From the outside, intelligence analysis can seem like one of the hardest fields to get into. But, for all the mystique, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) hires hundreds of intelligence analysts every year. Most guides will tell you to do something like follow the news or play board games to get the skills you need, but few offer tips for thinking through the actual process of applying. Here are ten quick tips that I think strengthen your chances of landing your dream role. Note that while a lot of this advice is general, these tips mostly apply to starting your analyst career in the United States Intelligence Community, as other countries will have their own byzantine processes for joining.
1. Talk With Practitioners
One of the best ways to de-mystify the process of applying and the day-to-day work is to chat with someone who does it. Reaching out to people you know is the most obvious point, but for those who aren’t lucky enough to have a friend in the field, going to hiring events and searching for people on networking sites like LinkedIn will help you think about where you want to apply and navigate the application process.
It also tends to boost confidence, since most professionals will encourage you to pursue intelligence as a career (so long as you meet the basic qualifications, like citizenship and lack of legal trouble). There are also plenty of podcasts and interviews with intelligence professionals about how they got into the fields and their thoughts on it.
2. Apply Smarter, Apply Harder
Unfair as it is, applying to be an intelligence analyst is best accomplished by quality AND quantity. That means applying to every opening you can, with the best possible versions of your resume, cover letter, and writing samples. It also means applying as soon after the opening as you can. As sophisticated as online applications appear, HR professionals who have limited time and job slots to fill are the ones making the final call. Being one of the first applications they see makes it more likely you will get in. If you know someone who works at the agency where you wish to be an analyst, asking them about the hiring process, or to inform you if they see a hiring event has started, can help.
Remember that a rejection is not usually a reflection of your qualifications. There are tight hiring quotas and other factors beyond your control. To maximize your chances of getting through to an interview or another level of consideration, get into the habit of applying every time you see an opening or hiring event. Persistence is key, it’s better to be rejected a few times and then get hired than to apply once and give up because you took hiring metrics as a personal slight.
3. Don’t Worry About Being Too Young or Too Old
A lot of people talk themselves out of applying to an intelligence analyst role because they think they have too little experience, or because they have lots of experience in an “unrelated” industry. Whether you are very early in your career or many years in, do not let your age get in the way of pursuing an intelligence analyst role if you think you have something to contribute. If you’re working age, you’re fine. I’ve known several people who became intelligence analysts after decades of working in other industries. I also know people who came in straight out of college. Ultimately, hirers care much more about what you can contribute than arbitrarily deciding they need someone who is 25 instead of 45.
4. Look at the Entire Intelligence Community
Don’t limit yourself to well-known organizations like the CIA and FBI. There are 17 members of the US intelligence community. Not all of them hire intelligence analysts, but most of them do. People wrongly assume that agencies like the NSA or the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency only want people with technical expertise or a background in a specific INT, like imagery analysis. However, those agencies usually need all-source intelligence analysts to put the technical information they collect into context, and almost always train analysts in specifics instead of hoping they already know everything on day one.
One of my friends got into the Office of Naval Intelligence because he was looking at their jobs page and applied on a whim, but self-selected out of NSA because he thought he needed a CS degree. Many jobs are listed on USAJOBs, but sites like Intelligence Careers highlight broader opportunities from less-considered agencies with a lot more context and explanation before taking you to USAJOBs to apply.
5. Intern (If You Can)
If you’re currently a student, applying to internships in intelligence agencies will give you a big leg up. In the same way, you should consider many different intelligence agencies when applying to be an analyst, you should also apply to every agency you can for internships.
There are a few immediate advantages to an internship. For starters, acquiring a security clearance while young is administratively easier since you’ve likely travelled less than someone older. You also get to see how these organizations work on the inside and decide if you want to pursue it as a career with little risk. Worst case, maintaining a security clearance is useful for seeking a government or contractor job regardless, since the process is so time-consuming and costly (especially for contractors) that already having it done gives you a big leg up. My college internships secured me clearance and a sense of the intelligence community, both of which were key to my post-college career path.
There is a major caveat: internships tend to be concentrated in or near Washington, DC. This makes it hard for people who live outside the DC area to afford to spend a summer there, even if the internship is paid. Don’t fret though, keep an eye open for opportunities near you. For example, the FBI takes interns in its field offices, which are usually in or near state capitals. I did an internship in Oregon, even though FBI HQ is in downtown DC.
6. Gain Some Relevant Experience
Having a job relevant to intelligence analysis is not strictly required, but it can give you a leg up. In terms of jobs, you could gain experience by working as an intelligence analyst for a private company, like banks, risk analysis firms, government contractors (or Grey Dynamics!). You could also work at Think Tanks, NGOs, newspapers/journalism. Anything that involves global affairs, politics, area studies, language, or critical thinking and writing is something that you can point to in your application.
