ATF Special Agent | Education, Salary, and Career Insights

ATF Special Agent Degrees and Careers

Becoming an ATF special agent requires you to work with some of the most dangerous items in the country. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives hires agents to take care of crimes that deal with these four areas. The ATF has locations all over the country, so you may end up working in many different parts of the United States.

There are many career paths in the field of criminal justice that you can purse if you are interested in this type of work. Contact the schools listed here to request information about their programs today!

ATF Special Agent Job Description

As an ATF special agent, you may spend most of your time investigating crimes that break federal laws. On top of alcohol, tobacco, explosives, and firearms, you may also investigate arson. Investigative procedures may require you to collect evidence in a variety of ways. You may have to interview suspects, conduct property searches, seize illegal goods, and even go undercover. Throughout the course of conducting an investigation, you may be expected to testify in court on behalf of the federal government.

If you enjoy excitement, a constantly-changing work environment, and the feeling of serving your country, you may thrive as an ATF special agent. Some of your work may mean the difference between life and death; in April of 2018, it was reported that ATF agents are searching for 704 pounds of stolen dynamite. Depending on which unit you are dispatched to, some ATF agents spend time working with those who have access to dangerous explosives and firearms.

The typical hours of the ATF are 8:30am – 5:00pm, Monday through Friday. Crime happens at unexpected times, though, so you may be expected to work weekends, evenings, and holidays. This is why the agency offers a 25% increase in pay; it compensates ATF special agents for the extra hours worked. ATF special agents also work with local law enforcement agents and other parts of the federal government quite often to ensure the country is kept safe from any and all threats.

Person Working on Bomb

How to Become an ATF Special Agent

As you may expect, there are quite a few requirements for those that wish to become ATF special agents. Depending on which level you want to get hired at, you may need a bachelor’s degree, a bachelor’s degree and one year of graduate school, or a master’s degree. You can also use experience in place of education if you have relevant law enforcement or criminal justice work experience.

You can become an ATF special agent at three levels: GL-5, GL-7, or GL-9. Your beginning salary increases at each level. To become a GL-5 ATF special agent, you need a bachelor’s degree in any subject. If you want to qualify with experience, you need three years of experience that demonstrate your ability to work in law enforcement or criminal investigation.

The GL-7 level requires a bit more in the way of education or experience. Like the GL-5 level, you need a Bachelor’s degree in any field of study. However, you must have also completed at least one year of graduate-level education. If you display Superior Academic Achievement at the Bachelor’s degree level, you can qualify for a job at this level. Superior Academic Achievement can be displayed in many different ways. This includes a GPA of 2.95, graduating in the top third of your class, or possessing membership in a national honor society. Having highly specialized work experience in criminal justice or criminal investigation may allow you to bypass these educational requirements.

The top tier of ATF special agent jobs is GL-9. This may allow you to earn considerably more money than those at the GL-5 and GL-7 level. You need a master’s degree in sociology, psychology, criminal justice, or political science. Certain related degrees may also be appropriate. At least one year of work experience in criminal investigative methods, computerized business and accounting systems, or crimes involving fraud can take the place of the master’s degree.

Newly-hired ATF special agents must attend the Criminal Investigators Training Program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. Your training program may last about 12 weeks. Your education may include firearms safety, firearms trafficking, arson investigations, alcohol and tobacco diversion investigations, and report writing. It is a very physical program, so it’s important to be in good shape before you attend.

ATF Special Agent Salary and Career Outlook

It can be difficult to look at the career outlook for this job, since it is such a specific job title. In addition, the needs and hiring abilities of the agency vary from year to year based on the federal budget. However, as crimes involving firearms, tobacco, explosives, and alcohol increase, the agency’s hiring needs may increase.

Since federal jobs can be relatively competitive, you may want to take extra steps to make yourself as qualified as possible for an ATF special agent job. Consider earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology, sociology, criminal justice, or a similar field. Seek out internship opportunities that give you practical experience in the criminal justice field.

Per the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, starting salaries in 2016 for ATF special agents range from $34,865 to $57,093 per year. Agents also receive locality pay that is dependent upon where they are stationed. Currently, locality pay ranges from 14.35% to 35.18% on top of your base salary.

Learn more about pursuing a career in this exciting field! Contact the schools listed in our directory to learn more about their programs today!

