Most people who are familiar with the FBI think of it as a shadowy organization where secretly trained spies conduct counter-intelligence operations, while other people see it more as a branch of the police. For young people who are considering a career in the FBI, it may be helpful to know exactly what to study during your undergraduate years so that you can make the best choices possible.
What Does the FBI Do?
The FBI or Federal Bureau of Investigation is the country's top investigative body, pursuing justice related to crime, disappearances, possible terrorism, corruption and a slew of other issues that are pertinent to the peace and prosperity of the nation. Those who serve in the FBI have a large range of roles and responsibilities within the bureau. They take on the top level cases that are a threat to the nation and have many reasons why they might need to conduct investigations. They are mostly concerned with investigating and prosecuting violations of federal law and threats to national security.
In some ways, this makes the FBI like a top-level police force in the United States. Because of the vast array of crimes and offenses that the FBI regularly investigates, they need agents with expertise and experience in a variety of areas and fields, from finance to technology. The FBI does everything from exploring civil rights violations to fighting organized crime to dealing with public corruption and drug trafficking.
As FBI agents move up through the ranks of their specific discipline, they achieve additional training and additional security clearance. The longer an agent has spent with the bureau, the higher his or her security clearance. As agents' training and education in their particular field increases, they have the opportunity to take control of missions and operations and ascend to the higher ranks of the organization.
Do FBI Colleges Exist?
Because the FBI looks into cases of crime, corruption and trafficking that involve various industries, they need individuals with different expertise. Many people don't realize that you need to go to undergraduate school before you can enroll in Quantico, the FBI training program. Most people also don't realize that their best shot for getting into the FBI is pursuing a bachelor's degree at a four-year college devoted to one of the disciplines that the FBI considers valuable, such as colleges with criminal justice majors.
There are many different positions within the FBI. Individuals who are interested in the training necessary to become agents may want to enroll in one of the best criminal justice colleges, a strong forensic science program or a school that specializes in government affairs and international relations. Although the FBI is primarily a law enforcement agency students who do their undergraduate coursework in these various disciplines can go on to pursue the FBI's training program after completing some years of work in their chosen field.
If you know exactly in which department or capacity you are hoping to serve the FBI, you can choose a college major devoted to that particular field. If you're unsure of exactly what you want to do in the FBI, you may instead choose to pursue a degree at one of the best colleges for law enforcement, a police training program or a program in the hard sciences, such as biology, chemistry or physics. Any of these sciences can help most FBI investigations and are highly valuable.
What Colleges Does the FBI Recruit From?
The FBI does not recruit from any one particular college. While the department does have familiarity and relationships with certain college programs and certain university departments, there is no one school that the FBI recruits from. The process of becoming an FBI agent is typically something that hopeful agents undergo after they have already graduated from a four-year college, and most agents who begin training with the FBI have completed at least three or four years of work experience in their particular field.
Because there are different jobs and different fields within the FBI, the number of years of training for an agent will vary depending on his or her goal. All linguistics agents, for example, need to have proven fluency in writing, speaking and listening, particularly if they are not native speakers of a foreign language. That said, linguists do not need to come from any particular academic program or have any particular degree achieved to become part of the FBI.
The same is true for Hostage Rescue and Tactical Agents. These agents all need to have completed four-year degrees and three to four years of work experience in a related field, but their post-college experience, either in law enforcement, military strategy or tactical experience, is what is most important. This should help ease the mind of students or recent graduates who are interested in becoming FBI agents but feel worried that their undergraduate course of study was not aligned with this goal.
For people like this, who have a desire to work with the FBI but haven't prepared for this career yet, there is still plenty of time to find out what kind of prerequisites might be necessary and to get the critical training before applying for open positions. The important thing is that you have earned a bachelor's degree at a four-year accredited university.
How Do You Become an FBI Agent?
Becoming an FBI agent is not simply a matter of filling out an application and sending in your resume. FBI hopefuls who are planning to enter the bureau as employees must demonstrate work experience that pertains to the particular area of investigation or casework that they are planning to pursue within the bureau.
