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DEA Agent Career and Salary Profile

As the country is waging a quiet war against a deadly opioid epidemic, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agents are fighting on the front lines. Domestically, death toll numbers from opiate and heroin overdoses alone reached 43,000 a year, according to former acting DEA head Chuck Rosenberg. Numbers that Rosenberg called “shocking” in a 2015 interview with NPR.

“I knew there was a problem. I knew it was big. I didn’t know it was 120 people a day,” Rosenberg stated.

DEA Agents are vital in stopping this growing epidemic. A subset of the Justice Department, the DEA enforces drug law and strives to shed light on the illegal drug trade, which expands to much more than managing the opioid crisis. That pursuit has placed DEA Agents at the forefront of the war on terror to bolster the counter-narcotics mission in Afghanistan as well as in special assignments domestically to arrest offenders, seize cocaine and other illegal narcotics, and shut down meth labs.

Individuals who want to pursue a career as a DEA Agent should consider this: the job is dangerous. Additionally, only strong candidates who are able to meet physical and mental requirements and specialized training can join this elite group of men and women. Potential candidates must also be eligible for top-level security clearance and, though it may go without saying, drug use is a deal breaker (except youthful experimental marijuana use).

What Do DEA Agents Do?

When considering a career as a DEA Agent, it’s important to understand the flexibility required. In its list of qualifications, the DEA website includes a willingness to relocate anywhere in the country.

DEA Agent careers span several different disciplines; however, core responsibilities can include:

  • Investigation and prosecution of major drug law violators, both domestically and internationally
  • Managing drug intelligence programs in partnership with federal, state, local and foreign officials
  • Arresting or searching suspects; seizing property connected to drug trafficking
  • Judicial functions, including obtaining and preparing evidence to convict drug traffickers
  • Managing programs established by the Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassadors for partnerships with foreign countries in drug law enforcement

Stakes are high in the field, and DEA agents will also be expected to carry and correctly handle firearms. Casework could take an agent to a variety of places – from the courtroom to a meth lab, and can be in an office or on a mission. 

To perform the rigorous physical and mental work required of DEA agents, candidates need to be skilled in a variety of areas, including:

  • Conducting investigative work
  • Gathering data across sources
  • Researching and analyzing data
  • Understanding key factors in investigations
  • Evaluating information
  • Developing solutions
  • Interpreting rules, laws, or regulations
  • Strong verbal and written communication
  • Attention to detail
  • Good memory
  • Sound judgment
  • Ability to work well in a team
  • Problem solving
  • Flexibility
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Self-management

Job Environment

The DEA’s work spans multiple disciplines, and is divided across several areas:

  • Special agent
  • Intelligence Research Specialists
  • Diversion Investigator
  • Professional and Administrative
  • Forensic science
  • Student and entry level

Special agents can then enter several different fields, dependent upon their experience and education:

  • Foreign Language. With expert-level fluency in a foreign language, agents act in an undercover or informant role, or help to crack codes from high-profile traffickers.
  • Pilot/Maritime. Experienced aerial or maritime experts can apply their expertise to locating illegal sources or production plants, as well as understanding entry points into the United States. They may also analyze seized maps, charts and itineraries to help support arrest, seize and preempt conspiracy plans. Expertise may also be used to help spot air and sea smuggling based on logistics, climate and loading patterns.
  • Accounting/Auditing. Financial experts will strive to trace assets, identify account ownership and understand where financial transactions link to criminal activity.
  • Technical/Mechanical. Communication networks experts trace electronic transfer, install electronic intercepts, install video surveillance systems, and intercept and monitor criminal electronic communications. These experts also ensure communications security for the investigative team.

How to Become A DEA Agent

DEA Agents are an exclusive group, and special agent roles may take up to 12 months to fill, according to the DEA website, and the selection process occurs annually. Then, there is an 18-week training plan. The organization is large: in the U.S., the DEA has 226 field offices across 21 divisions, and employs about 9,600 hundred people, about half of whom are special agents.

Within the special agent field, DEA agents can pursue either Grade 07 or Grade 09 qualification, depending on experience and education. For Grade 07, agents must hold a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of 2.95 or higher; Grade 09 candidates must have a master’s, J.D. or LL.B. Experience assisting (Grade 07) or leading (Grade 09) in your specific field of study is also a requirement. Backgrounds may include pharmacology, chemistry, law enforcement, criminal justice, medical technology, nursing, or military.

Prospective DEA agents would then go through Basic Agent Training at the DEA Training Academy in Virginia, which is 122 hours of firearms training and 84 hours of physical fitness and defensive tactics. To graduate from basic training, candidates must have at least an 80% average on academic tests, pass the firearms qualification exam, exhibit good decision making and leadership skills in scenario testing, and pass physical task tests.

DEA Agent Salary

A DEA agent’s salary includes the Law Enforcement Officer base pay plus any locality payments, which depend on assignment. On top of this, 25% Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEAP) is added to base and locality pay. LEAP is paid to professionals involved in criminal justice work because the nature of the work can often demand work outside of “scheduled duty.” The Office of Personnel Management salary calculator estimates base pay for Grade GS-7, Step 1, in Washington DC at $47,838 and $46,517 in Miami. With the leap pay, the total rises to $59,797 and $58,146, respectively.

Statistics and salaries may vary from state to state and based on experience, so job seekers are encouraged to do their own research.

Although the DEA is rigorous in selecting its agents, DEA agents are a critical line of defense against illegal drug activity in the US. The expectations are high, but so are the stakes.

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