Become a Diplomatic Security Special Agent

Diplomatic Security Special Agent

If you’re looking for a criminal justice career that can take you all over the world, look into a career as a diplomatic security special agent (also known as DSS agent). These special agents are part of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, an agency that offers protective services to members of the government, leads worldwide investigations into crimes, and ensures that Americans abroad are safe. Explore our site to learn more about similar careers, then contact the schools in your area to compare their programs. We make it simple to contact multiple schools at once, so you can gather all the right information before you make a decision to enroll.

Diplomatic Security Job Description

As a Diplomatic Security Special Agent, you may travel abroad, especially to countries that have American embassies or consulates. Special agents often confer with ambassadors of different countries to ensure that people here and in other countries are kept safe during security threats. Some special agents work in the United States. Domestic agents may offer protective services to visiting leaders and the Secretary of State. Other agents may look into serious immigration crimes, like passport and visa fraud.

According to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the vast majority of special agents are first given a domestic assignment. This is due to the fact that international assignments tend to require more experience. While working domestically, you may investigate visa fraud, protect foreign dignitaries and leaders, work on security assignments for the Secretary of State, and take part in other investigations as you are needed.

After proving yourself in your position, you may be assigned overseas. Special agents are often stationed at US embassies, where they run and manage security programs that protect embassy workers, American visitors, and sensitive information. Diplomatic Security Special agents occasionally come into contact with dangerous individuals, as investigating terrorists and those who commit crimes against Americans is part of the job description.

How to Become a Diplomatic Security Special Agent

A DSS agent typically jumps through three hoops prior to entering this field. Specific education, work experience, and training requirements help prepare one for the responsibilities a diplomatic security special agent holds.

Education Requirements

Education is an important part of this career. You should have at least a bachelor’s degree to begin at the FP-6 level. Any bachelor’s degree can permit you to start at this level. Having a related degree, such as a criminal justice degree, can help you start out at a higher salary. You must also have work experience that’s relevant to this field.

You may wish to earn your degree in a field related to this career. Examples include international policy, criminal justice, and law enforcement. A related degree may count as experience, so you may be able to start at a higher salary than those who have unrelated bachelor’s degrees.

Work Experience

In addition to educational requirements, you must have a certain amount of work experience to qualify for a DSS agent job. The Bureau requires at least one year of work experience that demonstrates your ability to take on increasing amounts of responsibility, use information to make informed choices, and communicate well with other people. The Bureau may investigate your work experience to determine if it is eligible. Further education may take the place of this work experience requirement. You need at least 18 credits of post-bachelor’s degree study. A master’s degree can fulfill this requirement and make you a more well-rounded job applicant.

Training Requirements

After you are selected for a diplomatic security special agent job, you must complete additional training to prepare for your new career. The necessary training for this position is fairly extensive. You can expect to spend about seven months in training and employee orientation. First, you must go to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in Brunswick, Georgia. This initial training period lasts for about three months. As a trainee, you may learn about how to protect people abroad and in the United States, investigate crimes, and handle those who would threaten you or the people you are protecting. This training program is very physical in nature. Upon the completion of this training program, you can go to Washington D.C. for the remainder of your orientation.

DSS Agent Salary and Career Outlook

The career outlook may be promising for those with a lot of experience and relevant education. DSS agents receive the highest level of security clearance, so only a small percentage of those who apply make it through the hiring process. Gaining experience in international affairs or learning a second language may be that something extra to officially enter this field of work.

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security reports that the 2017 base salary for diplomatic security special agents is between $43,226 and $58,092. You may get an increased salary if you have military or law enforcement experience. Your salary may increase by one step for each year of experience.

On top of your base pay, you receive locality pay. If you are stationed overseas, this is equal to 16.52% of your base pay. In the United States, locality pay is dependent upon the cost of living where you are stationed.

If you look into the accomplishments of diplomatic security special agents, you’ll realize that they play a major role in solving serious crimes. For example, in May of 2018, diplomatic agents were able to track down and catch a man who had been stealing people’s identities for over a decade.

Find out more about the security-focused positions in the field of criminal justice that you can pursue. Contact the schools in our directory to find out more and compare programs today!

Becoming a FBI Agent | Find Schools Near You

How to Become an FBI Agent

On any given day, approximately 35,000 Americans can be found working in foreign and domestic roles for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). These brave individuals use their advanced skills and training to protect the United States and intercept plans to bring harm to the country. If you’ve ever wondered how to become an FBI agent, this guide is for you. While everyone has heard of the FBI’s special agents, many other roles exist, and you might be a great fit for one of them. Read on to learn more about potential careers, average salaries, ways of getting involved, and the educational requirements needed to work in the FBI.


