A snapshot of a career in federal law enforcement

September 18, 2017 · 5 min read · By ASU Online

The criminal justice field oversees critical public safety functions on a local and national level — with involvement in all aspects of criminal proceedings from initial investigation to sentencing. This industry offers a number of rewarding career paths that serve public and private interests. This career profile series will explore some job opportunities available to those looking to make an impact in criminal justice.


Become a criminal justice professional

If you have ever considered a career where you help keep our country safe, working in federal law enforcement could be the right path for you. At the federal level, a variety of agencies function with the sole purpose of enforcing our country’s security in one way or another. These agencies work to prevent such activities as human trafficking, illegal drug trafficking and terrorism. Being a part of a team that works to stop any of these crimes from occurring can be a rewarding career for someone interested in criminal justice.

Typically, a criminal justice professional working at this level is known as an agent or investigator. Below is a breakdown of just a few federal law enforcement careers:

  • The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a component of the U.S. Department of Justice. It focuses on stopping illegal drug trafficking.
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is responsible for investigating federal crimes. Also a part of the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI is considered the agency’s investigative arm.
  • The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is responsible for collecting, analyzing, evaluating and disseminating foreign intelligence to aid in the decision-making process regarding national security.
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE) enforces federal law governing borders, customs, trade and immigration, all with the motive of maintaining homeland security and public safety.
  • The U.S. Secret Service does more than just protect the president and other dignitaries. Also a law enforcement agency, the Secret Service fights crime on a global scale through field offices around the world, working closely with other federal and local law enforcement agencies.

There is a rigorous application process to join any of these agencies, frequently requiring interviews and background checks in addition to a formal application. Having an extensive educational background in criminal justice can give you an advantage. With an online Master of Arts in Criminal Justice from Arizona State University, you can work to develop the investigative skills needed to help federal agents succeed. By honing these and other skills, as well as studying crime within a larger context, you could build a foundation in criminal justice that may support your career path in federal law enforcement at any of these agencies.

Federal agents monitor helicopter landing near Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Federal agents monitor helicopter landing near Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

A typical day in the life of federal law enforcement agents

Most federal agents consistently work on cases, collecting evidence, writing reports, investigating potential suspects and apprehending criminals. While each agency has its own concentration, agents often carry out many of the same duties as police officers, with the differences being jurisdiction and the highly specialized areas in which agents direct their focus.

There are a few areas of overlap between agencies when it comes to an agent’s basic responsibilities. Most agents will, at some point, have to collect and prepare evidence for a case, whether that means conducting interviews, partnering with other organizations to share data or analyzing information and submitting reports. Agents also participate in apprehending potential suspects. This can include investigating crime scenes, seizing materials and testifying in court.

Agents within the CIA and ICE face certain responsibilities that are less common in other branches of law enforcement. For instance, the CIA may work with materials written in foreign languages, therefore, agents or analysts may be called upon to translate materials for review. They are also required to write reports which only present facts and make no recommendations regarding policy, so it’s imperative they be objective. Another example is that ICE representatives are often called to testify in court. For this reason, the agency employs its own legal team, which means agents often work directly with the same prosecutors on multiple cases.


A closer look at the professional landscape for federal law enforcement

Looking at the overall employment landscape for police and detectives, both local and federal, the BLS projects job opportunities will grow by 7 percent from 2014 to 2024. Demand for employment will likely vary by location and budget even at the federal level.

According to Payscale, the median salary in federal law enforcement is $77,000. Having previous experience in law enforcement, the military or as an investigator can help improve your starting salary. Additionally, being multi-lingual can be highly beneficial when applying to agencies like the CIA, ICE or Secret Service.

Most federal positions require a bachelor’s degree in a related field in addition to professional acumen. Furthermore, having the added background in criminal justice by obtaining a master’s degree can potentially improve your chances for consideration as well as your pay rate.

Becoming a federal law enforcement agent

A core set of qualities that can help any federal agent be successful in his or her job include:

  • Communication  especially when interviewing people
  • Empathy
  • Judgment
  • Leadership
  • Perceptiveness
  • Physical stamina
  • Physical strength

The last two qualities are more important for agents in the field than those working behind the scenes in an office, although the workload for any agent can vary in intensity depending upon the assignment. Federal agents utilize these qualities to successfully and directly interact with community members as well as interpret laws and apply them to unique scenarios. Agents also need the character and professional disposition to represent their agency of employment in a positive manner.

Also unique to federal law enforcement is the training required once you’re hired. Agents typically undergo extensive, very physical training, usually at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia or at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Training sessions cover topics such as active shooters, advanced forensics, advanced interviewing, weapon use and much more.

Ready to learn more about your potential career in federal law enforcement?

Pursuing a career in criminal justice can help you join a community of police officers, detectives, supervisors, federal agents and many more professionals. No matter which career path in criminal justice interests you, you can learn more about expanding your qualifications in the online criminal justice master’s program from Arizona State University. This advanced degree explores the core tenets of criminal justice that may be applied across any federal law enforcement agency in a variety of career settings.


Border police patrolling the area.


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