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DEA Agent Career Guide

DEA Agents, or Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agents, play an important role at the world’s leading drug enforcement agency. They investigate violations of federal law that involved controlled substances, illegal drugs, and drug abuse. The agents are particularly focused on organizations and individuals who grow, manufacture, and distribute drugs within the United States, or those who attempt to send drugs and illegal substances into the country. DEA agents attempt to interrupt drug trafficking operations and destroy the organizations’ financial structures related to drug trafficking. The primary goal of DEA agents is to interrupt the flow of drug traffic before it reaches potential users. As part of their job, DEA agents often do surveillance and undercover work, and some of their job duties involve dangerous situations.

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DEA Agent Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

The job description of a DEA Special Agent centers on investigating major drug crimes in the United States and in other countries. Common tasks may include collecting and preparing evidence, conducting surveillance, writing investigation reports, interviewing witnesses, arresting suspects, and seizing assets of drug traffickers. DEA Special Agents also work with local, state, federal, and foreign agencies on drug intelligence programs.

How to Be a DEA Special Agent: Requirements and Qualifications

As a federal agency, the DEA has stringent requirements for potential agents and the hiring process is very lengthy (it can take 12 months or longer). To become a DEA agent, an applicant must be a US citizen, pass a drug test, complete a drug questionnaire to show that they comply with DEA drug policy, and pass a background check. In addition, applicants must be in excellent physical shape, and be between the ages of 21 and 36. Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree or specific law enforcement experience to be eligible to become a DEA Special Agent. The DEA often looks for graduates in specific areas of study such as accounting, engineering, and information systems.

DEA Special Agent Job Training

Once an applicant is hired to be an agent, he or she undergoes an intense 18-week training period at the DEA Training Academy at Quantico, Virginia. During training, the new agents learn about writing reports, federal and international law, how to recognize drugs, weapons use and safety, ethics, leadership, and decision-making in critical situations that require the use of deadly force. There is an 84-hour physical training course and 122 hours of firearm training.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

About 60% of DEA Special Agent trainees have previous law enforcement experience. The DEA looks for individuals with drug-related law enforcement experience or special skills such as piloting, accounting, engineering, or fluency in a foreign language.

Examples of Possible Job Titles for this Career

  • DEA Special Agent
  • Diversion Investigator
  • Intelligence Research Specialists
Did you know? The United States spends many billions of dollars each year on drug enforcement. In 2007, the Bush Administration called for $12.9 billion to fund the battle against drugs.1

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DEA Special Agent Salary and Outlook

DEA agent salary is based on the government’s General Schedule pay scale and the starting level can depend on education and experience. Additionally, agents receive locality pay and may receive availability pay if they work a specified amount of unscheduled duty. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the average annual salary for police and detectives, which includes special agents, is $54,110 for those in the Federal Executive Branch (OES Designation).1 There are many benefits that come with a position as a DEA agent. These include health insurance plans (with dental/vision, long term care insurance, and flex spending plans included), life insurance, a retirement program, and liberal time off benefits (sick leave, annual leave, and federal holidays). Supervisory positions, especially those that require the agent to relocate, pay higher salaries. There are currently over 5,000 DEA Special Agents and vacant positions are announced for limited times (watch for vacancy announcements at the DEA website). The number of employed DEA Special Agents is based on the agency needs and the budget.

Frequently Asked Questions about This Career

Can I choose where I live as a DEA Special Agent?
As a DEA agent you are required to move to the duty station where you are needed.

Additional Resources

Drug Enforcement Administration Careers – The DEA’s resource for becoming a Special Agent.

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Related Careers

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers: http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333051.htm
2. Porterfield, Jason. Careers in Undercover Gang Investigation. New York: Rosen Pub Group, 2014. Print.