What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a CIA Agent?

Best Degree Path for Becoming a CIA Agent

Since 1947, the CIA has played an important role in national security. This federal agency collects and analyzes intelligence to protect the United States from national security threats. Among the security threats the CIA focuses on are terrorism, international organized crime, narcotics trafficking, arms control intelligence, and counterintelligence. Earning a college degree is an excellent start to pursuing a CIA career, but which program of study is the right choice for an aspiring CIA agent depends on what position the candidate is seeking. The CIA is the first line of defense in national security, but it is not a law enforcement agency. They work closely with law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community to provide an objective analysis of threats, collect foreign intelligence, and take covert action if dictated by the President of the United States.

Types of Careers in the CIA

The CIA needs qualified specialists in their analytical, language, clandestine service, business, information technology, security, science, technology, and engineering positions. The CIA employs approximately 22,000 people across the globe and has an annual budget of more than $15 billion. While the exciting and clandestine positions shown in the media garner all of the attention, the CIA also offers similar career opportunities to other organizations in fields like accounting, administrative support, automotive technology, communications, plant operations, and much more. Below we cover some of the most popular and in-demand careers offered at the CIA.


Analysts assess intelligence information regarding military threats, foreign political developments, the economy, and technology. The main charge for CIA analysts is the synthesis of field information into briefs and reports used to guide decision-making. Many analysts specialize in a specific type of analysis, such as cyber threats, economics, leadership (policy), military, or politics.

Field Officer

Field officers in the CIA’s clandestine service travel overseas to collect human intelligence that helps the agency protect national security. This position is critical to the success of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Field officers, also referred to as operations officers, above all, must possess excellent judgment and the ability to build rapport and assess character. The initial training takes up to two years as they learn the essential elements of the job. They spend most of their careers deployed in strategic locations overseas.


Linguists use their foreign language skills in research into foreign countries’ media, while language officers provide translation and interpretation services for the agency’s clandestine branches. They also serve in a teaching capacity as part of the CIA’s foreign language program. Individuals across all positions can add to their salary if they are proficient in a foreign language. There are currently 88 qualifying foreign languages, according to the CIA employment website.

Political Analyst

Political analysts have mission-critical duties where their main task is to support policymakers through analyzing information regarding foreign and domestic policy, social issues of foreign entities, and foreign governments. It is their job to uncover foreign actors’ motivations and ideologies within the context of how it might impact the United States’ interests as well as those of its partners. They work both domestically and abroad and have extensive upward mobility as they develop further expertise and gain experience.

Best Degree Path for Becoming a CIA Agent

Science, Technology, and Weapons Analyst

Science, technology, and weapons analysts work closely with a variety of personnel, including intra-agency professionals and those within government, the military, and the broader intelligence community. They must possess a great deal of technical expertise in analyzing foreign weapons development and proliferation, cyber weaponry, and emergent technologies that pose a threat to the United States and its interests. These professionals must also present their findings in both written and oral reports. They work both domestically and abroad and must continue with professional development and education throughout their careers, due to the changing landscape of their work.

CIA positions in business, information technology, and security encompass more than 100 career disciplines. Regardless of their background, each of these professionals assists the agency with national security protection, either in Washington, D.C. or abroad.

Similarly, science, engineering, and technology positions with the CIA take many forms, but each technical intelligence officer uses their technical skills to research, develop, or analyze new technological solutions.

The career opportunities are plentiful and diverse in the CIA. Above all, the agency seeks individuals with talent and those who live according to the CIA’s core values of integrity, service, excellence, courage, teamwork, and stewardship.

The Path to a CIA Career

Regardless of which career path appeals to an aspiring CIA agent, there are a few constants. While a college degree is not an absolute requirement, it is highly recommended, according to the official Central Intelligence Agency website. For many positions, a master’s degree is preferred. Education in a foreign language is a plus, even for candidates seeking a position outside of that of a linguist or language officer. While a number of degree paths can prepare candidates for the various positions available with the CIA, a few preferred subjects of study include biology, chemistry, nuclear engineering, physical science, finance, and economics, The Houston Chronicle reported. Other potentially beneficial majors include a foreign language, criminal justice, corrections, crime scene investigation, law enforcement, cybercrime, homeland security, law, political science, and mathematics.

Attaining a CIA career isn’t all about education. To get the necessary security clearance, candidates must be legal citizens of the United States, and they cannot have a criminal record or use illegal drugs or controlled substances, even in states where those drugs are legalized. They must also be able to pass physical and mental exams. For some positions and career paths, candidates must fall into a specific age range and complete training programs that can last for 18 months. Candidates must be willing to move to the Washington, D.C. area.

In addition to the minimum requirements for all positions and those unique to a position, decision-makers often disqualify candidates for reasons such as lack of candor and honesty, illegal drug use, criminal and unethical behavior, and lack of responsiveness. Also, those interested in a CIA career should not follow the CIA on social media or interact with any of their accounts.

