Here's What You'll Do in a Career in Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice
Pop culture portrayals of Secret Service agents often include shootouts and car chases, but -- while the field certainly brings its share of risks and challenges -- the average job description for a Secret Service agent doesn't call for action-movie heroics. Most professionals in the field are college graduates with degrees in fields such as criminal justice, law enforcement, and homeland security. They use their unique skills to safeguard important political figures, events, and locations. This page offers an overview of the qualifications of a Secret Service agent, including education, physical attributes, and personality traits.
What Are the Duties and Responsibilities
of a Secret Service Agent?
The duties of a Secret Service agent fall into two major categories: protection and investigation. Protection entails guarding important government figures and events, while investigation centers on financial and digital crimes. Both roles call for advanced training and an understanding of the latest security techniques.
Agents work with intelligence and cybersecurity organizations to deter attacks against computer systems and investigate these threats both locally and abroad.
Protection refers to the practices of identifying, deterring, minimizing, and responding to threats against important public figures, facilities, and events (such as political gatherings). Going beyond physical protection, agents must also assess potential security threats and execute complex, variable response strategies. The increasing role of technology in public infrastructure means agents must also understand technological threats like hacking.
A less commonly understood role of Secret Service agents, investigation involves safeguarding the country's financial and computer systems. Agents work with intelligence and cybersecurity organizations to deter attacks against computer systems and investigate these threats both locally and abroad.
Secret Service Agent Education Requirements
Federal jobs use a unique system to determine pay rate and necessary qualifications, with Secret Service jobs generally requiring a level of GL-07 or GL-09. An entry-level Secret Service position falls into the GL-07 classification, which requires at least a bachelor's degree or over three years of relevant professional experience. Qualified Secret Service agents may enter at the GL-09 level if they possess a master's degree or more than four years of relevant professional experience.
Typically, the most efficient path to a career in the Secret Service involves earning a degree in either law enforcement or criminal justice. While the terms are often used interchangeably, criminologists and other professionals draw a distinction between the two disciplines. Law enforcement refers to the objective practice of enforcing laws, often without concern for the effects of enforcement on communities. Criminal justice or policing takes a more holistic approach that considers community involvement and cooperation.
Qualified Secret Service agents may enter at the GL-09 level if they possess a master's degree or more than four years of relevant professional experience.
Given that Secret Service agents focus primarily on investigating and deterring threats rather than community interactions, a law enforcement degree would appear to be the better choice. However, criminal justice and policing programs explore a more nuanced approach that emphasizes in-depth analysis and complex problem-solving -- both key skills for Secret Service agents.
Both criminal justice and law enforcement programs provide specialized knowledge for future Secret Service agents, stressing relevant topics like forensics, criminal psychology, and homeland security. Ultimately, either type of program should adequately prepare you for positions with the Secret Service.
While an associate degree does not enable you to enter the Secret Service directly, it serves as the first step toward a career in the field. An associate degree in criminal justice provides an introduction to the field, often including foundational courses that prepare you for further study. The degree also enables you to fulfill the general education credits generally required for bachelor's programs. After completing an associate program, you can typically transfer those credits toward a bachelor's in criminal justice.
While length and credit requirements can vary, an associate degree typically requires 60 credits and takes two years of full-time study to complete. As with any degree, tuition rates vary widely between schools. However, tuition for an associate degree from a public community college is around $7,000 while private, two-year colleges may charge as much as $15,000 for an associate degree.
A bachelor's degree is the minimum education required for most Secret Service agent careers and allows you to enter the field at the GL-07 pay level. Earning a bachelor's in criminal justice or law enforcement equips you with many of the skills necessary for entry-level Secret Service agent jobs, such as forensics, threat assessment, investigation techniques, law, and criminal procedure. A bachelor's prepares you to enter the Secret Service field directly or pursue graduate study.
The cost and completion time of a bachelor's degree varies widely between programs and institutions. However, most schools require 120 credits for a bachelor's, which typically takes about four years of full-time study to complete. Tuition costs exhibit far greater variation between schools, but on average, a bachelor's from a public college at the in-state tuition rate costs roughly $40,000, while private tuition costs up to $140,000.
A master's degree is typically the highest level of education required of Secret Service agents, as almost no positions in the field call for a doctorate. Master's programs in criminal justice or law enforcement typically focus on advanced knowledge along with leadership skills, preparing you for specialized and/or management roles. Programs may focus on highly specialized topics like counterterrorism, intelligence analysis, and global crime control.
As with associate and bachelor's programs, cost and completion time can vary between programs. Completion times vary more at the master's level; many programs require just two years, though different enrollment and pacing options can lead to a completion time of anywhere from 1-5 years. Cost also varies widely among public and private schools. Average graduate tuition at public colleges comes to about $11,000 per year, while tuition at private colleges costs roughly $24,000 per year.
Other Requirements for Secret Service Agents
While education plays a large role in the selection process for Secret Service agents, applicants must also meet an assortment of nonacademic requirements. Given the responsibilities of the job, potential agents must be in excellent physical shape and capable of passing a rigorous physical ability examination. Applicants must have uncorrected vision (without glasses or contacts) of at least 20/100 binocular and correctable to 20/20 in both eyes (corrective surgeries like Lasik are permitted). All agents must also be between the ages of 21 and 37 at the time of their application.
All agents must also be between the ages of 21 and 37 at the time of their application.
Along with physical standards, Secret Service agents must fulfill certain general requirements, such as possessing U.S. citizenship and a current, valid driver's license. All applicants must also undergo a rigorous background check, including a drug screen, in-depth interviews, criminal history, and a polygraph examination. In addition, agents must be registered with the Selective Service System or demonstrate evidence of an official exemption.
Qualities That Make a Great Secret Service Agent
A career as a Secret Service agent offers unique opportunities and experiences, but the work is fast-paced, high-stress, and occasionally dangerous. Qualified applicants in the field possess impeccable educational and professional credentials along with the right temperament and character qualities, some of which are highlighted below.
- Quick Thinking
- Critical Analysis