DEA Agent Job Description: What You’ll Do

Here’s What You’ll Do in a Career in Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) handles investigations of drug smuggling and abuse in the United States. Working closely with government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DEA aims to minimize drug trafficking. Earning a degree in criminal justice can help kickstart your career as a DEA or law enforcement agent. This guide introduces some of the career paths available to these graduates.

What Are the Duties and Responsibilities
of a DEA Agent?

A DEA agent’s duties and responsibilities vary based on the specific division they work in. For example, based on criminal activity in the local area, a division may have specific goals and priorities for eliminating those threats. A DEA agent’s day-to-day activities also vary based on their special skills and training. For example, the DEA employs forensic scientists to test and evaluate drug evidence.

DEA agents work investigating drug crimes, including collecting and reviewing evidence, compiling lists of suspects, conducting interviews, and executing searches.

Generally, many DEA agents work investigating drug crimes, including collecting and reviewing evidence, compiling lists of suspects, conducting interviews, and executing searches. Alongside these investigations, agents complete important paperwork and ensure proper documentation of all case aspects. As investigations progress, DEA agents may testify and provide testimony in court based on their knowledge of the case and evidence. Agents may also engage in day-to-day surveillance and law enforcement.

DEA Agent Education Requirements

In order to become a DEA agent, you must possess at least a bachelor’s degree with a 2.95 minimum GPA. Students interested in joining the DEA often earn a bachelor’s in a related field, like criminal justice, to acquire a basic knowledge and background of law enforcement. Those with at least three years of experience in adjacent areas, such as certain military and law enforcement roles, and a bachelor’s degree in any field may qualify. Earning a graduate degree like a master’s or a Juris Doctor (J.D.) can benefit potential DEA agent candidates.

A criminal justice degree may offer a more well-rounded approach to the education and training you may need to pursue a career with the DEA.

Students can pursue a variety of degrees in criminal justice. These degrees typically require around 120 credits and three to four years to complete. These programs may offer different concentrations, specializations, or minors in areas like forensics, homeland security, and criminal psychology. Students may alternatively pursue an associate of science (AS) degree in criminal justice prior to transferring to a bachelor’s program.

Law enforcement and criminal justice degrees may seem similar, but have key differences to keep in mind. Law enforcement emphasizes the strict implementation of laws, and lacks the same attention to community-oriented aspects of police agencies. A criminal justice degree may offer a more well-rounded approach to the education and training you may need to pursue a career with the DEA.

Associate Degrees

An associate’s degree can provide a pathway to entering a four-year bachelor’s program, the required degree to become a DEA agent. An associate’s degree provides basic general education across multiple subject areas, including science, mathematics, and English composition. The associate of arts (AA) and AS both provide students with a strong basic foundation for a bachelor’s degree in their chosen major.

Fortunately, associate degrees offer a relatively affordable method for completing general education prior to entering a four-year college or university. Many states offer low-cost tuition rates for students to earn their associate degree at a local community or junior college. Public two-year institutions typically offer much lower tuition rates than four-year colleges and universities, with yearly averages as low as $1,430. Learning online may also offer a lower-cost alternative to on-campus options.

Bachelor's Degrees

Many positions in criminal justice and law enforcement require a bachelor’s degree. If beginning a bachelor’s without an associate degree, students must take general education courses prior to pursuing the criminal justice major. Coursework in criminal justice covers topics in policing, court proceedings and prosecution, ethics in law enforcement, and incarceration. This degree prepares students for entry-level positions in a variety of law enforcement agencies.

A 120-credit bachelor’s degree typically takes three to four years to complete, but this can vary based on each student’s academic background. The cost of a bachelor’s degree can vary based on factors like geographic location, and attending a public or private school. The yearly cost of tuition and fees for a public four-year institution currently averages around $9,970.

Master's Degrees

Although the DEA lists the bachelor’s as its minimum degree requirement, the agency also lists a master’s degree or J.D. as valuable options for candidates. Earning a graduate degree generally prepares you for more advanced careers and job positions. In law enforcement, this may include entry into the DEA as an agent, and supervisory roles in criminal investigations. The DEA looks for candidates with strong skills in written communication, decision-making, and problem solving, which are all skills honed through a master’s program. Master’s students in criminal justice often take courses in criminal behavior, organization management, criminal law and procedure, and public policy.

A master’s in criminal justice generally requires between 36 and 45 credits, and can take around three to four semesters to complete. The cost of a graduate program can range from $30,000 to $120,000 in total, depending on the type of school and the individual program. Many graduate programs offer scholarships, grants, and stipends to offset tuition costs for students. Online graduate programs may also offer a lower-cost alternative to traditional on-campus options.

Other Requirements for DEA Agents

Becoming a DEA agent requires more than a good education. Candidates must meet a wide variety of specific requirements to begin the almost year-long hiring process for new DEA agents. Requirements include exceptional skills in areas like problem solving, teamwork, integrity, interpersonal relations, attention to detail, and self-management. Application for a job with the DEA requires a valid U.S. driver’s license and U.S. citizenship. All applicants must be at least 21 years old, and comfortable with carrying and handling firearms.

The DEA looks for candidates in top physical condition. All candidates must pass a physical fitness test, including calisthenics, cardio, and anaerobic training. Candidates must also undergo a medical examination that measures hearing, vision, and dexterity.

Qualities That Make a Great DEA Agent

A strong academic foundation in key areas of criminal justice and law enforcement can certainly prepare you for a career with the DEA. But professionals in this career path also possess a variety of personality traits and characteristics that help them succeed in the field. This service-oriented job can prove very stressful and dangerous, making certain qualities especially beneficial.

  • Attention to detail
  • Strong communication skills
  • Integrity and honesty
  • Flexibility
  • Self-management and organization
  • Ability to work as a team
  • Attention to emotional well-being
  • Willingness to learn and adapt
  • Empathy
  • Cultural sensitivity

Salary Opportunities for DEA Agents

DEA Special Agent Salary by Level
GL-7 $49,746
GL-9 $55,483
GS-13 $92,592

Want to Learn More?

DEA Agent Salary Information Careers in Criminal Justice Online Bachelor's Degree in Law Enforcement