What Does a Special Agent Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Detail of the scene of an accident or crime
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Special agents are federal investigators and law enforcement officers with special arrest and investigative authority that work for the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, ATF, and other agencies. These agents can make arrests for violations of federal laws in any U.S. state or territory. In some cases, as the title implies, they specialize in specific types of crimes based on the mission of the agency they work for.

Special Agent Duties and Responsibilities

Special agent duties and responsibilities vary by agency. In general, some primary responsibilities include:

  • Examining records, collecting and documenting evidence, and establishing contacts with local law enforcement.
  • Conducting interviews or interrogations of all people involved in a crime.
  • Assessing ongoing investigations for weaknesses or clues that were missed.
  • Preparing required reports and forms.
  • Preparing written statements and affidavits from all people who witnessed or were otherwise involved in a crime.
  • Testifying in court about their actions while arresting an individual, gathering evidence, and building a case.

Special Agent Salary

Special agent pay can vary by appointment type, experience, and number of years of service. Agents are paid depending on the level of government that employs them. The average salaries for special agents are:

  • Median Annual Salary: $83,170 ($39.99/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $139,180 ($66.91/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $44,860 ($21.57/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019

Education, Training, & Certification

Each agency provides formal training. Some local and state governments may send their agents to be trained at another agency's academy. The academies focus their curriculum on the mission of the agency they support.

For instance, the FBI focuses its training on assessing threats, gathering intelligence, conducting investigations, planning operations, and collaborating with other agencies. DEA agents are instructed in confidential source management, undercover operations, interrogation techniques, and drug recognition techniques.

In addition to attending academies, agents must meet other education and basic requirements:

  • Education: In most cases, special agents need at least a Bachelor's degree.
  • Experience: Most agents need at least two to three years of full-time professional work or investigative experience in a law enforcement agency.
  • Age: Applicants must be between the ages of 21 and 37 years old.
  • Certifications: Applicants and agents must possess a valid driver's license. If law enforcement experience is required, they must have been certified by the agencies they worked for.
  • Physical conditioning: The work can be physically and mentally demanding, so special agents must pass physical and psychological evaluations and be in excellent physical condition.

Motivation is a key factor in making it through screening processes and training. Because of the demanding nature of the work, special agents must have the drive to succeed.

Special Agent Skills & Competencies

Special agents are unique individuals who can think and react quickly under stress while putting others' needs in front of their own. Instead of running from gunfire, they run toward it to assess and deal with the situation. They also need the following skills to succeed:

  • Communication and interpersonal skills: Agents need to be able to testify in court, talk to people to gather information, and collaborate with others.
  • Calm demeanor: Remaining calm under heavy duress is a critical skill. Agents will be placed in high-stress environments and circumstances much of the time, so they need to be able to handle it.
  • Physical fitness: Excellent physical conditioning, while allowing agents to chase someone on foot, enables them to work long hours and multitask in a demanding environment.
  • Firearms: Agents must be willing and able to handle firearms.
  • Organizational and time management skills: Many disparate tasks and processes take place in any typical workday. Agents need to be able to prioritize and manage their time.
  • Problem-solving skills: Special agents solve problems as a core part of their job. Agents need to come up with solutions for complex issues quickly.
  • Leadership qualities and abilities: Special agents need to take charge of situations and lead others.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for special agents is good. In general, law enforcement is expected to grow 5% through 2029 as the need for public safety continues to rise.

There is little turnover for special agents, so growth within the agencies may be slow. Openings for special agents will vary depending on the year and the needs of each agency.

Work Environment

Working in this field can be dangerous. There is a high risk of injury since special agents can be wounded or injured performing their duties.

This is also an emotionally and physically stressful job. Special agents never know what might happen during their shift and must be ready to deal with all types of situations.

Work Schedule

Since their services are needed at all hours of the day and night, special agents may be scheduled to work at any time. Agents should expect to work nights, weekends, holidays, and extended hours.

How to Get the Job

Gain Experience

Many agencies look for people who have had specific experience and education. Prior law enforcement and military backgrounds are good to have. Most require a four-year college degree.


Generally, agencies looking for special agents will post openings on their websites, such as the DEA, FBI, or the Secret Service. You can also find openings listed on private job boards that usually take you to the agency's career portal.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in law enforcement and investigations can also look into other career paths. Some similar positions are:

  • Cyber intelligence analysts gather and analyze evidence to prevent cybercrimes and earn around $99,000 annually.
  • Fish and game wardens prevent violations of fish and game laws and average about $58,000 yearly.
  • Fire investigators gather and analyze evidence from fires to determine their causes and earn a median pay of $60,000. Previous experience as a firefighter is necessary.
  • Retail loss prevention specialists develop procedures to help prevent inventory loss in retail establishments and average around $30,000 a year.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019