If you want to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), you will need at least a bachelor’s degree. However, you may be wondering if going to graduate school would be worth your while. There are many potential benefits to holding a master’s degree if you want to work for the FBI, although choosing a relevant program of study is crucial. You should also think about the timing of your education and how graduate school fits into your overall career and educational goals.

The Perks of a Master’s Degree for FBI Employment

Since the FBI is seeking top-performing candidates for its law enforcement, intelligence and specialized professional support roles, you shouldn’t worry too much about a graduate degree making you seem overqualified. A master’s degree is likely to help you as you pursue a career with the FBI, even though the advanced degree alone won’t be enough to get you into the agency.

One way your graduate education can help you is by lowering the experience requirements needed to get a job with the FBI. Generally, the FBI requires a combination of formal college education and professional work experience for many of its roles, including Special Agent. While Special Agent applicants are usually expected to hold a bachelor’s degree and complete two years of full-time work experience, those who start out with a master’s degree can apply with just one year of experience.

Your master’s degree can also influence your earning potential in an FBI job by placing you on a higher grade or step of the federal pay grade scale. Different jobs specify different pay grade levels, and they aren’t always consecutive. The difference between the lowest-paying step on one grade level and the highest-paying step on the highest level associated with the job can easily add up to tens of thousands of dollars per year.

You might go to graduate school if your academic performance as an undergraduate was not strong enough to get the FBI role you want. Like other federal agencies, the FBI may judge candidates with only a bachelor’s degree on their class standing in college.

Graduate Programs of Study for FBI Career Paths

If you want to work in a law enforcement role, such as the ever-popular position of Special Agent, your path to an advanced education and an FBI career might seem fairly straightforward. A master’s degree in a program of study such as criminal justice or law enforcement is a popular choice. Some criminal justice programs offer concentrations in areas such as federal law enforcement, which can be particularly valuable for aspiring FBI agents. Criminology, the application of sociological theories and principles to the field of crime to understand the social causes and effects of criminal activity, can also help aspiring FBI investigators. One of the most exciting aspects of graduate school is that, in these more advanced programs of study, students who already know the basics can often pursue a more specialized curriculum. For example, you might choose a degree like the Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence rather than your standard criminal justice curriculum.

What if you want to work in a professional support role rather than as an agent? The FBI hires support staff from many specialized career paths, with each discipline and each distinct role requiring a different background. If you want to work as a forensic accountant for the FBI, for example, you may benefit by pursuing a master’s degree in accounting, or forensic accounting specifically, so that you can seek the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential. Although you would be examining financial statements related to criminal activity rather than handling public accounting matters in this specific role, the FBI gives preference to candidates with this and similar professional certifications. For roles like information technology specialist or computer scientist, you might choose a degree like a Master of Science in Management Information Systems.

You probably think of Special Agent as the epitome of an FBI career, but in fact, the agency employs considerably more professional support staff than they do Special Agents, according to The Houston Chronicle.

When to Pursue Your Master’s Degree as an FBI Candidate or Employee

When is the right time to pursue your master’s degree? You may be tempted to fast-track your graduate education in the hopes that an advanced degree will make you a more appealing job applicant for that coveted FBI position, but that’s not always the case. A candidate with a master’s degree but the bare minimum of work experience, or experience that isn’t perfectly suited to what the FBI is looking for, may not have a competitive edge over less educated candidates with more extensive or more compelling experience – especially for positions where a bachelor’s degree is acceptable.

One option is to apply to the FBI with your bachelor’s degree, either as a recent graduate under the Collegiate Hire Program or once you have attained sufficient work experience in a field like law enforcement. You may miss out on some perks of having a master’s degree, but you can start acquiring experience within the agency earlier. Since the FBI offers a tuition reimbursement program, you could use this benefit to help pay for your graduate education when the time is right. Earning your graduate degree after you have joined the FBI, rather than before, can help you get a better idea of what career role you really want and what degree path will best help you attain it.

The FBI also offers tuition repayment benefits that you could use toward your existing student loans, but you should be aware that the benefit is capped at a lifetime amount of $60,000 – which may not be enough to cover both your undergraduate and graduate debt.

Additional Resources

How Do I Apply to the FBI?

What Are the Positives and Negatives of Working for the FBI?

What Is Involved in the Background Check to Join the FBI?