Are You Fit for the FBI?

The bureau is a favorite place for business majors to work. But if you want to be a special agent, you have to pass a demanding fitness test

Government agency work is becoming a hot arena for business majors and, according to at least one study, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is one of the 10 most desired places of employment for undergraduate business majors this year (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/04/06, "They Love It Here, and Here, and Here"). Not only do B-school students want to be hired by the government agency but the FBI is actively seeking candidates with specific skills learned in business programs.

FBI hiring is divided into special agents and professional staff members. Agents are law enforcement and intelligence officers who carry guns, badges, and handcuffs. Staffers work mostly in counterterrorism efforts in the areas of budget analysis, accounting, and engineering, among other areas. Both areas have room for B-school grads, says recruiter Jim Knights.

This year, the agency is looking for 90% of special agents to have a specified critical skill, among them accounting, says Knights. A special agent who has been with the FBI for 23 years, Knights says strong people and communication skills are needed in addition to a designated skill. "I have interviewed everybody from street people to corporate presidents to astronauts and everybody in between—truck drivers, university professors, people who have witnessed crimes," he says. "You have to be able to relate to these people and get them to tell you what you want to know."

One of the biggest problems in recruiting special agents, Knights said, is that many qualified candidates can’t pass the physical fitness test that’s required of all hires.

Knights recently spoke to BusinessWeek.com reporter Julie Gordon about what the FBI looks for in business grads. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Why is accounting a critical skill for special agents?

I love to hire accountants because they are very easy to quantify. If you have a CPA, you're gold, as far as I am concerned.

Is it possible for a recent undergraduate student to apply for the special agent position, or does it depend on the area of expertise?

For instance, if graduates have the accounting experience and academic background required, they certainly can. We have found there is a direct correlation between how old the person is and how well they do in the application process. The applicant goes through a one-hour professional interview. During the interview, applicants are basically asked how they have dealt with the challenges in their lives—challenges to integrity, dealing with difficult people, dealing with great change. The older a person is, the more opportunity they've had to go through these challenges, and they have more to talk about.

Are most agents on the older end of the spectrum?

Late 20s, 30 years old for the agent position.

Can being a professional staffer help get your foot in the door to later become an agent?

Say you have a criminal justice degree. And you say "O.K., I got my degree, I want to be an agent now." We will say the focus isn't on that, it's on these other critical skills, but you can come into the FBI and qualify for the intelligence analyst position or the investigative specialist position. Once you've had those jobs for two years, you are then considered to have a critical skill in intelligence, and then you can apply to be an agent.

Besides having a critical skill, what types of experiences or characteristics should potential agents have?

I tend to look at the whole person. When someone passes interview Phase One—the written test—I bring them in and I sit them down for the Post-Phase One interview to make sure they understand everything about the agent position they are applying for, the good and the bad. I look at that person and I ask myself, "Would I want to work with this person in the future?" And it would depend on their drive, their curiosity, their ability to engage another person.

It's not a job about guns, mobs, bullets, jumping out of helicopters, swinging from trees, kicking down doors. It’s a job about communication (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/26/06, "Memo to Students: Writing Skills Matter"). If you can't do that, if you cannot engage another person who comes from a widely different background from yours, you cannot do this job. At least you cannot do it successfully.

After that Post-Phase One interview, how does the rest of the process pan out?

Once they get past that point, if we nominate them for Phase Two and headquarters agrees, the interview process is out of Chicago. The interview is conducted by three special agents who have been trained as assessors. It's a professional interview. It's one-hour long, no longer. It's recorded, there is no pressure, no tricks.

The questions are the same around the country; they are not sitting there making things up. When a candidate goes into the room to be interviewed, the interview board knows their name and their Social Security number, but nothing else, so it's an honest, fair venue. It's up to the candidate to sell him- or herself to the board. They will ask 14 questions on seven topics—integrity, dealing with people, and so forth. Eleven of the questions are based on experience, three are hypothetical. The applicant can expect to talk for three to four minutes for each question.

What happens if you pass that round?

That's 75% of Phase Two. Twenty-five percent is a written exercise. The applicant is asked to imagine they are an agent in a field office, they conducted an investigation, and they are given a packet of material representing all of the information they collected during their theoretical investigation—interviews, documents, including material that is not relevant. Their job is to go through that material in an hour and a half, 90 minutes, absorb it, identify what is not relevant, discard it, and then write a report persuading their supervisor to pursue that particular case to prosecution. Or, maybe not. It's done in pencil in an essay book. No computers.

How many people do you usually hire each year?

This fiscal year the target is 750 special agents.

How many apply?

Thousands and thousands. During a typical year, we will successfully process 5% of the people who apply to become a special agent. Now I don't want to put anybody off, because a lot of people apply who aren't even qualified, and if you don't ask, the answer will always be no. So if someone thinks they are qualified, they should apply.

What is the biggest challenge of the job?

The biggest problem we have with new special agents at the academy is physical fitness. They are in the process now of moving the PT test up to No. 1, after Phase Two. Instead of the security interview, they have to pass the PT test before they go to the academy. After they get to the academy, they arrive on a Sunday, the first PT test is on the following Tuesday, and almost without fail, half the class will fail that PT test. Which means they took a vacation after they took the first PT test.

So now the new requirement is that they must pass the PT test within 45 days of reporting to the academy. If you don't pass the PT test than nothing else is going to happen. I know people say "Geez, you really spend a lot of time on this PT test. I am a scientist, I am an accountant." I mean, yeah, but it's our biggest problem at the academy, and we will fire you if you can't do this.

Do you get a second try?

Yes, but the philosophy I try to get people to accept is we are offering you the best job in the world. But when you report to the academy, we are going to train you for the best job in the world and you have to pass a test. I am giving you all the questions and all the answers and you have months to get ready. Now, they get down there and they can't pass it: What does it say about initiative and motivation?

Why is it the best job in the world?

Because of the mission. The mission is to protect this country from the next terrorist attack, from counterintelligence operations, from cybercrime attacks, and on down the list to 10 priorities (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/04/06, "Hello, Mickey"). I found, in my 23 years, that like any other job, you get out of this job what you put into it. This job—especially what I am doing right now—has allowed me to have a maximum positive effect on a maximum number of people.