Becoming a DEA Agent

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The Drug Enforcement Administration was established on July 1st, 1973 by then-President Richard Nixon. It operates under the United States Department of Justice and is primarily responsible for the prevention illegal drug trafficking and abuse in the United States. In addition to these duties, the DEA, sharing concurrent jurisdiction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is responsible for the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act. It is the sole agency responsible for the coordination of investigations into illegal drug activity abroad.

The primary reason I’ve chosen to pursue a career as a DEA agent has been a desire to stem the flow of illegal drugs into and out of the United States. Additionally, I would like to create as much of a hostile business environment for drug traffickers as humanly possible, in order to limit the amount of dangerous and organized crimes, such as murder, extortion, and kidnapping that permeate any given region in connection with drug deals. Finally, the end goal is, through seizure of illegal contraband and persecution of those responsible, to so negatively impact the profit margins and black market value of any and all illegal drugs, so as to make the risks associated with their sale and distribution economically costly.

In order to ensure competence across a wide range of potentially needed skills in the line of duty, the role of a special agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration encompasses many different disciplines. An agent must be proficient in the use of a wide array of firearms, shooting and battle tactics, hand to hand combat, advanced interrogation techniques, the ability to speak multiple languages (the language of choice at this point in time is Spanish, due to the prevalence of many powerful central and South American drug cartels), training in intelligence gathering and analysis, and many other potential skills and techniques. Induction into one of the specialized units of the DEA, such as the special operations division or the Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Teams (FAST) will ensure any top-level DEA agents will likely have skills and experience rivaling that of U.S. special forces personnel. A DEA agent’s work environment is rarely static, as one day might see the agent completing paperwork regarding intelligence analysis or the detainment of a criminal or suspect. The next day might have the agent inserted into a drug retrieval or assault operation on the Mexican border or a crackdown on suppliers or distributors. Even still, depending on the agent’s specializations and whether or not he is involved in any special operational aspects of the agency, the day after that he could be flown into Afghanistan to conduct counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism or direct-action missions. Such is the life of a DEA agent, and it is a dangerous one (Drug Enforcement Administration, 2013, “Careers: Special Agent”).

The employment requirements to be hired by the Drug Enforcement Agency in any capacity are relatively straightforward: The applicant must be a United States Citizen, they must successfully pass a DEA administered drug test, successfully complete the DEA Drug Questionnaire and sign the Drug Use Statement to show compliance with DEA policies on illegal drug use. After all of these steps have been completed, the candidate must finally submit to a full background check and must be registered with the selective service system (military draft). Special Agent positions require further orientation, however, and the additional requirements for induction include a qualifications review, a written assessment and panel review, a Urinalysis drug test, a medical examination, a physical task test, a polygraph examination, a psychological evaluation, and full-field background investigation. Provided all of these requirements have been met and completed in a satisfactory manner, the Drug Enforcement Administration is an equal opportunity employer for the United States Justice Department (Drug Enforcement Administration, 2013, “Employment Requirements”).

The number of job openings for any position at any given moment at the Drug Enforcement Administration varies, but applications for positions such as Special Agents are always accepted via DEA recruiters, regardless of the number of open positions. The responsibilities of the occupation, should you be part of the lucky few who can claim the title of DEA special agent, involve such tasks as confiscating illegal drugs, detaining suspected and convicted criminals, conducting surveillance and collecting intelligence, infiltrating drug trafficking organizations, conducting money-laundering investigations and collecting and preparing evidence (Drug Enforcement Administration, 2013, “Summary of Unit Responsibilities”). The prerequisite qualifications needed in order to be hired as a Special Agent are, for good reason, far more stringent than the qualifications for employment by the DEA in other capacities. The Administration requests the following of any applicants for agent positions: “The applicant must be a U.S. citizen, must be 21 years or older and no older than 36 at the time of appointment, have a valid driver’s license, are willing to relocate anywhere in the United States, are able to obtain and retain a Top Secret level security clearance, are in excellent physical condition, possess sharp hearing acuity (no hearing aids), no worse than 20/20 vision in the better eye and 20/40 in the weaker eye, no color blindness and able to carry loads of 45 pounds or more for long periods of time, with occasional heavy lifting. The applicant must either possess, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of 2.95 or higher, specialized experience conducting narcotics or drug-related investigations, or possess 3 or more years of substantive work experience and special skills” such as military training, linguistics, computer science, or a host of other potential professional fields (Drug Enforcement Administration, 2013, “Special Agent Qualifications”). There are no state or outside agency exams that must be completed in order to be considered for employment or induction into the ranks of the DEA special agents. Internships, while available for other occupations and departments within the Drug Enforcement Administration and United States Department of Justice, are not required, nor available for the particular occupation of DEA special agent. I intend to attend Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, as it has a regionally and nationally accredited Criminal Justice program that is suitably high ranking so as to make my recruitment as a DEA special agent far more attractive to my prospective employers.

The average annual salary of a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent is based on the United States Government’s General Services grade pay scale, which amounts to approximately $55,000 dollars a year. New agents are given compensation for initial training time to the tune of about $35,000 for the 16-19 week session. Benefits for the occupation include a 401k with the Federal Employees Retirement System, group life insurance, health insurance, paid holidays, paid training and relocation reimbursement. Vacation and sick pay are based on an agent’s number of years in service. In addition to these benefits, many agents will receive an occupational vehicle, with all gas, maintenance and repair expenses funded by the agency (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011, “Special Police and Detective Salary”). Once hired, and an agent is considered an employee of the United States Justice Department- Drug Enforcement Administration and is treated as such through official documentation and tax code.

