How To Become a DEA Agent

A group of DEA agents

Law enforcement officials are essential for keeping people safe. If you’re passionate about pursuing a career in law enforcement, one option you may want to consider is becoming a U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) agent. This career guide explores the process of how to become a DEA agent and dives into their role and responsibilities.

In This Article:

What Does a DEA Agent Do?

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is responsible for enforcing U.S. laws regarding controlled substances. This entails conducting criminal investigations into suspected drug traffickers and gangs that traffic controlled substances. The DEA also implements drug education and prevention programs designed to discourage people from using substances in an illegal or recreational manner by informing them of the significant dangers of doing so.

If you become a DEA agent, it’s quite likely that no two days will look the same. You can expect to work closely with other federal, state and local agencies, as well as foreign entities in an attempt to identify and apprehend individuals and criminal organizations engaged in drug trafficking.

Ultimately, DEA agents strive to apprehend suspects and confiscate controlled substances before they can reach the hands of potential users. In doing so, DEA agents may sometimes need to go undercover. Other DEA agent jobs may include the following:

  • Collecting and logging evidence
  • Writing and filing reports
  • Conducting surveillance operations, interviewing witnesses and arresting suspects
  • Coordinating investigations with partner agencies
  • Conducting educational campaigns aimed at bringing greater awareness to the dangers of drugs

How To Become a DEA Agent

If the answer to the question, What does a DEA agent do? appeals to you, then it’s time to take a look at the process of how to become a DEA agent. If you’re still in high school, consider talking to your guidance counselor about adding more relevant courses to your schedule. Classes in communications, justice studies, law and sociology may be helpful for you.

After high school, you will need to plan on earning at least a bachelor’s degree. It’s possible to become a DEA agent with just a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, provided you then go on to obtain professional work experience in law enforcement. However, another option is to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice, which would allow you to bypass the experiential requirements.

After completing your academic credentials, you will need to meet all of the other eligibility criteria established by the DEA for aspiring agents. You’ll need to undergo a lengthy, comprehensive hiring process, which includes a polygraph, drug test, psychological evaluation and written and oral tests. You’ll also need to pass a background check.

If you are accepted as a DEA agent candidate, you will then be sent to the DEA’s training program. There, you’ll learn everything you need to know to enforce the controlled substance laws of the U.S. Upon successfully completing the program, you may be extended an invitation to become a DEA agent, and you’ll receive your first job assignment.

Earn Your Undergraduate Degree in Criminal Justice

All aspiring DEA agents must earn at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as criminal justice or justice studies. During your studies, you’ll likely examine topics such as the following:

  • Threat assessment and behavioral analysis
  • Criminal procedures and public policies
  • Criminal behaviors and victimology
  • Professional ethics for law enforcement officers
  • The functions of various arms of the law enforcement field

When you have the opportunity to take elective courses, it can be helpful to take communications classes, including classes in conflict negotiation, if available.

Earn Your Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice

DEA agents are often required to earn a master’s degree in addition to a bachelor’s degree. It may be possible to become qualified by accumulating significant relevant work experience, but a master’s degree in criminal justice is often recommended.

During your degree program, you can expect to study advanced concepts in criminal justice, such as the following:

  • Techniques and trends in advanced crime analysis, including the identification of patterns in crime-related data
  • Criminal behavior analysis, with a look at crisis intervention and psychopathology
  • The applications of crime analysis for case management and crime reduction purposes
  • The cultivation of positive and productive relationships between law enforcement officials and members of the public

Other Requirements To Join the DEA

In addition to earning the necessary academic credentials, you will need to meet other DEA requirements to qualify for apply for DEA agent jobs. These eligibility criteria include the following:1

  • Be at least 21 years of age, but no older than 36
  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Have a valid driver’s license
  • Be able to obtain a Top Secret security clearance
  • Be physically fit
  • Be able and willing to carry a firearm
  • Be willing to relocate anywhere within the U.S.
  • Meet the physical and medical requirements

The physical and medical requirements of DEA special agents are quite extensive, as applicants must be in excellent condition in order to withstand the rigors of the job. These requirements pertain to vision, hearing, manual dexterity, emotional stability and physical conditioning. Aspiring agents are required to pass a comprehensive physical fitness test.

In addition, aspiring DEA agents must fully disclose all past drug use, if applicable. Not all drug use will lead to an automatic disqualification. DEA agents and other employees are drug tested routinely throughout their employment.

Please note that the requirements may be subject to change over time.

Submit Your Application To Become a DEA Agent

Once you’re sure that you meet all of the requirements to become a DEA agent, the next step is to submit your application at a DEA recruitment office. You’ll receive instructions as to which documents are required for your application package. The hiring process is quite extensive and lengthy, taking up to a year or even longer.

You will need to pass a drug test and a polygraph exam, and you’ll undergo a panel interview. You’ll also need to pass a series of written and oral exams intended to test issues your problem-solving abilities, communication skills and reasoning. Expect to undergo a psychological evaluation as well, which, among other things, will explore your ability to remain calm and think clearly in the midst of stressful situations.

The DEA will conduct a thorough background check. You will be required to submit a significant amount of information about your educational, financial and work history.

To determine whether you will be able to withstand the rigorous physical training required of trainees, you’ll be required to pass the physical task assessment (PTA) exam. It’s strongly recommended that you work on improving your physical fitness in the months leading up to the PTA. In particular, focus on running, sit-ups and push-ups.

Essential Skills and Characteristics of a DEA Agent

There are many important skills and characteristics that can prove helpful for a DEA agent. These include the following:

  • Keen observational skills and attention to detail
  • Verbal and written communication skills
  • A collaborative mindset
  • Strong, unwavering commitment to professional ethics
  • Time management and organizational skills
  • Good working memory
  • Excellent physical fitness

Combine your passion with purpose at Grand Canyon University (GCU) and prepare to make a positive difference in your community. In addition to our undergraduate justice studies degree programs, GCU is pleased to offer the Master of Science in Criminal Justice with an Emphasis in Law Enforcement to students who wish to take their law enforcement careers further. Fill out the form on this page to learn more about joining our Christian learning community. 

Retrieved from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Special Agent FAQs in January 2023.

Approved by faculty for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Feb. 22, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.