Special Agent: Career Information

Detail of the scene of an accident or crime
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Job Description:

A special agent, sometimes called a detective or criminal investigator, gathers facts and collects evidence in order to determine if there have been violations of local, state or federal laws. One may specialize in a particular type of crime, for example he or she may investigate fraudulent online activity, homicides or burglaries.

Employment Facts:

There were 119,000 special agents employed in the US in 2010.

They worked for local and state law enforcement agencies as well as for federal law enforcement agencies like the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Bureau of Homeland Security.

Part time jobs in this field are highly unusual. Most positions are full-time and often include overtime. Since their services are needed at all times of the day and night, special agents may be scheduled to work at any time. Those with more experience usually get to work the most desirable hours, so if you are just starting out, expect to be scheduled nights, weekends and holidays.

Working in this field is obviously dangerous. There is a high risk of injury since special agents can be wounded by suspects or injured during high speed car chases. Following proper procedures can help lessen the chances of something going wrong. This is also an emotionally and physically stressful job. One never knows what will come up during his or her shift and must be ready to deal with all types of situations.

Educational Requirements:

Before becoming a special agent, one usually spends time as a police officer. A high school diploma is the minimum requirement for anyone who wants to begin a career in law enforcement, but many local and state agencies also require some college coursework or even a degree. Typically one must be at least 21 years old, pass a test for physical fitness and undergo a background check and a polygraph (lie detector).

Local law enforcement agencies put all new recruits through a training academy. Large agencies have their own academies, but smaller ones, for example a police department in a small town, may send their recruits off to be trained in a regional academy. Upon graduation, one begins his or her on-the-job training.

If you want to become an FBI agent, you must get your bachelor's degree. You will also need at least three years of work experience. Please see the FBI website for more information.

Why Do You Need to Know About Educational Requirements?

Other Requirements:

What does it take to be a special agent? Certain personal qualities will help you succeed in this occupation. Completing the mountains of paperwork that will be a normal part of your job requires that you be able to multi-task. Good judgment will enable to you to quickly solve, in the best way possible, whatever problems come up. Good communication skills will help you interact with suspects and colleagues. You must be perceptive and empathetic in order to understand others' perspectives and anticipate their actions.

Job Outlook:

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, special agents will experience slower than average job growth through 2020.

Budget cuts will slow down hiring for some police departments. There will be strong competition for jobs in state and federal agencies and candidates with bachelor's degrees or who speak more than one language will have the best chance of getting hired.

Why Do You Need to Know About Job Outlook?


Special agents earned a median annual salary of $71,770 and median hourly wages of $34.51 in 2011. These earnings put it among the highest paying occupations that require just a high school diploma.

Use the Salary Wizard at Salary.com to find out how much a Special Agent currently earns in your city.

A Day in a Special Agent's Life:


On a typical day a special agent's tasks might include:

  • interviewing and observing suspects and witnesses
  • analyzing records to find links in chains of evidence
  • writing reports that detail results of investigations
  • coordinating investigations with other agencies and offices
  • determining the scope, direction and timing of investigations

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Police and Detectives, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm (visited December 20, 2012).
Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online, Criminal Investigators and Special Agent, on the Internet at http://online.onetcenter.org/link/details/33-3021.03 (visited December 20, 2012).

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