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Careers Centre

Intelligence (public sector)

Sector Overview

Intelligence work is a very broad field with several subcategories and distinctive sectors. This page focuses specifically on the public, meaning government-run, intelligence sector in the UK and the USA. In both states, public intelligence can be further subdivided into agencies focused on gathering international intelligence and agencies focused on gathering domestic intelligence. In the UK this subdivision is quite simple: The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) works internationally and the Security Service (MI5) works domestically. In the US, the CIA works primarily on international issues, and the FBI and the NSA work primarily on domestic issues. However the USA has many smaller intelligence agencies working on very specific issues as well as heavy involvement from private sector intelligence firms. The militaries of both states also have intelligence subdivisions.

Intelligence jobs involve collecting data (known as operations) and the analysis of that information. Generally, case officers stationed abroad will gather data and forward it on to analysts who interpret it and distil it for their reports. In a typical position, you split your time between analytical work and operations support. Analytical tasks include preparing briefs and memos for key members of the government. Operations roles address the implications of planned operations. In either case, intelligence officers take security information and use it to determine risks in a timely manner.

Intelligence Operations

Intelligence operations fall into three categories: strategic intelligence, tactical intelligence, and counterintelligence:

Intelligence agencies do not publicly list how many people they employ or what their annual budget is. It is safe to assume that the US employs many more people than the UK does, and that the number of employed is in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.

If you’re interested in working in a private intelligence firm, which are often contracted out to the government but retain private ownership, read the Intelligence (Private Sector) page. ?

Check out the following articles to learn more about public-sector intelligence careers:

UK Intelligence

US Intelligence

Regardless of your nationality, Intelligence Online (World) has a lot of information on current intelligence issues as well as government and NGO intelligence agencies.

MI5 also has a fun Investigative Quiz available that is well worth taking to see how good you are at intelligence work!


Intelligence (public sector) attributes profile

 Key attributes/skills needed for the roleWhere you could develop these skills or attributes
Project management skills

Organising roles within societies eg for events. CEED offers courses on Project Management within its Professional Skills Curriculum. Also master the use of Microsoft Office 365.

Research skills Developed through your academic studies and any relevant work experience
Language skills Improve your fluency in a second or third language. Arabic, Russian or Mandarin may be particularly useful. Evening courses are available.

Other key attributes/skills demanded for the role: do you possess them?

  • Integrity and honesty: trust in colleagues is essential in this work
  • Persistence: the work is often detailed painstaking
  • Coping with pressure: the implications and time pressures of the work can be very intense


Nature of sector or roles

Breaking into an intelligence career in the UK tends to be a very different process from attaining an intelligence career in the US. The following is a basic introduction to finding a job in each country:

UK Careers

First off, you need to decide whether you’re interested in domestic intelligence (MI5) or international intelligence (MI6). Think about your skillsets and experience in deciding which area is better for you. Next, you need to decide what kind of role you want within these agencies. There are six career tracks within MI6: (1) Intelligence Officers (2) Business Support Officers (3) Technology Professionals (4) Corporate Services (5) Language Specialists (6) Trades & Services. Becoming an intelligence officer is the prototypical “intelligence” career that people tend to think of first, but other tracts should not be discounted. People with degrees in desired languages such as Russian or Arabic should especially consider the language specialist track.

Candidates are expected to have at least a 2:1. There are no internships or work experiences possible, so applications must be made after you have achieved your undergraduate degree or during your final year. MI5 offers an Intelligence Officer Development Program for graduate students. This programs covers your first 3-5 years in the agency. If you aren’t accepted initially, your application might have better luck if you get a few years of work experience or a Masters degree before applying. Look for jobs with a focus on politics, security, or international or domestic affairs. These positions are highly competitive and it might take longer than other careers to get your foot in the door.

US Careers

Like the UK, you first need to decide if you are interested in domestic (FBI, NSA) or international intelligence (CIA). The CIA has five eligible career tracks: (1) Analytical (2) Business, IT & Security Positions (3) Clandestine Service (4) Language (5) Science, Engineering and Technology. Read as much as you can about each of these tracks to determine which one best fit your interests and skillset.

