DEA Agent: Career Guide
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agents play an important role at the world's leading drug enforcement agency investigating violations of federal law that involve 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.
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.
Steps for Becoming a DEA Special Agent
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, in excellent physical shape, have excellent hearing and vision, 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. To be hired as a DEA agent, you must follow these steps:
- Attend a bachelor's degree program and/or gain experience in a related field.*
- Contact your local DEA Recruitment Office to apply.
- Attend a Special Agent Applicant Orientation session at one of the recruitment office locations.**
- Take and pass a written assessment.
- Attend a panel interview.
- Successfully complete a drug test, medical examination, polygraph examination, psychological assessment, and full-field background investigation
- Get hired as a DEA special agent.
- Receive on-the-job training as a DEA agent.
*A bachelor's degree is required unless a suitable combination of education and experience has been obtained. Check the DEA's website for details.
**Optional, but highly encouraged.
DEA Special Agent Job Training
Once an applicant is hired to be an agent, he or she undergoes an intensive 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. Recruits must also undergo an 84-hour physical training course and 122 hours of firearm training.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Many DEA Special Agent trainees have previous law enforcement experience, as the DEA looks for individuals with drug-related law enforcement experience and special skills such as piloting, accounting, engineering, or fluency in a foreign language.
Possible Job Titles for This Career
- DEA Special Agent
- Diversion Investigator
- Intelligence Research Specialists
DEA Special Agent Salary and Job Outlook
DEA agent salary is based on the government's General Schedule (GS) pay scale; the starting level depends 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 $58,130 for those in the Federal Executive Branch (OES Designation).2 Benefits for DEA Agents 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 new applicants for vacant positions are considered during limited time frames (watch for vacancy announcements at the DEA website).1
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Can I choose where I live as a DEA special agent?
Answer: No. As a DEA agent, you are required to move to the duty station where you are assigned.
Question: Do I need a degree to become a DEA agent?
Answer: If you have no prior experience, a bachelor's degree in any subject is required to become a DEA agent. A criminal justice bachelor's degree will teach specific skills you may need as an agent. If you have adequate experience in investigations as described here, you are not required to possess a degree.
- Drug Enforcement Administration Careers: The DEA's resource for becoming a special agent.
- Drug Enforcement Administration, Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act: US federal laws relating to the prevention of drug abuse and control.
1. United States Drug Enforcement Administration: https://www.dea.gov/special-agent-careers
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333051.htm