FBI Careers

While we often think about roles for spies and undercover agents when considering a career with the FBI, in reality, the agency requires professionals holding a wide range of skills and competencies. The organization offers several specialized paths to choose from, including:

  • Surveillance: Surveillance professionals work in the U.S. and elsewhere to gather the intelligence that helps inform national security decisions. They build contacts and cultivate informants, use voice recording and photographic equipment to capture information, and report back to the FBI.
  • Special Agent: Given the mental and physical taxation of special agent roles, applicants to these positions must go through a thorough and challenging process known as the Special Agent Selection Process. If they pass, newly-minted special agents take on short- and long-term assignments all around the world, based on agency needs.
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM): The FBI is always looking for professionals with knowledge of these four areas to help advance technologies, increase investigative services, and ensure best practices in laboratory settings. A few available job titles include information technology specialist, forensic examiner, and biologist.
  • Arts & Communications: Professionals in these sectors help the FBI maintain clear communications, impactful branding, quality graphic design, and powerful imagery. They can work in the field or an office setting as audio-visual production specialists, forensic photographers, and public affairs professionals.
  • Legal: Legal professionals in the FBI help ensure all of the agency’s activities and techniques pass scrutiny in areas of legality and legislation. Lawyers provide counsel and legal research for ongoing cases and advise on cases involving domestic and international laws.

FBI Agent Salary

FBI salaries follow the federal government’s general pay schedule for white-collar positions as set out by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). As demonstrated in the General Schedule (GS), the government sets 15 grades of pay, each of which has 10 steps. Employees are hired at a certain grade and step based on their qualifications, experience level, and any special needs of the FBI that they might fulfill. They move up through steps and grades by building more experience and receiving favorable employee reviews.

Every FBI employee’s payment journey will be different, but the OPM notes as an example that it typically takes 18 years to move up through the 10 steps of a single grade. Special exceptions are sometimes made, making it possible for employees to move into a higher grade and begin working through the steps within that pay grade. Here are some common starting salaries for various FBI positions to give you a better sense of what to expect:

  • Special Agent: GL-10 Step one, equivalent to $48,973. Most agents hit GL-13 ($76,687) within five years.
  • IT Specialist: Between GS-7 and GS-9 ($49,081-$75,152), depending on experience. This role maxes out at GS-12 ($83,840).
  • Crisis Management Specialist: Between GS-11 and GS-12 ($69,016-$107,542). This role maxes out at GS-13 ($99,691).
  • Photographer: Between GS-10 and GS-11 ($57,088-$81,542). This role maxes out at GS-12 ($83,840).
  • Supervisory Chemist: GS-14, Steps 1-10 ($108,002-$140,406). This position maxes out at GS-14 ($117,810).

Aside from base salaries, FBI agents stationed in Washington D.C. also receive locality pay and availability pay. To calculate the additional amount, multiply the base salary plus locality pay by 25%.

Steps to Become an FBI Agent

There are multiple paths to becoming an FBI agent. While you may have dreamed of working for the agency since you were a child, others may come into the role later in life. Because multiple ways of becoming an FBI agent exist, we’ve summed up a few of the most common below:

  • Participate in student programs: Even while still in high school, students can participate in the FBI teen academy. Just ensure that you don’t do anything to disqualify yourself (e.g., using illegal drugs—including marijuana, even if legal in your state). At the collegiate level, internships and entry-level roles exist to help you begin your journey.
  • Study a relevant topic: Criminal justice degrees aren’t the only educational path that will qualify you for FBI work. You should consider majoring in a topic that instills in-demand skills. Majors currently highlighted by the agency include accounting, business, STEM, English, film, finance, foreign languages, human resources, information technology, journalism, law, marketing, public relations, and visual arts.
  • Participate in the Collegiate Hiring Initiative: This program hires students from every degree level and helps them begin careers in exciting and relevant roles in the FBI. Many of the positions currently available focus on computer science, IT, electronics, finance, security, and human resources.
  • Join the military: Many veterans continue in careers focused on serving the nation by joining the FBI after leaving the military. The agency offers several resources and programs to make the transition easier, including the Warriors Internship and the Wounded Warriors Internship.
  • Build professional experience: If you don’t want to join the FBI straight out of school or the military, consider working elsewhere to gain skills that can benefit the agency. Think about how the skills gained in these roles can translate to agency work and try to find an employer that offers relevant tasks and assignments.

