For better or worse, the Central Intelligence Agency is currently having its 15 minutes of fame. Showtime’s “Homeland,” which follows the unstoppable, bipolar, CIA sleuth Carrie Mathison, played magnificently by American actress Clare Danes, has been racking up the Emmys and Golden Globes, not to mention the viewers, by the millions, since hitting the airwaves in the fall of 2011. And Academy Award-Winning Director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which tracks an equally unstoppable CIA agent named Maya on the hunt for America’s (Formerly) Most Wanted Man, Osama bin Laden, has won its fair share of awards as well, and was recently nominated for the granddaddy of them all, a Best Film Oscar, in the upcoming Academy Awards, the winners of which will be announced next month. In fact, there’s so much popular (and quality) CIA-related media these days that the Agency has felt the need to address its depiction on TV and the silver screen.
The following comes from a section of the CIA’s web site called Working at the CIA: Fact or Fiction: “Despite its portrayal in the movies, working at the Central Intelligence Agency isn’t glamour and danger all the time. In fact, for most officers, it’s more like a normal 9-to-5 job.” What follows after these sentences are first-hand accounts, which aim to debunk common myths, from current CIA employees, including one named Brad (“Some of my best and most memorable experiences were with foreign citizens who did not come from a privileged background. They were good, honest people that cared about others and the future of their countries. We didn’t sip champagne, but had heartfelt discussions over stale coffee.”) and one named Chris (“At one point, I had 2.5 million frequent flier miles from traveling around the world over a period of about 10 years. Of all that flying, I flew in first-class one time on an upgrade.”) and another named Ruby (“You don’t think of [graphic] designers being here. It’s cool that they do have designers and they see the importance of it. You do feel appreciated.”).
Additional first-hand accounts from CIA employees can be found at the Agency’s careers section of its web site. There you’ll read statements by long-time employees in engineering, operations, and IT, who all rave about the quality of their work assignments, colleagues, and opportunities to learn and grow, both personally and professionally. Here’s one CIA insider named Ahmed speaking about his experience:
When I joined almost 20 years ago, I was one of a small number of Arab Americans in the Agency. I was one of an even smaller number of Operations Officers. At that time I joined because I was looking for adventure and excitement. What I found were opportunities I could have never imagined—opportunities to have a voice, opportunities to contribute, opportunities to succeed, opportunities to have relevance. In other words, I found opportunities to make a real difference. My cultural and language skills contributed to my ability to take advantage of these opportunities. The work was demanding and challenging.
And here’s another insider named Lisa:
I started my career at the CIA as a co-op engineering student. I worked several tours, and then came on as a full-time staff employee. As an Electronic Engineer, I see new challenges every day. The lab I work in is a quick-reaction environment, our projects last only a few days or maybe weeks. On one challenging project, the timeline was just 32 hours and then I grabbed my tool kit, got on an airplane and traveled halfway around the world to install it. We have talented people who are well rounded and motivated top performers. You have to be flexible. You have to confront the (nearly) impossible on a daily basis.
While these accounts might not sound all that different from employees at public and private corporations with comparable titles, there are certainly some major differences to working at the CIA. Not the least of which concerns the detailed application process, during which you’re asked, among other things, to take a polygraph test (reminiscent of an early episode of Season One of “Homeland”), undergo “a thorough medical and psychological exam,” undergo “an extensive background investigation,” and take a drug test (“to be considered suitable for Agency employment, applicants must generally not have used illegal drugs within the last twelve months”).
Another major difference is you have to keep your lips sealed about your work. That is, you’re unable to talk about your job with anyone outside the CIA. Which, according to the CIA, could be a positive aspect of the job, not a negative one. This is from one of the CIA’s top 10 reasons to work for the Agency: "No. 9: You never have to talk about your work while away from your job." (Other top reasons include: “working with really, really smart people"; "your career can go in many directions without switching employers," and "you'll be on the leading edge of your career specialty.")
And so if all that doesn’t scare you, and you possess “extraordinary integrity combined with intellectual curiosity, perception, analytical ability, and strong team skills,” there’s a good chance your background will be suitable to, at the very least, apply for one of the many open positions at the CIA. Currently, there are openings in accounting, finance, clandestine service, cyber science, engineering, cartography, graphics, photography, HR, IT, investigations, science and technology, legal services, and several other areas. Job titles for recent undergrads range from National Reconnaissance Office Analyst and Counterintelligence Threat Analyst to Clandestine Service Operations Officer and Science, Technology & Weapons Analyst.
There’s also an extensive list of internship opportunities for students. Note that internship job applications are currently open for summer 2014 opportunities in areas such as National Clandestine Service and Business, IT & Security, among others, but applications for summer 2013 opportunities closed in October 2012. Also note that the CIA web site has a section devoted to students with detailed information about internship opportunities.
On a final note, even if you’re not all that interested in serving and protecting your country and/or a job at the CIA, I highly recommend, if only for entertainment value, that you visit the Games & Information section of the Agency's site. There, anyone can take the CIA's “photo analysis challenge,” where you're asked to compare two near-identical street scenes and find the differences between them before time runs out; or take the CIA's “aerial analysis challenge,” where you're shown a photograph from an aerial vantage point and asked a series of multiple choice questions such as what time is it, what season is it, and what do you predict will happen tomorrow; and you’ll definitely not want to miss the CIA’s “personality quiz,” in which you're asked which super power you would most like to have, where your favorite hideaway is, which foreign city most intrigues you, as well as a host of other questions, the answers to which will be used to determine which type of CIA agent you’re most likely to be.
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Careers & Internships (cia.gov)
Student Opportunities (cia.gov)
Games & Information (cia.gov)