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How to Become a DEA Special Agent

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was founded in 1973 to enforce the laws that regulate the use and distribution of controlled substances. Members of this agency investigate individuals and organizations who participate in growing, manufacturing, or distributing controlled substances in the United States. Uncovering potential crimes in these areas requires sharp investigative skills and a thorough knowledge of the criminal justice system, which can be acquired through formal education and extensive professional experience.

A DEA agent stands facing other agents and vehicles in a parking lot.

After gaining several years of experience, some law enforcement professionals may be interested in learning more about how to become a DEA special agent. Earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or criminology can help aspiring DEA agents prepare for possible careers at the agency, as these programs teach students about the inner workings of the criminal justice system. After completing the program, graduates may have enough expertise to compete for a DEA special agent position.

What Does a DEA Special Agent Do?

The DEA is a part of the U.S. Department of Justice, with a team of about 4,900 special agents who are tasked with dismantling drug trafficking and terrorist organizations that pose a threat to U.S. interests. Special agents work to enforce controlled substance laws in the U.S., but their jobs may also extend to foreign regions if a drug trafficking operation is found there. For example, DEA agents sometimes conduct joint operations with the law enforcement agencies of South American governments, especially when drugs from those countries have a high possibility of crossing into the U.S.

DEA special agents participate in operations to track and arrest alleged perpetrators who may be involved in drug trafficking. All agents work toward the overarching goal of enforcing federal drug policy, but agents do not always need to be in the field to achieve this. Some DEA agents work in support roles at times, performing important tasks such as obtaining warrants, conducting research, and writing reports. Agents may also be required to participate in criminal justice proceedings by providing courtroom testimony or sharing information with criminal prosecutors.

When special agents do go into the field, they perform many different investigative activities. Assigned tasks vary depending on where agents work and their area of expertise. Some agents may go undercover and infiltrate drug operations. Others might conduct or coordinate official DEA investigations.

DEA special agents often find themselves in risky situations, dealing with potentially dangerous substances and individuals. Due to this risk, aspiring DEA agents are advised to research the nature of working for the DEA in depth before pursuing the role. There are other challenges to consider as well.

For example, the DEA requires employees to travel widely. And because there are a limited number of resources in the organization, employees often have little choice over where they are relocated.

Steps to Become a DEA Special Agent

Law enforcement professionals must satisfy several key prerequisites to qualify for DEA special agent positions. Here is an overview of the key components of a path that can lead to this career.


Pursuing higher education can help aspiring DEA agents become more competitive in the application process. The DEA typically requires special agent candidates to have a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of 2.95 or higher, a master’s degree, or a law degree. However, it will also consider applicants with either extensive law enforcement experience or a bachelor’s degree (with any GPA) coupled with at least three years of work experience related to the degree. Earning an online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice can be an excellent first step, because these programs can help students develop a solid understanding of the foundational elements that guide the agency’s operational mission. With coursework on criminological theory and criminal investigations, bachelor’s in criminal justice programs can also provide graduates with knowledge that sheds light on how drug trafficking organizations operate as well as insight into important investigative principles and processes.


Experience in law enforcement or the legal system is another important consideration for those interested in becoming DEA special agents. The agency prefers to hire agents who have participated in criminal investigations, law enforcement briefings, evidence collection, research and data analysis, and criminal court proceedings. It also values candidates who have special skills in a variety of areas, such as piloting, military, telecommunications, engineering, accounting, and foreign language proficiency. These types of experiences can nurture fundamental skills that are essential to what DEA special agents do, including problem solving, critical thinking, decision-making, teamwork, and attention to detail.

Application and Evaluation

The DEA application process can take up to a year or more and includes a written assessment, oral interview, drug screening, physical evaluation, medical examination, psychological screening, polygraph exam, and background check. Individuals generally must be in excellent physical condition due to the strenuous nature of the job. Candidate must also be between the ages of 21 and 36 at the time of appointment.

Basic Training

After applying for the job and proceeding through the interview process, qualified candidates are accepted into the agency and move on to 18 weeks of basic training, where their mental and physical capabilities are tested extensively. The DEA only accepts those deemed as most competitive into its basic training session and able to pass Top Secret security clearance.

DEA Special Agent Salaries

According to the DEA website, DEA special agent salaries for entry-level positions are normally at either the GS-7 or GS-9 government pay grade. This grade determines their salary and access to other forms of compensation, like locality payments, and is decided based on prior education and work experience. The starting salaries for GS-7 ranked agents are $49,746, and for GS-9 ranked agents, salaries are $55,483. But after four years in the DEA, agents are eligible to advance to the GS-13 grade level, allowing them to earn $92,592 or more annually.

Future Growth of DEA Special Agent Jobs

Those seeking a position as a DEA special agent should prepare for a very competitive field compared to other areas of law enforcement. The agency employs about 5,000 special agents, and hiring trends depend heavily on the federal government’s budget resources.

DEA special agents are highly respected in their field, and achieving significant results in this role could position professionals to pursue many lucrative opportunities in law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S.

Learn More About DEA Special Agent Careers

DEA special agents are highly trained specialists in drug law enforcement, and applicants’ qualifications must indicate that they are well prepared for the challenges of the job. Professionals who aim to apply for a position at the DEA can leverage Maryville University’s online bachelor’s in criminal justice degree to work toward opportunities to become special agents. This program helps students master core concepts including criminal investigation, corrections, and policing. Visit the program website today to learn more about criminal justice career paths.


Business Insider, “What it’s really like to work for the DEA”

Drug Enforcement Agency, “What it Takes to be a DEA Special Agent”

Drug Enforcement Agency, History

Drug Enforcement Agency, Special Agent Careers

Maryville University, Online Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Police and Detectives: Job Outlook

U.S. Department of Justice, DEA FY 2019 Budget and Performance Summary


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Drug Enforcement Agency, Press Releases