CIA jobs
Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/13/2009 11:50:32 AM ET 2009-07-13T15:50:32

If you were one of the thousands to receive an e-mail recently listing available jobs with the Central Intelligence Agency, you may have thought it was just another cyber scam.

Well, it turns out the e-mail wasn’t spam after all but part of the agency’s beefed up efforts to recruit new employees.

“We’ve really focused on upping our outreach,” says CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf, about the agency’s recruiting strategies. They include e-mails, TV and radio campaigns targeting college students, former Wall Street workers, and anyone with foreign language skills, especially Middle Eastern languages.

The CIA was plagued with low morale after failing to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and then providing crummy intelligence that led to the Iraq War. But the agency has seen a bit of a bounce back in its reputation recently despite a report questioning its interrogation techniques. People seem to be clamoring to join. Last year, the agency received 120,000 job applications online and expects a 40 percent to 50 percent increase this year.

In the years following the Sept. 11 tragedy, the agency has hired about half of its overall work force. Currently, there are open positions in 90 different occupations from psychologist to software engineer.

Susan, a covert officer in the CIA who cannot even disclose her real name, applied for a job at the agency online last year while she was still in graduate school studying neuroscience. “The primary thing that attracted me was the impact I could make,” says Susan, who is in her late 20s. “It puts you close to the forefront of the nation’s defense.”

She was hired in June of 2008 as a research scientist doing work on “biological issues” in a department that is similar to the gadget lab of “Q,” the character in the James Bond movies.

More than just undercover agents
Indeed, a job at the CIA may conjure up images of spies in overcoats or 007 on a speedboat in Monte Carlo, but the majority of the jobs the agency is looking to fill are a bit more mundane. “We’re looking for everything from analysts and operations officers to linguists, engineers and accountants,” Harf says.

Becoming a CIA employee, especially if you’re undercover, is not your typical suit-and-briefcase gig. Choosing such a career can be a difficult on you and your family — not to mention the hurdles you’ll have to clear to land a job.

First off, if secrecy is not your thing, forget it.

No one knows Susan works for the CIA except her parents, and agency officials asked that she not disclose her exact age or anything about her background that could identify her. She’s thought about the secrecy issues that could arise if and when she gets married and has kids and concluded she could live with it. “It’s sort of exciting because I know it’s for a higher purpose,” she says.

Unfortunately, the life of an undercover agent can be tough on some families.

“You’re asking your children to carry a heavy burden of secrecy and shame,” says Martha Finney, whose father, Richard Finney, was an undercover case officer for the CIA throughout her life.

“I found out when I was 16, and then I had nightmares,” explains Finney, author of “Rebound: A Proven Plan for Starting Over After Job Loss.”

Her family moved once or twice a year, and Finney says living in places such as Mexico City or Berlin was incredible global exposure. But, she adds, the isolation her family felt ended with tragedy.

“My mother died of alcoholism at 42, and it was primarily because she couldn’t reach out for help because it would have compromised my dad’s career,” she says.

For workers who are not undercover, balancing work and family may be easier.

Jane, a 34-year-old employee at the agency who started in May 2008, was a stay-at-home mom before she applied. (Despite not being undercover, CIA officials did not want her real name used because when she travels abroad she may sometimes be undercover.)

“The CIA is very family friendly, offering flex schedules, and very accommodating if a child has an illness,” explains Jane, who went to Harvard graduate school and spent 10 years in the military.

She’s now a CIA military analyst covering Africa, preparing reports for the intelligence community, and she travels abroad two to three times a year. “I have a good family support base, and my husband has been excellent about being a single dad a bit,” she says.

If you decide the CIA is right for you, expect a grueling interview process and lots of competition, especially in this economy.

All interested job seekers have to apply via the agency’s Web site, www.cia.gov, and you must be a U.S. citizen. Most jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, but higher degrees are sought after.

If you make the initial cut, you’ll then have to go through an exhaustive screening process over many months, since ultimately all CIA employees, no matter what department or level, require a government clearance.

Federal employees, or those coming out of the military or working for federal contractors, may already have such a clearance, says Evan Lesser, director of ClearanceJobs.com. But there are different levels of clearance, and what you need depends on what you will do.

A top secret clearance takes about a year, and a secret clearance averages about six to eight months, he says, adding that 70 percent of jobs at the CIA require a secret clearance or above.

The process includes a polygraph, psychological testing, medical evaluations, and credit and criminal background checks. Also, agency personnel will interview your friends, family and maybe even your neighbors.

Background checks go back seven to 10 years, Lesser adds, so anyone applying should have at least 11 years of history ready, including places you lived, names of employers, divorce papers or bankruptcies.

Internships at the CIA are a good way to get your foot in the door, he says, because younger people don’t have as much history and can often get clearance more easily.

Life at the agency
Even if you get hired, the probing into your life won’t end. “CIA officers undergo periodic security checks throughout their careers, which also may include a polygraph,” Harf adds.

If you want to join the CIA to get rich, don’t count on it.

“The starting salary for incoming agency officers is based on the education, work experience, and specialized skills that they bring with them,” says CIA spokeswoman Harf. “Starting salaries generally range from about $40,000 to $100,000. Incoming officers can receive a hiring bonus of up to $35,000 for foreign language skills.”

Steve Lee, who worked for the CIA as an analyst in the mid 1990s, eventually left because the pay wasn’t enough and he was sick of the bureaucracy.

While he doesn’t regret the stellar training he received at the agency, the exposure to the latest and greatest technologies, and the prestige his CIA experience has brought to his career, he stresses that anyone who decides to join the CIA definitely has to have a calling.

“Everyone that works there is going to go through intrusive investigations, and you have to be ready to live up to that,” says Lee, author of “Super Secret Bungling and Crookery: National Security Drone,” who blogs and writes under the name Frank Naif. “Young people ought to know, casual drug use will no longer be part of your life. And you have to watch who you associate with, in particular, foreigners.”

For Lee, it wasn’t the lifestyle he wanted to have.

“It’s probably not a whole lot different than a lot of other federal workplaces, very Kafkaesque,” he says. “A lot of absurdity.”

Undercover analyst Susan, who loves her job and says it’s just what she expected, doesn’t see it like that.

“If the opportunity is there, I encourage anyone to apply,” she says. “The CIA has always been my first choice. You need to have the skill set, and you need to have that commitment to want to do the right thing.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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