Tired of the bench? Looking for a little excitement? Look good in mirrored shades and nondescript, late-model American sedans?
Two words: Dana Scully.
That's right: The FBI is hiring, and they're looking for scientists.
The FBI has been authorized by congress to hire 900 new Special Agents. It is particularly looking for individuals with "critical skills" in the physical sciences (which, as they define it, include physics, chemistry, and biology); computer science and other information technology specialties; and engineering. The FBI is also seeking candidates with expertise in foreign languages (especially Arabic, Farsi, Pashtu, Urdu, Chinese--all dialects--Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese)--not to mention foreign counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and military intelligence (which, the FBI insists, is not an oxymoron). Skills in more than one of these areas (e.g., a scientific field and a foreign language) are especially desired.
FBI hiring isn't limited to special agent positions. The majority of scientists hired by the bureau work in "professional support" positions, usually in FBI labs.
If you're interested, you need to act fast. The current fiscal year ends 30 September and the FBI accepts applications only during the first week of each month. Furthermore, they've been hiring new special agents for several months now, and all but about 200 of the special agent slots congress authorized are already filled.
What is the work like? "As you might imagine," says Paul Bresson of the FBI's Office of Public and Congressional Affairs, "there is no typical day in the life of an FBI agent." The FBI has a wide range of jurisdictions, including counterterrorism, organized crime, white-collar crime, violent crime, civil rights investigations, bank robbery, kidnapping, foreign counterintelligence, drug trafficking, and many other violations of 260 federal statutes. Neither Bresson nor the FBI Web site listed UFOs or paranormal phenomena among the FBI's areas of interest, but Bresson acknowledges that, because of their special skills, scientists selected as special agents are more likely than most to end up working in other exciting areas, such as counterterrorism.
Compared with bench science, the training period is very short. Special agent trainees receive 16 weeks of rigorous training at the Quantico-based FBI Academy, where they are instructed in physical skills, legal issues, and the use of firearms. "Other scientists," says Bresson--those hired in to professional support positions--"are trained by their respective units, whether it's trace evidence, DNA, explosive residues, firearms/ballistics comparisons, etc." That training usually lasts 6 months to a year. Best of all, FBI trainees are reasonably compensated during training, with special agent cadets receiving an annual rate of $43,700 while attending the academy.
After that, FBI pay is fairly comparable to academia, maybe a little better. Depending on experience and the position applied for, salaries start at a government GS-10 level, about $50,000 a year, and go up to GS-14, which exceeds $90,000. According to Bresson, most salaries fall in the $70,000-$80,000 range. Agent applicants may receive an additional 25% of base pay for "administrative uncontrollable overtime."
There are no age restrictions or preferences for scientists hired as professional support employees, but new special agents must be between 23 and 37 years old after they complete their training and are required to retire by age 57. All FBI full-time employees must be U.S. citizens or citizens of the Mariana Islands. All applicants must have at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution, their vision and hearing must be excellent, they must possess a valid driver license, and they must be in excellent physical condition, "with no defects which would interfere in firearm use, raids, or defensive tactics." Applicants must consent to extensive background investigations that include examination of financial status, foreign contacts, and previous employment history, among other things. They must also undergo a personnel security interview, a polygraph test, and a drug test. A felony conviction is a disqualifier, as is defaulting on student loans.
Drug use is also a serious issue, as the FBI has a very specific drug policy: Marijuana use won't disqualify you unless you've used it more than 15 times in your life. Other illegal drugs disqualify you after five lifetime uses, or if you used it at any time during the last 10 years. If you don't like guns, forget about it: FBI special agents must be armed at all times while on duty, and they are required to use deadly force "should circumstances dictate."
Where would you be working? Special agents may be assigned to any of 56 field offices or 44 foreign legal attaché posts. Consideration is given to the desires of new agents, but if you're hired as a special agent, you'll likely be assigned wherever the FBI needs you.
Scientists hired in professional support positions will probably end up doing forensics work at the FBI laboratory, although some positions may be field offices. Currently the FBI has two labs: the sample-analysis lab in Washington, D.C., and the research lab in Quantico, Virginia, but within the next couple of months the FBI will relocate the sample lab to a new, state-of-the-art facility in Quantico.
Hoping for a relief from the intense competitiveness of most academic job searches? The FBI is, indeed, a little less competitive than academia, but that doesn't mean it isn't competitive. So far this year the FBI has received more than 60,000 applications; but that might make things sound worse than they really are. In contrast to your academic job search, an advanced degree in science is not a requirement, so having one will put you at an advantage. Although Agents are required to be physically fit and athletic enough to execute a number of fairly demanding physical maneuvers, the FBI doesn't hire thugs. Says Bresson: "The FBI seeks experience and education when hiring new applicants, so advanced degrees only improve your chances."