FBI Agent School: Degree Paths

FBI Agent School

After completing general education requirements and participating in the rigorous application process, the truly demanding part begins: FBI training.

Eligibility requirements vary based on the role at hand. Special agents, for instance, must:

  • Be between 23-36 years old
  • Possess at least a bachelor’s degree
  • Participate in two years of full-time professional work experience (this is shortened to one year if you hold an advanced degree)
  • Hold a valid driver’s license
  • Meet physical fitness standards
  • Pass all tests and interviews demonstrating core competencies in areas of collaboration, communication, flexibility, initiative, interpersonal abilities, leadership, organizing/planning, and problem-solving/judgment.

Once accepted to the training program, you will participate in approximately 800 hours of online and in-person courses. These modules focus on building skills in the following areas:

  • Firearms: Regardless of FBI job type, all new agent trainees participate in a firearms training curriculum that focuses on gun safety, handling protocol, and live-fire training. Prepare to learn about marksmanship and basic shooting techniques then pass a qualifying exam. After completing approximately 110 hours of training and firing 5,000 rounds of ammunition, you will be issued a carbine, pistol, and shotgun.
  • Physical Training: Because FBI agents can sometimes find themselves engaged in physical activities, they must demonstrate their ability to hold up against vigorous exercise. Plan to participate in several fitness-building programs before taking a standardized physical fitness test. To pass onto the next section of training, you must score at least 12 points with at least one point each in timed sit-ups, timed 300-meter sprints, push-ups, and a timed 1.5-mile run.
  • Academics: To ensure all newly-minted agents possess a well-rounded set of knowledge, each recruit devotes time to learning about forensic science, law, ethics, investigative and intelligence methods, behavioral science, interrogation, and interviewing and report writing skills. You will also devote time to learning about counterterrorism protocols, cybersecurity, criminal investigations, and weapons of mass destruction.
  • Operations: This practical, hands-on portion of training ensures you possess the skills needed to conduct searches, place handcuffs, drive tactically, and safely disarm suspects. Within these 90 hours of instruction and exercise, you also participate in a simulation that includes interviewing, arresting, and surveilling criminals.
  • Case Exercises: Bringing home all you learn throughout training, case exercises put all your newfound knowledge to use. Each trainee is given an integrated case scenario. These often start with a criminal tip and culminate in arrests of actors playing the roles of criminals and/or terrorists. After finishing the case, trainees present their findings in a moot court.

After passing each section of training, you will qualify for graduation. The Director of the FBI swears in newly-minted agents and provides them with badges and credentials. As they leave the academy, agents receive their Bureau-issued firearms and move into their first assignment.

If you’re curious about how much higher education could cost you at any level, take a look at College Board’s 2020 Trends in College Pricing.

Bachelor’s Degrees

Because the vast majority of FBI roles require you to possess at least a bachelor’s degree, earning this credential represents a critical step in the process of becoming an agent. Criminal justice degrees offer a timeless option, given their focus on topics such as law enforcement, counterterrorism, homeland security, criminal behavior, and cybersecurity. We discuss these programs more in-depth in our bachelor’s in criminal justice guide.

Other traditional educational routes include sociology, psychology, pre-law, and criminology. If you want to work in a specialized role, however, consider pursuing a degree in that area. If your passions lie in computer science, pursue that type of degree, as the FBI has stated a need for qualified technology professionals.

Regardless of the program you pursue, bachelor’s degrees typically require four years of full-time study. Data from College Board shows that public institutions charged an average of $10,230 for the 2018-19 school year, while private non-profits charged $35,830 during the same time frame.

Master’s Degrees

Depending on the type of agent you hope to become, a master’s degree may be necessary. If you want to work as a criminal profiler, for instance, you may want to pursue a master’s degree. To learn more, check out our comprehensive criminal profiler guide.

Many STEM roles require master’s degrees, as do legal positions. Most programs mandate that students complete coursework and participate in a final assignment—usually a thesis or a culminating project. Timelines for these programs vary significantly based on subject area. Some accelerated programs can be completed in just one year, while others may require up to four years of study. Public four-year institutions charged an average tuition of $8,850 during the 2018-2019 academic year, whereas private institutions charged $30,450.


Some agents decide to pursue doctoral degrees, giving them access to jobs in the highest echelons of the FBI. If you want to work in medicine, law, policy, or administration, a doctorate may serve you well. Common areas of study include political science, psychology, or behavioral sciences. Most doctorates require between four and seven years of study, depending on the type of degree and subject at hand. Aside from completing classes, learners frequently act as teachers and research assistants and write a dissertation. College Board found that public schools charged $11,120 for 2018-2019 tuition, while private institutions charged an average of up to $44,020.


Secret Service Special Agent | Search U.S. Training Programs

Secret Service Special Agent

For many in the criminal justice field, a career as a Secret Service Special Agent is the ultimate goal. Secret Service agents are some of the most elite and prestigious criminal justice professionals in the entire United States. It may sound like a fantasy to most people, but it’s an admirable goal to have. Fortunately, for those who don’t achieve this goal, there are several other careers in personal protection one can pursue. Bodyguards for executives and high profile individuals are needed, as well as security guards for special events.

Secret Service Job Description

In the case of the Secret Service, they have a significant number of duties under their umbrella of responsibilities. Agents may be assigned to protect the president and his family, former presidents and families, foreign dignitaries and heads of state, and presidential candidates. In addition, agents may investigate high-level crimes, like financial fraud and hacking of United States governmental websites.

There are two main types of Secret Service agents: investigation detail or protection detail. The duties and roles assigned to each type of secret service agent are detailed on the official Secret Service website. All agents must work in investigation detail for at least two years before applying for a protection detail position. While working in investigation, you may look into a variety of serious crimes. Common crimes addressed by the Secret Service include counterfeiting, financial institution fraud, communication fraud, and money laundering. Agents may be expected to go undercover to uncover suspects and collect evidence.

It’s clear that SS special agents are some of the most highly-trusted government employees in the country. As a result, the hiring process is extremely thorough and stringent. Only a small handful of those who apply to become special agents ever reach that title. Not only must you meet specific educational requirements, you must also be capable of attaining a high-level security status, passing a set of background and polygraph checks, and have near-perfect vision.

Generally speaking, the Secret Service has more demanding educational requirements than many other criminal justice jobs. At minimum, you need a bachelor’s degree. Ideally, this degree should be in criminal justice or a related field. This is a career that you should begin preparing for years in advance.

How to Become a Secret Service Agent

The United States Secret Service offers a thorough list of requirements that must be met by all prospective Secret Service agents. You must have graduated from an accredited educational institution with a bachelor’s degree. The Secret Service requires applicants to have graduated with superior academic achievement. This is defined in several ways. You can either be in the top third of your graduating class, have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, or be part of a national scholastic honor society. To have the knowledge and background needed in this field, you may wish to study criminal justice. However, you may also study finance, law, or foreign language.

While a master’s degree is not required for consideration as a Secret Service agent, this higher level of education can make you a more attractive candidate, particularly when you are being compared to a whole group of applicants. You may wish to pursue a master’s degree in a field related to criminal justice to prepare for this job.

There are many other requirements that must be met before you can even be considered for a Special Agent job. Since you need a special security clearance, you must go through a polygraph examination, a drug screening, and an in-depth background check. Anything that raises any red flags may immediately disqualify you from selection. In addition, you must pass the Secret Service Agent Examination. Once you pass this exam and get selected as a Special Agent Trainee, you must complete your education. The first step is a 10-week Basic Criminal Investigator Training Program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Then, you must attend the Special Agent Basic Training Program at the James J. Rowley Training Center. These programs include firearm safety training, since you may be expected to carry a firearm for the duration of your career.

Secret Service Salary and Career Outlook

Though the government relies heavily on its Secret Service agents, it’s important to note that the Secret Service does not hire everyone who applies or even everyone who is qualified. As a result, it’s important to prepare as much as possible for this career. Your education, job, and lifestyle choices should all reflect what is needed for the Secret Service.

Salaries for Secret Service agents fall under the General Level pay scale set by the government. Most agents start at the GL-07 or GL-09 levels, with starting base salaries ranging from about $40,000-$50,000 per year. On top of the base pay, agent’s salaries are adjusted based on location, education, and experience when they enter the field.

Your starting salary depends on where you are assigned and the cost of living in that area. Your locality pay may be increased by 25%–this is called the Law Enforcement Availability Pay, and agents receive it because they may often have to work long hours or irregular shifts. On average, the Secret Service notes that agents work an average of 50 hours per week.

If you decide to become a Secret Service Special Agent, it’s important to realize how crucial your job is to national security. In April of 2018, Secret Service agents had to arrest a man with a gun at a foreign consulate office in Washington, D.C. Special Agents improve the safety and security that all Americans enjoy.

Contact the schools in our directory to learn more about their criminal justice programs that can help you prepare for Secret Service or bodyguard related careers!