Secret agent, spy and criminal profiler are popular dream careers, often heavily influenced by pop culture and entertainment. If you’re considering a career with the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in your real life, you may wonder about the pros and cons of this professional path and how to decide whether to move forward with your plans.
For some prospective FBI Agents, the positives of the job far outweigh the negatives. However, other potential applicants who think working for the FBI might be “cool” based on what they see in movies and on television might not feel the same way about the real work of a Special Agent. As part of your deliberations about the pros and cons of an FBI career, you should keep in mind that working for the FBI is more of a calling than simply a job. Some of the factors you might want to consider when you’re looking into applying for an FBI job include the earning potential you can expect in your intended job role and what factors and circumstances you do and don’t want in your work.
What It’s Really Like Working for the FBI
The adventures of FBI Agents are staples of movies and television, but real-life FBI work isn’t quite as cinematic. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. There is a lot more paperwork involved in real-life FBI work than there is in the movies, which might not seem so interesting to those drawn to the career for the excitement of action in the field. However, FBI Agents have reported to Business Insider that – even in tense situations – they felt afraid for their lives far less frequently than happens in movies.
A lot of the FBI pros and cons are not so much hard and fast advantages and disadvantages, but rather matters of personal preference and perspective. If the prospect of being away on business trips makes you groan, an FBI Agent job that requires you to travel 20 to 30 percent of the time won’t mesh with your personality and priorities. However, if you love visiting faraway places and would welcome the opportunity to travel for work, you might consider this part of the job to be a benefit rather than a drawback. That’s not to say that the situations FBI Special Agents encounter aren’t dangerous, but the dangers are often over-dramatized on the screen.
Similarly, there’s a good chance that each day you spend on the job as an FBI Agent will be unique. The differences that arise from day to day on the job might make you anxious if you’re the kind of person who values comforting routines. If you find variety in your work to be exciting rather than distressing, though, you might enjoy this drastic change of pace that you won’t find in just any job.
You should also know that there are a lot more job roles at the FBI besides Special Agent. Intelligence analyst, surveillance specialist, forensic accountant and language specialist are just a few of the types of FBI jobs other than Special Agent that exist.
Benefits of Working for the FBI
Let’s start with the positives. Working for the FBI offers you the satisfaction of knowing that the work you do is integral to keeping your country safe, the opportunity to earn a great living, and a comprehensive set of benefits.
Job Satisfaction Among FBI Agents
For those with the personality to serve as an FBI Agent, you’re likely to find plenty of satisfaction in your job. As of 2019, FBI Agents were reporting increases in job satisfaction rates, according to NBC News. An increase in FBI job applications – the first in three years – accompanied this increased job satisfaction.
Salary Potential for FBI Agents
You can make a good living pursuing a career with the FBI, although how your salary as part of the agency compares to what you might earn outside the agency depends on your specific job role. In a law enforcement role, you are likely to earn more than you would if employed at a state or local police department or other law enforcement agency. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median wage of $67,290 for all police and detective roles across the country in 2020 but a much higher $92,080 median annual salary for those employed by the federal government.
That’s good news for aspiring FBI Special Agents, whose starting salaries fit into the federal GL-10 Special Base Rate pay grade specific to the field of law enforcement. As of 2021, the GL-10 level of pay spanned 10 steps, with the least experienced FBI Special Agents starting at $52,440 and new Agents with the most extensive skills and experience earning $67,668 per year. Over time, FBI Special Agents can advance to the GS-13 pay level, for which compensation ranges from $79,468 to $103,309 per year, in field roles that do not include supervisory duties. Special Agents who want to seek management positions can be promoted to a role at the GS-15 pay grade level, where annual wages start at $110,460 and rise to $143,598.
FBI Special Agent Benefits Packages
In addition to the salary, FBI employees enjoy a competitive benefits package. They are eligible for all federal employee benefits programs, including health insurance, life insurance and retirement savings accounts.
Other benefits for FBI employees specifically include student loan repayment benefits of up to $10,000 per year, transit subsidies for workers who commute via public transportation and tuition reimbursement for further professional development studies that culminate in a degree or certificate. FBI workers are entitled to paid time off in the form of sick leave, accrued personal leave, 10 paid federal holidays and, for those also serving in the military, designated military leave.
If you come to the FBI from a background outside of law enforcement, seeking a specialized career path, you may not find opportunities to be quite as lucrative – especially if you have a great deal of experience in your field and are already paid well.
Working for the FBI: Not Just a Career, But a Lifestyle
A major factor in pursuing a career with the FBI is a sort of calling to serve your country. FBI employees, particularly Special Agents, go where they are needed and do the work that is necessary to achieve the agency’s missions in protecting national security and enforcing federal law. The profession requires more than flexibility. Deep patriotism and a sense of duty to serve are crucial.