Once they've completed this education requirement and their professional work, applicants need to fill out the extensive FBI application. More than just a paper application, the FBI application requires a thorough background check, investigations into credit history, criminal history and interviews with friends and family, neighbors and employers. Applicants must also pass a polygraph test, drug test and a physical fitness test.
Because of the extensive application process, FBI hopefuls should plan for their application process to take several months to complete, including the polygraph and physical fitness test. Once an applicant has been accepted by the FBI, he or she must undergo 20 weeks of training at the FBI's Academy. This is a strenuous physical and cognitive training period, where would-be special agents learn the basics of what their future work will entail. In addition to classroom-based courses and online instruction, FBI training camp instructs trainees on how to use firearms, seek intelligence and conduct other critical tactical operations.
How Does the FBI Train New Agents?
Once an FBI trainee has graduated from the Training Academy, he or she is placed in a field office where they work for approximately two years in a probationary capacity. The new agent is guided by an assigned mentor who helps the agent to get comfortable with the routine and learn to apply what they learned to real life scenarios.
FBI training does not conclude when the new agent leaves the academy. As they spend more time in their roles and begin to move up the ranks in their career, they may find that they are interested in increasingly specialized work. Whether it is counterintelligence, technology, international affairs or criminal behavior, agents have the opportunity to apply for further, more extensive training throughout the duration of their careers.
What Degree Do You Need for the FBI?
There is no single degree that a trainee needs to successfully apply to the FBI. With very few exceptions, any four-year degree from an accredited college will be considered as long as the applicant has the kind of work experience required to apply for any open positions. This is known as the diversified entry program, and it is built on the understanding that skilled agents may come from a variety of backgrounds and fields of study, and that even those who did not pursue traditional law enforcement degrees during their undergraduate years may become valuable agents.
While the diversified program does add a lot to the FBI, there are some standard, more traditional degrees that FBI special agents pursue during their years in undergraduate. One is computer and information science. Agents who got a four-year degree in computer and information science are in a unique position to utilize technology and other information-gathering tools to the advantage of the bureau. These individuals will have a head start when it comes to the more technical aspects of FBI training, and maybe especially useful in surveillance operations and any ethical hacking that needs to be done in the course of an investigation.
Is a Law Degree a Good Degree for an FBI Agent to Have?
Another popular degree for FBI agents to pursue during undergraduate school is law. Many agents work first in the legal system, either as DAs, public servants or other administrators throughout the justice system. Law is a desirable background for an agent to have for a number of reasons.
A law degree means that the agent is well-versed in what types of potential corruption or federal offenses may be committed. It also means that agents are also aware of the statutes of limitations as it pertains to their own department's ability to extract information from parties of interest. While some agents may have pursued law earlier in their career without the intention of moving over to the FBI, their knowledge and experience often prove very valuable.
What Other Degrees Are Valuable to the FBI?
The study of government and international relations are tremendously valuable to the FBI. Because America faces threats and conflicts outside of its borders as well as within it, it is the work of agents who understand the relationships and the history of the relationships between various nations and the United States to gather information. International relations and diplomacy are key issues facing the FBI, and the more information they have about a nation, the better they can decide how to operate.
Language is another area that is very valuable to the FBI. Agents who majored in a foreign language or multiple foreign languages may be extremely useful to the FBI in gathering intelligence, running counterintelligence operations or acting as agents placed in other nations in order to conduct surveillance on behalf of the United States. Agents must demonstrate fluency in this foreign language prior to their application to the FBI.
Work in accounting is also an extremely valuable asset to the FBI. Given how much of the FBI work pertains to financial scams, public corruption and insider trading, knowledge of finance, tax law, accounting practices and so forth can be very valuable to the FBI in gathering information and assessing the veracity of certain documents and financial forms. Agents with this background and expertise are very often desired by the FBI.
Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.