Seeking jobs adjacent to intelligence, like working at NATO or in an admin position at the Department of Defense, are also ways I have seen people move into the field, since they gave relevant skills, and the opportunity to talk to people already working in intelligence, and sometimes the ability to get a clearance.
There is one caveat here: sometimes commercial roles for “intelligence analysts” have more to do with data science, IT, or working in a Global Security Operations Center (GSOC). None of these are bad (in fact, most of these roles are more lucrative than a government job) but they might be focused on a different role than what you’d be doing in government service, or, in the case of GSOCs a very narrow skillset.
7. Consider the Military
The military is not for everyone. Depending on the service you go into and your role within it, a few years of service can provide relevant experience, training, and security clearance. Unlike the UK, the US military does not usually hire people directly into intelligence roles, so be wary that a recruiter or hiring event cannot guarantee that you’ll be doing intelligence work.
The kind of intelligence analysis you do in the military might not be what you’d be doing as a civilian. For instance, my friend who worked SIGINT in the military was put into counterterrorism analysis when he joined the IC. Additionally, many people I worked with served in the military in non-intelligence roles before they leveraged their service to make the switch, so if you’re inclined to join up regardless of your eventual role, the military can still put you on the path to working as an analyst.
8. Seek Good Training
Nearly every intelligence agency will give you the training to do your job, but you can learn many of the fundamental ideas behind intelligence analysis beforehand. Far from being classified, topics like cognitive biases and structured analytic techniques are just broader critical thinking concepts applied narrowly to the kinds of problems faced by intelligence analysts. A good training program can teach you those skills before you start working as an analyst.
Few quality options exist for training certificates exist, even as demand for intelligence analysts from the private and public sectors skyrockets. Within the existing options, you should try to be discerning if you want something that works in your favor. A short course from a random trainer might not give you a qualification that HR staff will recognize and, more importantly, you might not get the key foundational skills that a good intelligence analysis training program should provide. Quality courses are more expensive and require a bigger time commitment, but they are more likely to develop your critical thinking skills and provide a certificate or qualification that holds more weight for potential employers.
9. Be Cautious of Social Media
Social media personalities, especially on Twitter, love to promote themselves as “OSINT” (Open-Source Intelligence) practitioners because of the level of prestige and cool factor associated with using jargon. In truth, most “OSINT” accounts either do content aggregation or share information they like with superficial comments that don’t add much value for readers. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, social media exists to share information rapidly, but neither approach produces “intelligence” in a way policymakers would understand it. Because the “intelligence customer” on social media is just the general population instead of a policymaker or company, accounts are often successful based on their entertainment value, political/ideological alignment, or self-confidence, rather than the quality of their analysis.
Social media teaches bad habits. Intelligence is a discipline, a word that ill-fits the behavior we see on most social media platforms. A lack of transparency from social media accounts and their analysis means that sources are either shaky or unavailable. There’s also a general lack of self-reflection or auditing to see what they can improve. It is the opposite in both government and commercial intelligence analysis, where organizations try to emphasize transparency and self-reflection from the start.
To be sure, there are plenty of decent analysts on social media, and some level of literacy in how social media platforms operate is useful and thinking about how to critically assess competing sources of information use can come in handy. Just don’t confuse the aesthetics of intelligence for the real thing.
10. Think Beyond Analysis…For Now
Often, the opaqueness of intelligence means that people aren’t familiar with roles besides case officers (in movies) and intelligence analysts (in movies). There are, however, plenty of roles that require similar skills and are just as exciting, even if the title is different. One example is the collection management officer (CMO) who sit at the intersection of raw information and analysis. It is worth looking at all the roles agencies advertise, and deciding if they scratch the same itch as intelligence analysis would. Worst case, if you get the job and don’t like it, moving around within organizations is usually a lot easier than coming in from outside.
Another example is the Department of State. Their intelligence element is the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which is extraordinarily small and challenging to get into compared to many other intelligence organizations. Applying to be a Foreign Service Officer at the Department of State is not only a better bet (although still difficult), but you could end up doing similar work and gaining experience to eventually join INR or another agency with the experience that you develop.
Overall, intelligence is not a field you should self-select out of because you’re worried about not ticking the right career boxes. You should never count yourself out because you don’t think you have the right experience or didn’t have the ability to intern in college, or any of the other reasons I mentioned. If this is a career path that you’re passionate about, prepare to put your best foot forward and go for it.