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.
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 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 a bachelor’s degree for DEA career preparation, 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 4,600 special agents as of 2021 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 where drug trafficking operations are found. For example, DEA agents sometimes conduct joint operations with the law enforcement agencies of South American governments, especially when substances from those countries have a high likelihood 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, those aspiring to earn a degree and become a DEA agent 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 assigned.
DEA special agent degree and career requirements
Those aiming to become a DEA special agent should look forward to extensive education and experience requirements. On the average education path, a student will need to complete at least four years of undergraduate education, and more if they decide to pursue an advanced degree, which can open up senior and management opportunities. Experience in a related field, including volunteering and internships, can help make candidates appealing as well.
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.
Step #1: Earn your bachelor’s degree
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 related work experience.
Earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice can be an excellent first step, as these programs can help students develop a solid understanding of the foundational elements that guide the agency’s operations. 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, and insight into important investigative principles and processes.
Step #2: Cultivate relevant experience
Experience in law enforcement or the legal system is another important consideration for those who want to become 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 with 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.
Step #3: Complete the DEA 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. Candidates must also be between the ages of 21 and 36 at the time of appointment.
Step #4: Go through 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 most competitive and able to pass top secret security clearance into its basic training session.
DEA special agent salaries
According to the DEA website, DEA special agent salaries are normally at either the GS-7, GS-9, or GS-11 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 salary range for special agents is $42,698 to $72,487, plus a locality payment of 25%.
Demand for DEA special agents
Those with a DEA-qualifying degree seeking a position as a special agent should prepare for a 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 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
As specialists in drug law enforcement, aspiring DEA special agents must possess the qualifications that indicate they are prepared for the challenges of the job. Professionals who aim to apply for a position at the DEA can pursue Maryville University’s online bachelor’s in criminal justice degree to work toward opportunities in this career field. Maryville’s program helps students master core concepts needed to excel in this role, including criminal investigation, corrections, and policing.
Visit the program website today to learn more about how to become a DEA special agent and the expected curriculum, which includes courses like Criminal Law and Procedure, and Multicultural Policing.
How Criminal Justice Professionals Will Fight Future Crimes
How Future Police Officers Will Adapt to Trends in Law Enforcement
Understanding the Main Types of Crimes: Motivations and Crime Protection
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Drug Enforcement Agency, “What It Takes to Be a DEA Special Agent”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Police and Detectives: Job Outlook”
U.S. Department of Justice, “DEA FY 2019”