Careers in Intelligence

EDITOR’S NOTE:  We officially changed our name from University of Maryland University College (UMUC) to University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) on July 1, 2019. News stories posted on the Career Connection blog are now using the new UMGC name. However, because the transition to the university’s new name will take several months to complete, you may still see the UMUC name, logo and look on our website and other materials through early 2020.

A career in the intelligence field does not always mean you get to ride along in a high speed car chase or stop a nuclear bomb from detonating. However, a career in intelligence can be an incredibly rewarding opportunity for people in any major and in any field.

During the recent UMGC Careers in Intelligence webinar, Paul S., a recruiter from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Ann Hirsch, director of talent acquisitions from Counter Threat Solutions, and Brian Powers, UMGC program chair for the Intelligence Management master’s degree discussed different types of opportunities in the intelligence field, the clearance process, rewards and challenges of working in the industry, and general advice.

Types of intelligence opportunities
The experts shared there are 17 agencies that explore domestic and international intelligence issues. These agencies practice the collection of intelligence, the analysis of intelligence, and a small portion of covert operations. The opportunities available to someone within these agencies depends on their skill set and their interests.

Regardless of whether your background is in economics, cybersecurity, finance, human resources, or another field, competencies such as good communication skills, teamwork, leadership, initiative, and critical thinking are valued in every industry.

Although your area of study and your grades are important, intelligence agencies are interested in your entire story. Intelligence agencies see you as a whole person, and while they don’t expect you to be perfect, they do expect you to have personal integrity, common sense, curiosity, motivation, and an appreciation for international relations. And because of the “whole person” concept, applicants can be almost any age.

Government contracting is another way to be a part of the intelligence community. Hirsch explained that there are only so many opportunities in the federal government. However, there is a greater need for talent than there are positions, so the government works with private companies to fill those gaps. These talent gaps can be anything from administrative work, day-to-day operations, finance, cyber security, engineering, and so on.

In most all cases, you need to be a United States citizen, but there are opportunities for non-citizens on the commercial side of intelligence work. For example, a contractor may have a project with a private company like Apple.

Obtaining a clearance
A security clearance is often required in the intelligence community, but it isn’t something you can get on your own. You need to be a United States citizen and be hired for a position. While some contractors – like Counter Threat Solutions – offer pipeline programs that sponsor clearances for those who are entry-level or still developing a career in high-demand occupations like cybersecurity, information technology, accounting, and data analytics, it can be a challenge finding a company that will sponsor clearance.

Obtaining a clearance can take anywhere from nine to 15 months and sometimes up to three years, so it’s important to have a plan in place for what you’ll do while waiting for that clearance to come through. Some companies will offer you non-cleared work, but in other instances, it’s a good idea to find another job in the meantime where you can continue to build your skill set.

Intelligence agencies like the CIA have their own clearance processes, which take place in two stages. First, you apply online, take tests, have an interview, then receive a conditional offer. The second stage includes a background check, a polygraph, a physical, and psychological exams.

When going through this process, it’s important to know that you don’t have to be perfect. As mentioned previously, agencies and contractors look at the whole person. The main question is, “Can you be trusted?” It is essential to be honest and upfront. There are things that you might think disqualify you, but more people are disqualified because of something they’ve tried to hide rather than something they did. Some things that will disqualify you include drug use—the CIA expects you to have been clean for at least one year before applying. Pending criminal charges or a felony conviction will preclude you from obtaining a security clearance, as will having been dishonorably discharged from the military. You also can’t illegally download anything you should be paying for from the Internet. Once you know this is something the intelligence community doesn’t want you to be doing, you should no longer be illegally downloading music, videos, or anything else. Academic integrity is also essential. Most importantly, be yourself and be patient during this process.

Opportunities beyond government and contracting
In addition to career opportunities in the federal government and contracting, there are other opportunities to work in intelligence outside of these areas. Technology has been one of the most important contributors to the intelligence industry. Before September 11, 2001, there weren’t a lot of other options, but now there are opportunities for intelligence analysts that don’t require security clearances. Consider state and local intelligence work.

There’s even open source intelligence research because of new technology developments. Think about it. Your phone now gets better intelligence than the intelligence community did 35 years ago, according to Powers. There’s now cybersecurity, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Even if these are your fields, you should be aware of how they contribute to the intelligence community and how they have been changing the industry.

Rewards and challenges
As for their own careers, our panelists were motivated by a variety of factors: making an impact, the opportunity to be innovative, and carrying out a personal dream. All three find the field incredibly rewarding because of the people, the community, the trust, the values, and of course, some perks. For example, the CIA is a family-friendly workplace. You have to leave your work at the office and you’re not going to get an email from your boss at dinner time. There’s a good work/life balance, opportunities to travel, and a chance to be a part of something truly important.

The panelists suggest using your network to find out about opportunities.

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