Hilbert College Global Online Blog

How to Become a Federal Agent

Written by: Hilbert College   •  Jan 2, 2024
A team of federal agents meeting around an interactive digital table in a surveillance room.

How to Become a Federal Agent

Most people associate federal agents with the FBI, a prominent government agency in the U.S. But there’s a wide variety of agencies serving to protect specific interests of the federal government. With over 430 different federal agencies, there are many options for those looking to help maintain federal interests, ensuring the protection of the government, public and private organizations, and citizens.

Becoming a federal agent doesn’t have a single track, as there are many positions an agent can hold. When learning how to become a federal agent, it is important to understand the breadth of the role, ranging from research to criminal investigations, as well as the education, experience and skills necessary to fill the role.

What Does a Federal Agent Do?

Federal agents are specialists who work at one of a variety of federal agencies charged with protecting and securing the government and its interests and upholding federal laws. Many federal agents serve in a law enforcement capacity, which may include investigating crimes under federal jurisdiction, such as terrorist threats, cyber crimes and tax fraud or evasion.

Federal agents’ individual roles can vary depending on the department and agency. For example, investigative federal agents may work at a desk compiling reports and written statements while occasionally going into the field to perform surveillance, arrest suspects or testify in court. Federal agents may also work with local and state departments to conduct on-site interviews and investigate crime scenes.

Not all federal agents work in an investigative capacity. For example, some have specialized roles serving as lab technicians, translators, trainers for new agents, assistants, managers or public relations specialists.

Where Do Federal Agents Work?

Each federal agency oversees a different aspect of the government’s laws, allowing agents to apply where they feel their interests and experience are most relevant. Some of these agencies include:

  • Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS): This agency is the investigative component utilized by the U.S. Inspector General and Department of Defense. It is involved in investigating terrorism, investigating weapons manufacturers for faulty equipment, fraud and corruption cases, and cybercrime.
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA): This agency investigates cases of drug trafficking and the illegal selling of drugs, ensuring that controlled substance laws are properly enforced. They regularly work with local law enforcement and attempt to assist communities that may struggle with drug-based crimes.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): This agency serves as the investigative component of the U.S. Department of Justice. It investigates and prosecutes federal crimes, such as those against public agencies, state crimes that fall into certain categories like high levels of fraud or theft, and those that cross state lines. It regularly works with other law enforcement agencies to both support them and gather intelligence related to FBI cases.

Steps to Become a Federal Agent

Prospective federal agents must meet a series of requirements. Some of these requirements may be more rigorous than others, depending on the desired position and agency. For example, candidates may need to meet a minimum level of physical fitness, be in a specific age range and pass a background check. 

1. Earn a Degree

Specific education criteria may vary depending on the agency, but most federal agents must hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. A common choice is a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, which can help to build a foundation for understanding the legal system, criminal behavior and law enforcement. Other options include degrees in computer science or finance.

Depending on the position, an advanced degree like a master’s degree in criminal justice administration can help candidates stand out with a deeper knowledge of the legal system and criminal justice administration. Additionally, an advanced degree can help reduce the overall experience requirements necessary to join some agencies. For example, the FBI reduces the work experience requirement to only one year if applicants hold a master’s degree.

2. Develop Key Skills

Federal agents should develop skills related to their position, which can vary depending on their specific tasks or what their agency requires. As federal agents are often versatile, it benefits candidates to acquire a wide set of skills that can be useful in numerous situations. Here are a few skills that federal agents should develop:

  • Physical Fitness. Depending on the agency, federal agents must maintain a specific level of physical fitness and health to qualify for and retain their position. Additionally, some agents may travel and work on the ground level, needing an adequate fitness level to capture suspects and perform other physical aspects of the job.
  • Communication. Agencies are collaborative, often requiring good communication between peers and superiors to ensure the agency functions. Investigative federal agents also need to communicate with other federal agencies, law enforcement groups and civilians to corroborate evidence and conduct interviews.
  • Adaptability. The specific tasks a federal agent performs can vary daily and may require a level of flexibility abnormal in other careers. Additionally, while federal agents can live a relatively normal life outside of their career, they are always on call and may be required to travel or come in to work at a moment’s notice or for extended lengths of time.

3. Gain Work Experience

Prospective federal agents will need a minimum amount of work experience depending on their role and the agency. For example, joining the FBI requires at least two years of professional work experience. However, in some cases, an advanced education can help reduce the necessary amount of work experience. A master’s degree or equivalent can reduce the FBI experience needed to only one year,for example.

4. Pass Examinations

Agencies may also have additional examination requirements to be eligible for a federal agent position. These often include written and physical tests. For example, becoming a federal agent for the FBI requires passing their Physical Fitness Test (PFT), which consists of several timed runs and a specific number of physical exercises. The FBI also hosts additional testing phases, including a written exam, a formal interview and a thorough background check.

Salaries for Federal Agent Careers

The median annual salary for law enforcement officers in the government, including federal agents, was $70,910 as of May 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

However, it’s important to note that special agents are paid using a general schedule (GS) scale, which is used to categorize a set base payment for many federal employees based on grades and steps, noting rank and tenure, respectively. 

Additional bonuses and benefits are often applied to federal agents in this system, meaning the total salary may vary greatly depending on experience, education, overtime and location. Here are a few examples of agencies and the base annual salaries they offer to special agent roles:

  • DEA: As of 2023, special agents working with the DEA are typically hired at a starting base annual pay between $40,082 and $49,028. The DEA notes that within a few years, they may be promoted to a rank with a base annual pay of $84,546.
  • FBI: In 2023, the average annual salary for new FBI special agents is between $81,000 and $129,000, according to FBIJobs.gov. Those in supervisor positions have the potential to earn more.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): As of 2023, special agents working with the EPA are typically hired at a starting base annual pay between $39,910 and $50,662. The EPA notes that their special agents may be promoted as part of their career track to a grade with a base annual pay of $84,546.

The BLS projects detective and criminal investigator careers, which include federal agents, to grow by 1% between 2022 and 2032, slower than the average of 3% for all careers. The BLS notes that this growth will likely change between agencies depending on budget, which can vary over time. The BLS also notes how law enforcement will likely always remain a relevant career, as the government will always desire trained special agents to help ensure federal security.

Achieve Your Goals as a Federal Agent

Understanding how to become a federal agent is only the first step toward landing a position at a federal agency. Earning an education that not only helps you stand out to the agency, but provides you with the necessary knowledge to navigate the criminal justice system is key. Consider the benefit of Hilbert College Global’s online Master of Science in Criminal Justice Administration program in helping you reach your potential. 

This program can help you understand the trends and history of criminal justice, studying the system’s strengths and where it can be improved to better help citizens. It will help provide a comprehensive view with courses on how investigations are performed, how the courts are run, what causes crime, and finances and budgeting.

Discover the next step of your career journey with Hilbert College Global.

Recommended Readings

How to Become a Secret Service Agent

Racial Disparities in Sentencing and Criminal Justice Reform

What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?


Chron, “Wages for an FBI Agent”

FBIJobs.gov, Special Agent

Federal Bureau of Investigation, What Tasks Do FBI Agents

Federal Register, Agencies

Indeed, “12 Federal Agent Jobs To Explore (With Salaries and Duties)”

Indeed, “A Complete Career Guide on How To Become an FBI Agent”

Indeed, “What Is a Special Agent? (Plus Where They Can Work)”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Police and Detectives

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Special Agent FAQs

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Special Agent Salary and Benefits

U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Salaries & Wages

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