The US offers a lot more programs and internships for people still in university. However it is unlikely you’ll be eligible for these programs as applications must be made when the applicant is living in the country and the process can take months. There are also opportunities for graduates in both domestic and international sectors. The FBI has entry-level training programs for recent grads, as does the CIA. However, taking a few more years to expand your experiences through jobs or a graduate degree might very well help you to get that first job, or even to advance faster within that job once entry is attained. People aren’t eligible to become FBI special agents until they have several years of professional experience under their belts. Similarly, students wishing to get into the Clandestine Service in the CIA will spend several years working at headquarters before they are able to start at the Clandestine Service Program. Students are expected to have at least a 3.0. GPA

Security Clearance

Please be advised that all intelligence careers regardless of country or sector require strenuous background investigations. UK and USA intelligence agencies employ polygraph tests to fully vet potential candidates. Your personal history will be reviewed and there are very specific guidelines regarding past drug use and potential employment. Be sure to look up the security and drug requirements before you send in an application.

Networks - why and how to use them

Networking is particularly important and can help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for the organisation then you have extra information to assist you with your application. Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook (the Fast Stream has its own page) to connect with organisations. Recent St Andrews graduates have been accepted on the European and Generalist Fast Stream as well as jobs within the Scottish Government. Alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.

What to study/Relevant postgraduate study

Many degrees can be helpful to a career in intelligence. A demonstrated interest in foreign affairs is a must for international intelligence work, so a degree in international relations or area studies can be beneficial. Intelligence agencies are also looking for linguists, particularly in languages that are currently deemed critical (including Arabic, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish, among others). With the rise of cyber-terrorism, computer skills are in high demand. Biology and chemistry degrees can also provide critical backgrounds for intelligence, particularly for analysing advanced weaponry systems.

Is a postgraduate qualification necessary?

Postgraduate degrees are often not strictly required, but very helpful, for pursing a job in intelligence. Like undergraduate degrees, any program that focuses on international relations, security studies, or languages (especially Russian, Mandarin, Arabic and other middle eastern/Asian languages) will be valued. In addition, certain universities (St Andrews included) have started to offer degrees in counterterrorism or terrorism studies.

How to gain experience/internships

There are a few internship opportunities available in intelligence. However, these will be difficult to get while studying in the UK. If you can’t attain an intelligence internship you should look for internships with a heavy emphasis on politics (domestic and international), security issues, or languages. Be sure to check out the internships listed on the Intelligence (Private Sector), Think Tanks, International Development, and Political Jobs USA. Here is a shortlist of intelligence internships to start your search. Unfortunately these only pertain to US students as British public intelligence agencies do not offer internship opportunities at this time (but be sure to check for yourself!).

Central Intelligence Agency Langley, VI.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Multiple locations
National Security Agency Headquarters in Forte Meade
National Geospatial-Intelligence Community USA
National Reconnaissance Office USA
Office of Naval Intelligence Maryland
Homeland Security Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of State Multiple locations

How to get a (graduate) job

Obtaining a job in security and intelligence is by no means a straightforward undertaking. Jobs are often tied to the global political climate. As shifts take place, focus may move to different regions. People who have language and area knowledge will find themselves with more opportunities. As it is usually necessary to gain security clearance before you begin work, the recruitment process is quite lengthy.

You are likely to have to create the building blocks of your career through a careful mix of postgraduate training, experience, skills and networking. Sculpt your CV and cover letter to highlight skills and characteristics necessary for intelligence work. The Careers Centre provides advice and example CVs.


Where to start your job search

Exploring your home state’s intelligence agencies is your best starting place. Find out which agency best fits your interests, and furthermore within which career path within the agency your talents will best be served. Agency websites always have detailed applications instructions as well as FAQs.


MI5 Security Service ‘The Security Service (MI5) is the UK's security intelligence agency. It is responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, against the major threats to national security.’ (From the Security Service website)
MI6 Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) ‘The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) operates world-wide and is responsible for gathering secret intelligence outside the UK in support of the government's security, defence and foreign and economic policies.’ (From the Security Service website)
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) ‘The third UK intelligence agency is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) based in Cheltenham. GCHQ counters threats that compromise national security through the production of signals intelligence (known as SIGINT) and the security of communications and information systems (known as Information Assurance).’ (From the Security Service website)


Air Force ISR Agency Supplements the work of the CIA in providing in-depth analysis of key technical issues related to specific missions
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Its primary mission is to collect, analyse, evaluate and disseminate intelligence to assist national security decision-making. Produces a range of intelligence studies covering all topics of interest. It also collects intelligence with human sources and occasionally undertakes covert actions.
Department of Commerce Houses six separate departments that deal with bilateral and multilateral trade and investment policies
Department of Defense (DOD) Houses 7 offices related to security. Develops defence positions in politcal-military and foreign economic affairs, including arms control and disarmament. Involved in the negotiation of agreement with foreign governments concerning military affairs.
Department of Energy Security opportunities in the Office of Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs. