graduate Scheme Information
- James Bond would not even pass the MI6 interview - so what makes the perfect spy?
- What to Expect in an FBI Interview
- FBI Graduate/ Internship Programs
- Here's what it's like to interview for the CIA
- CIA Careers and Internships Information
- Intelligence matters: What does it really take to join CSIS?
- CSIS Student Programs
- ASIO Selection Process and Timeframes
- ASIO Graduate Programs
Moving into Security & Intelligence from another career
Changing careers later in life can be challenging because some agencies have maximum age limits. For example, the cutoff for the FBI is 37, while the CIA sits at just 35. MI6 was once quite rigid, with a maximum age of only 32, though the policy has been officially lifted. With that said, agencies tend to be accepting of applicants from a myriad of backgrounds. Additional information can be found on “Thinking of Changing Careers? Think CIA” and “Spymaster bringing ASIO in from the cold.”
Role: Levels vary from one agency to the next, and each type of specialist has unique job duties. Generally speaking, however, professionals may be gathering data, analyzing data, completing paperwork, giving testimony in court, and collaborating with other security and intelligence professionals, as well as local law enforcement agents, on any given day.
Most professionals work out of a single main office, but may be relocated permanently or temporarily depending on the agency’s needs. Travel may also be required.
Average: Data from PayScale indicates that salaries average USD$86,000 in the United States, £30,000 in the United Kingdom, CAD$80,000 in Canada, and AU$74,000 in Australia. Top agents may nearly double this if they climb the ranks and remain with the agency until retirement.
No additional pay through bonuses or other means is usually provided.
Why Security and Intelligence Agents move on
Some agencies have mandatory retirement ages, and agents may phase themselves out prior to this in order to be more competitive in the job market. Many aim for the minimum retirement age, say after 20 years of service, in order to get retirement benefits/ pensions, and move into other careers while it’s easier to do so. Job stress, inability to balance work/ life, and burnout from overwork, may also cause others to leave the field before retirement age. For more reading, see “How to Get Employed Somewhere Else After Being an FBI Agent” and “Former agent: I was abandoned by MI5 after breakdown.”
Job opportunities when leaving security and intelligence vary based on the one’s education and areas of expertise. Because almost any bachelor’s degree is enough to get into the career, the options when leaving are equally endless.