Currently, there is no demand for new DEA agents, as the Drug Enforcement Administration is currently not seeking any new applicants. The projected market for this position is, unfortunately, much lower than average, with a projected 7% annual growth rate predicted between 2010 and 2020. The highest projected in-demand regions for this occupation, however, reside in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City, in addition to even higher demand along the urban and suburban areas along the border between the United States and Mexico. I would be willing to move for this occupation, with the caveat that any potential or accepted applicants must be willing to move to any part of the United States or abroad at the behest of the agency. The best course of action for myself in this endeavor is to attend the best school with the best Criminal Justice program that I possibly can, and excel in as many aspects of my studies as possible. Additionally, the accrual of work experience will be paramount to my perceived benefit to the agency, and so I must seek out professional, as well as academic opportunities uniquely structured to my chosen career path. Finally, upon eventual employment by the Drug Enforcement Administration and my induction into the DEA special agent program, I would perform my duties as expected and seek advancement over the course of my career.

The positives surrounding the position of special agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency are the high annual starting salary and the myriad of benefits. Additionally, being the type of person who enjoys traveling to other parts of the world and the United States, the ability to transfer to nearly any field office in the entire country or in foreign countries would be a plus. Another positive aspect of the occupation would be the variety of useful skills learned over the course of training. Linguistics is something of a life skill, in that mastery of other languages is something you will carry with you for the rest of your life, likely resulting in the increased enjoyment of visiting any sort of foreign locale, simply because you can now converse with the locals and remain as self-sufficient as you would be in your own country. Finally, the biggest positive attached to the position of DEA Special Agent is the ability to protect your family. Being skilled in the acts of surveillance, intelligence analysis, firearms and hand to hand combat ensures that you will be able to tackle any potential physical threat that could befall either yourself or your family. Despite the many positive aspects of employment by the DEA, there are equally many, if not more negatives. For starters, there is always the very real threat that a DEA agent’s identity could be found out by convicted criminals or criminal organizations, in which case the agent in question and his immediate family would be placed in danger. In scenarios such as these, agents have been placed in witness protection type programs in order to protect their identities and keep themselves, their families and their livelihoods safe. Additionally, the constant moving around associated with this type of occupation isn’t necessarily conducive to family life. Even if you are able to arrange for your family to come with you on an office transfer, any sort of field operations could potentially stretch into days or weeks, impeding your ability to fraternize with any friends or family in the short term. Another negative aspect of being a DEA agent, or any type of government employee for that matter, is the slow rate of advancement and the poor advancement of the pay scale; while the starting annual salary of $55,000 dollars is relatively high among most professions, the amount of money one can accrue in raises and bonuses from year to year are decidedly small in relation to comparable private-sector positions. Furthermore, extra hours and 100-hour workweeks can sometimes be the norm when in the line of duty, particularly on field operations. This work, while compensated, is for the government, and as such isn’t compensated at the same rate as private sector overtime, if it is compensated in currency at all; the government is quite fond of appropriating “flex” time that can be allocated to extra sick and vacation days, in favor of paying its employees regular overtime, which is time and a half. The benefits, while still fantastic, are generally geared towards the end goal of the employee being placed on a government pension after retirement. However, with recent budget cuts and high national budget deficits, many pension programs have either been gutted or stripped of some of their most potent benefits in the interest of saving money. This may have a significantly negative impact on the post-retirement life of any government employee, as the reception of a pension will oftentimes steer people away from making private investments or 401k type retirement funds.

Overcoming the many negatives of being a DEA agent isn’t necessarily possible, provided one intends to stay within that particular occupation. The long hours on field operations are obviously a must, as an agent can’t just decide to go home after 8 hours on a sting. The incessant uprooting of one’s life is also a necessity, though to what extent this can be mitigated by more efficient personnel and scheduling decisions on the part of the Drug Enforcement Administration remains to be seen. In any case, your ability to change any of the transfer practices as a DEA Agent is minimal, as your job is simply to go where they ask you and do what they ask. Only advancement to some type of senior position within the administration would likely give you access to the correct people, protocols, and procurement of funding to make that sort of inter-agency change a reality. As far as advancement within the agency goes, the only real weapons one would have in their fight to climb the agency ladder would be further education, either within the agency or from outside sources, in the form of obtaining masters or Ph.D. degrees from higher education institutions. Coupled with several years of exemplary field and administrative experience and service, one could probably realistically expect to advance into the upper echelons of the Drug Enforcement Administration within a 20 to 25-year time span. Finally, the potential for your pension to be less than what you had originally planned, or for your pay on a yearly basis to accrue in value much faster than the federal government payscale permits, is always going to be very high and very low, respectively. This isn’t an occupation someone would subject themselves to in an attempt to get rich quick, and any claims to the contrary can view the federal government pay scales themselves to understand why.

The most interesting thing that came to light in my research on Special Agents for the DEA, was the fact that the DEA has 85 offices in 66 countries around the world. For a domestic department of the United States government, that is a staggering amount of reach into foreign territory, rivaled only by the CIA and FBI, respectively. As such, a Special Agent of the DEA can be deployed, not just to urban and border regions in the United States, but to nearly any region in the world, a fact I never would have guessed.

Becoming a Special Agent for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration has always been a goal of mine, something I’ve been working to achieve with a singular desire for a long time. While there are certainly specific dangers and pitfalls to this position one might not find in a normal civilian occupation, the ability to stem the flow of illegal drugs and drug crimes in the United States is, to me, a goal worthy of sacrifice.


Careers: Special Agent. (n.d.). DEA. Retrieved October 30, 2013, from

Employment Requirements. (n.d.) / Employment Requirements. Retrieved October 30, 2013, from

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Special Police and Detective Salary. (n.d.). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved October 30, 2013, from

Summary of Unit Responsibilities. (n.d.).DEA . Retrieved October 30, 2013, from