A career with the CIA will allow you to put your skills to work protecting national security. Though the competition for these jobs is fierce, having the right education, background and skills can help you achieve your dream career.

Best Degree Path for Becoming a CIA Agent

Benefits and Earnings Potential for CIA Agents

In addition to the fulfilling work a career at the CIA offers, the earnings and benefits are highly attractive. Benefits include fitness and recreation facilities, weekly time off, federal health insurance, paid vacation, sick leave, on-site daycare and childcare subsidies, and flexible scheduling. Other benefits include pension and 401K retirement plans, student loan repayment during the first six years of employment, and continuing education and training.

The pay range varies greatly because of the diversity of jobs at the CIA. The pay for most jobs starts between $50,000 and $60,000 per year, ranging up towards $172,000. Starting pay salary is based upon occupation, education level, and experience.

Starting pay ranges for popular positions include:

Analytical Methodologist: $58,070 – $159,286
Field Officer/Operations Officer: $62,133 – $94,581
Political Analyst: $58,070 – $159,286
Science, Technology, and Weapons Analyst: $58,070 – $159,286
Staff Operations Officer: $62,133 – $94,581

Common Myths about the CIA

Hollywood movies and television shows love highlighting the work conducted by CIA agents. Combine that with the inability of the agency to fully disclose the work they do and you end up with several myths and misconceptions about the CIA. Below we debunk some of the most common ones.

Myth #1: The CIA spies on people in the United States
The Agency’s mission is to collect information regarding foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. As such, spying on American citizens is not within the mission of the CIA, and it is even prohibited by United States Executive Order 12333, which was approved in 1981.

Myth #2: The people who work for the CIA are spies and agents
While there are individuals who work for the CIA that can be classified as “spies” or “agents,” they generally go by the title of Operations Officer. Moreover, the CIA employs tens of thousands of individuals, so it hires many common positions found at other organizations similar in size. The vast majority of CIA professionals work as scientists, engineers, IT specialists, accountants, secretaries, and the like.

Myth #3: The CIA is a law enforcement agency and all agents carry firearms
Many people confuse the FBI and the CIA. The CIA is not a law enforcement agency, and the vast majority of agents are not issued weapons of any kind.

Myth #4: The Agency is not accountable to anyone or any organization
The CIA operates with the oversight of several domestically elected representatives, including those at the highest levels of government like the president, vice president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense. Multiple Congressional and House committees also monitor the Agency.

Myth #5: The CIA knows all of the government’s secrets
The Agency operates on a “need to know” policy and adheres to a strict policy on classified information. CIA personnel do not have access to classified information if it is not directly related to their job and its duties.

Best Degree Path for Becoming a CIA Agent

Desirable Traits for CIA Agents

The CIA highly values collaborative individuals who work well in teams. Teamwork across positions and divisions is a large aspect of the job and requires people who can work as a collective.

Integrity is one of the most critical characteristics that one must possess when working for the CIA. In fact, integrity is part of the Agency’s mission statement. Personnel are privy to classified information and must operate at the highest level when it comes to ethics, honesty, and solidarity.

The CIA welcomes individuals from all educational and occupational backgrounds and from all cultures. What unites them is their high degree of talent within their specialization. Above all, the CIA wants to recruit the best and brightest from around the country and the world.

Leadership in the form of intelligent decision-making and mentorship is important to the CIA. Training and continued professional development are huge parts of the job and it takes effective leaders to carry out those tasks. Decisions made on the job can impact national security, so effective leadership is a must.

Internships with the CIA

The Agency offers several highly attractive undergraduate and graduate-level internship opportunities for a variety of different majors. Below we highlight a cross-section of current opportunities.

Undergraduate Accountant
This internship starts at a salary of $46,300 and is for full-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

Undergraduate Contracting Officer
The contracting officer intern provides a wide range of support to acquisition professionals and has a starting salary of $46,300. The internship is available to full-time students seeking a degree in accounting, business, economics, finance, management, or pre-law.

Undergraduate Support Integration Officer
These individuals help solve tactical support issues and learn about the business side of the Agency. This internship is open to a wide variety of business-related majors and pays $44,279 annually.

Job Outlook for CIA Agents

The job outlook for the Agency is difficult to ascertain, as it does not openly disclose this information. The work is very important, so there will always be a need for the CIA. Most employment experts expect job growth to be anywhere from two to five percent through 2029 as older workers retire and foreign threats arise, both of which increase the demand for new personnel.

Final Thoughts on a Career Path to the CIA

The CIA offers competitive work across a wide range of occupations. The Agency is a demanding workplace and requires a lot of commitment, especially from newly hired personnel. Gaining experience related to a future career at the CIA is paramount, as is attending recruiting events and gaining knowledge about its hiring practices and procedures. This can ensure that you know what to expect from the lengthy recruitment process as well as the kinds of activities to avoid that can disqualify an otherwise strong candidate. STEM and business-related majors are preferred, but the organization is open to those from nearly any undergraduate major.


BDP Staff:
May 2021

This concludes our article on the best degree path for becoming a CIA agent.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris