One of the perks of studying at an elite U.S. university is that top companies, organisations, and agencies congregate in search of talent. What follows is my experience attending a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruiting brief and simulation session at Johns Hopkins University. Names have been altered to preserve personal security.
It all began with an email. Johns Hopkins’ career centre sends regular notifications when prominent employers are coming on campus. And so, an email arrived in my inbox indicating that the “Government and Public Service Week” would begin the following week. The email described in detail which organisations or NGOs would be coming on what day and hour. Usually, I briefly skim through such newsletters before I delete them. This particular one, however, had something more about it. In a corner, it advertised the time and place where the CIA would be holding a recruiting brief followed by a simulation event. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t find any more information about the event. I truly believe that this was the Agency’s intention — only those observant or interested enough would be present at the briefing.
Short, stocky, and with a congenial smile, the CIA recruiter welcomed the hesitant group of students into the briefing room. Illuminated by fluorescent lights, the small room was a paragon of neatness and organisation. At the centre, a table draped in a CIA flag was the only clue indicating what the meeting was about.
After an exchange of resumes for a plethora of recruiting paraphernalia, the group of students dispersed in equal numbers around the room and anxiously awaited what the next two-and-a-half hours would bring.
The man everyone was there to hear from, introduced himself as Michael. No surname, of course, was given — and the business cards he handed out at the end were also devoid of any personal information. Michael then proceeded to give a well-structured and informative overview of the Agency, its tasks, and departments. He delineated that the CIA’s role is to inform not suggest policy to the executive brand and some legislators — the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), or ‘sissy’ and ‘hipsi,’ as he jokingly called them.
“The Agency is comprised of five Directorates: the Directorate of Digital Innovation (DI), the Directorate of Science & Technology (DST), the Directorate of Support (DS), the Directorate of Analysis (DA)—where I’m coming from—and finally the Directorate of Operations (DO). The DO is what you think about when you watch all the secret spook movies. The reality, however, is quite different,” he said.
Coming from the DA, Michael was slightly biased toward his home team. He briefly touched on his career, which began with weapons analysis and continued with colourful and diverse assignments to include preparing for the 2003 Iraq invasion. He described the months before D-day as quite hectic. There was so much to be done that his team was punching 90-hour weeks for three months. Michael’s focus on the DA was intended. Johns Hopkins is famous for its science, engineering, and biomedical departments. Most of the students present, thus, were coming from an analytic background. Not all, however, were enraptured with the DA. I asked about the DO and its application and selection processes.
“All of the application processes are somewhat similar. You go online on Cia.gov and begin your application. A resume is required, as well as a cover letter. This is, perhaps, the most important part of a DO application—the cover letter. In quite a short space an applicant must display extraordinary self-knowledge and a thorough understanding of what the job entails.”
“But how can I find out what the job entails when most, if not all, of the information is classified?” I asked.
“There’s a recommended reading list, mostly comprised of memoirs written by former DO operatives, that offers great—and reasonable—insight into the life of a DO officer. If the recruiters like what they read, expect to receive a letter—for DO applicants—or an email, for all other applicants. Then, there will be a phone and personal interview, a polygraph test, and some problem-solving tasks.”
Michael, then, described some of the other administrative requirements: academic papers, lab journals, or research project to gauge one’s analytic skills and argumentation techniques. He also highlighted the importance of good communication during the application process and thereafter in one’s career.
“And it’s a career. We’re looking for people who want to play the long game.”
What are the most common disqualifying factors?
Illegal drug use—you must be clean for at least 12 months before applying—illegal downloading, and theft of copyrighted material (songs, games, software, etc.).
What does the CIA look for?
In regard to academic degrees, everything: From American Sign Language to Accounting to International Relations to Nursing, the CIA accepts all competitive applicants no matter their field of study. Michael, for example, said that a high-level figure in the DA came on the Agency with a degree in Forestry. Knowledge of foreign languages, international experience (living, working, or studying abroad), and a military background are highly coveted attributes.
Those who pass through the initial phase of the application process, which may take from three to six months, are offered a conditional offer of employment. Conditional because candidates must pass a thorough background check to earn a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearance. The process can last up to 18 months, particularly if the applicant has dual citizenship or has spent a considerable amount of time abroad. However, if an applicant receives a conditional offer, he or she has a very high chance of being accepted.
The recruitment briefing then came to an abrupt end. According to the program, the simulation session was about to begin. Anxious glances went around the room. Then, Michael said:
“A U.N. negotiator driving to a negotiation meeting has just been killed in an explosion. The meeting about to take place would determine which of three nations would take a piece of land known to contain significant amounts of natural resources. You’re CIA analysts. These classified reports are all we know. The President is expecting a briefing. What do you do?”
Stay tuned for part II.