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A Day in the Life of a FBI Agent

Do you see yourself as Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) tracking Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in Silence of the Lambs? Do you want to fight for truth, justice, and the American way on American soil? FBI agents investigate people suspected of violating federal law, including serial killers, kidnappers, bank robbers, bombers, and perpetrators of mail fraud. Strong deductive skills, flexibility, and irreproachable moral character are key traits for those who want to succeed in the FBI. The sensitive nature of the work requires a person with sound judgment and discretion. The application process is one of the most rigorous and selective in the nation. Agents research and gather evidence on suspected criminals. Duties include surveillance, transcription, research, coordination with local authorities, and report-writing. Those in the scientific division work in labs and in the field collecting and analyzing evidence and working with private labs. Many in the profession feel that the variety of tasks keeps the job fresh and exciting. By themselves, FBI agents have limited power to arrest and no power to punish those suspected of violating federal law. An FBI agent investigates and reports, and when other government agencies make the arrest, they often invite the FBI agent or agents who were involved with the case, but merely as a courtesy. It is common for the agent to move on to another case before any arrests are actually made. The most difficult part of being an FBI agent is the sense of isolation it can foster. Most agents work by themselves or, if necessary, in pairs. They often travel for long periods. The project-based nature of this career may keep it exciting, but the uncertainty of it can lead to frustration. Wrote one agent from New York, “My wife and I were married on May 25 of last year. I was assigned to a case two days later and couldn’t tell her where I was or when I would be back or what was going on. I next saw her July 14.” Even with all the pressures the work entails and the lifestyle limitations it demands, only 4 percent of agents leave each year (not including retirees). There must be something really great about being an FBI agent, but of course it’s a secret.

Paying Your Dues

To become a member of the FBI, you must be a United States citizen between twenty-three and thirty-seven years of age, meet stringent physical requirements, and hold at least a bachelor’s degree and in many cases more than that. The FBI has five entry programs: Law, Accounting, Science, Language, and Diversified, and each program has its own specific academic requirements. The application process is renowned for its rigor and thoroughness. In addition to giving each applicant difficult written tests and interviews, the FBI conducts intensive background checks including criminal record checks; credit checks; interviews with associates, roommates and landlords; professional references; and academic verifications. Each candidate takes a drug test, physical exam and, at the discretion of the FBI, a polygraph (lie detector) test. After making it through this microscopic examination, new agents spend four months at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, studying investigative techniques, personal defense, and firearms. The FBI will disqualify any candidate who has physical or emotional handicaps that will not allow him to perform important and dangerous duties within acceptable parameters.

Present and Future

Founded in 1908 under the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was meant to be the active investigative arm of federal law enforcement. The FBI wasn’t that significant until J. Edgar Hoover took over in 1924 and increased its responsibilities, its scientific methods, and its efficacy. The modern FBI has one of the world’s most advanced crime laboratories; and their fingerprint division contains the largest database of fingerprints in the world. Like all government agencies, the future direction of the FBI is highly dependent on changing political climates and federal budget restrictions. The need for the FBI, however, has never been more apparent. Domestic federal crimes have been rising at an annual rate of 6 percent and there is no sign of this trend abating.

Quality of Life


New FBI agents, as “special agents,” are usually paired with experienced agents in a specific division. Usually the work involves travel, investigation, surveillance, and report-writing. Techniques discussed in the classroom are used in real-life situations, and those who expected glamour are disappointed by the generally unexciting nature of the work. Satisfaction levels are low, but rebound in the next few years as agents are rotated among a number of cases and gain valuable and varied experience.


Five-year veterans have worked with a number of other government agencies on cases, and their skill levels have risen dramatically. Hours decrease, pay increases, and satisfaction levels are high. Field agents who wish to combine a more predictable lifestyle with a career in the FBI can apply for more desk-bound coordination positions. Those who show talent become senior agents and take charge of investigations. Communication and analysis skills are at a premium in these years, when agents are involved in investigations in a hands-on fashion while also reporting to assistant directors.


Halfway to a pension, most agents are still driven by the same motivations that encouraged them to enter the profession. Pay and responsibilities have increased, and satisfaction levels are solid. Those who show talent in organization and management move into assistant directorship positions on a local level and, while emergencies still rule the day, can control their hours to some degree. Those who enjoy the life of a field agent remain on cases, liaise with other government departments, and work with newer employees. A very successful few return to Quantico at this point as instructors, trainers, and educators for the FBI training program.