Just like the lives of their fictional counterparts as portrayed by Hollywood, life as an FBI special agent can be thrilling, challenging and gratifying. Unlike the famous G-men of the silver screen, however, the duties of a modern agent go far beyond chasing gangsters and other public enemies, both in scope and sophistication.
FBI special agents are responsible for enforcing more than 300 federal statutes. This can include conducting investigations relating to terrorism and other national security issues, as well as civil rights violations, financial crimes, bank robberies, drug trafficking and organized crime.
As the Federal Bureau of Investigation notes on its website, “There is no such thing as a typical day for an FBI Special Agent.”
Like local law enforcement officers, special agents arrest suspects, collect evidence, testify in court, execute search warrants and interview witnesses. Unlike local officers, however, an FBI agent’s area of jurisdiction may span the entire nation and, in select cases, stretch overseas.
Job Outlook and Salary Range for FBI Special Agents
According to the FBI’s website, new special agents typically earn between $60,000 and $70,000, depending on where they are assigned. Agents can earn raises as they gain experience and promotions; those amounts are determined by the U.S. government pay scale. Special agents are also eligible for a full slate of benefits, including health and life insurance, vacation, sick pay and retirement.
Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide specific employment projections for FBI special agents, jobs for law enforcement officers overall are expected to increase by 7% from 2010 to 2020.
Employment prospects and salary ranges typically vary based on an individual’s work history and educational qualifications.
Education and Training for FBI Special Agents
The FBI requires all of its employees to have at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. The bureau doesn’t recommend any specific field of study but does say that degrees that develop research and analytical skills are helpful.
For example, a criminal justice degree would be useful. In addition, an accounting degree could be useful because agents who investigate white-collar crimes may be called on to dig through and interpret large amounts of financial records. Expertise in languages, computers or the sciences can be beneficial for prospective special agents, as well.
Internship opportunities, both paid and voluntary, are available at the bureau.
Every agent receives about 20 weeks of paid training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. During this time, agents study a variety of subjects related to the job and also are schooled in key areas such as defensive tactics, firearms and physical fitness. Special agents continue training throughout their careers at the bureau in order to remain on top of the latest developments in investigative techniques and trends in criminal justice.
All applicants must be in top physical condition and be at least 23 years old but no older than 37 upon appointment as a special agent. The bureau also requires that all applicants be U.S. citizens or citizens of the Northern Mariana Islands.
If selected for employment, applicants can expect a rigorous background check that includes a polygraph and drug test.
Career Paths for FBI Special Agents
Once they have completed training, special agents are assigned to one of the bureau’s 56 field offices across the country. Many agents may spend the first several years of their careers in smaller offices rotating through various assignments and becoming experts in one of five designated career paths: Cyber, Criminal, Intelligence, Counterintelligence or Counterterrorism.
After three years, special agents receive additional specialized training in career paths. Special agents are also eligible to apply for management positions after completing three years in investigations.