The work you do in a career with the FBI is much different than a typical job where the workday has a defined end and you can share the details of your day with friends and family. Only candidates who are eligible to obtain a Top Secret security clearance may work for the FBI due to the extremely sensitive nature of the agency’s investigations. If a threat to national security is imminent or there’s a major, time-sensitive break in the investigation of a heinous crime, you don’t get to clock out just because the workday is over and wait to handle the matter until the next workday. In fact, willingness to work at least 50 hours per week and be on call 24/7 is one of the major duties expected of FBI Special Agents.
This isn’t a downside, necessarily, but it is a factor that you need to consider when exploring the possibility of applying to work for the FBI. If you don’t have the calling to live the lifestyle of an FBI Agent, it isn’t only unlikely that you will be hired in this role. It’s also unlikely that, even if you got the job, you would enjoy it or excel at it. You would likely feel burnt out and unfulfilled, especially when work gets in the way of your personal life on a recurring basis.
The good news is that, if you are willing to commit to this hectic but rewarding lifestyle, joining the FBI will put you in good company with like-minded law enforcement officers who put their country first.
The Downsides of Working for the FBI
Of course, not every aspect of the job is ideal. Many of the cons that pertain to working for the FBI have to do with the difficulty of getting into the Bureau. For example, the BLS reported that the entry-level education required for police officer and detective applicants, in general, is only a high school diploma. However, to work as a Special Agent for the FBI, you need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. That means investing at least four years of time and work – not to mention tuition costs – into earning a college degree that you might not need in other law enforcement agencies. Generally, you also need some qualifying work experience to be hired.
Aside from just needing a degree, it’s very difficult to get into the FBI. An eight-step application process must be completed prior to FBI career placement. A big part of that is the extensive background check that’s required to get a Top Secret security clearance. However, you also need to meet extensive physical fitness requirements. The physical fitness test includes a timed 1.5-mile run, a timed 300-meter sprint, the maximum number of pullups and pushups you can do and the maximum number of continuous sit-ups you can do in one minute.
Once you get hired to work for the FBI, there’s also a great deal of training required. FBI Academy training requires newly hired FBI Special Agent trainees to travel to Quantico, Virginia, and live on campus for 20 weeks of training and academic study.
Another downside to working for the FBI is that, as part of your application and terms of employment, you agree to a mobility agreement that means you can be transferred to wherever the Bureau needs you. If you have strong ties to a specific area and need to stay local for reasons like proximity to family, a partner’s job, schooling for your children, or other reasons, this requirement that you must be open to relocating may be the biggest con that you will find with FBI work. However, it’s worth noting that, according to the FBI, “once assigned to a Field Office, new Special Agents are generally not transferred” except in certain circumstances. A critical need of the Bureau’s is one of the circumstances that could potentially lead to a transfer at this stage. However, the other reasons a Special Agent may be transferred from their assigned Field Office are when the Agent themselves initiates the move, such as by applying for management positions elsewhere or requesting a voluntary transfer.
There are also inherent risks in working in certain positions within the FBI, such as Special Agent and other law enforcement roles, that an employee accepts upon joining the organization.
Weighing the Pros and Cons of Being an FBI Agent
Because different individuals look for different things in their ideal job, a lot of the positives and negatives of working for the FBI are open to interpretation. For example, one candidate may rejoice at the prospect of an exciting career where no two days are ever the same and you may be called upon to make an impromptu trip across the globe at the drop of a hat. Another candidate could lament the lack of structure and reliability and dread the hassle of having to arrange childcare and leave the family at unexpected times and with little notice. Personality types, career objectives and personal and professional priorities all play a role in determining whether a career with the FBI is right for you. Some of the characteristics FBI Agents are expected to have include leadership abilities, interpersonal communication and collaboration skills, self-initiative, organizational and problem-solving skills and the flexibility needed to quickly and effectively adapt to change.
If the exciting, meaningful nature of working in national security is enough to outweigh negatives like long and irregular hours and personal sacrifice for the greater good, working for the FBI may be a good fit. Otherwise, it may be time to consider a different career path.
What Is Involved in the Background Check to Join the FBI?
Will a Master’s Degree Make Me Look More Attractive to the FBI?
What Degree Do I Need to Be an Intelligence Analyst?
What Degree Do I Need to Be a Crime Analyst?
What Degree Do You Need to Be a Criminal Profiler?
For Further Reading:
Exciting Jobs: The Top 15 Jobs for Adrenaline Seekers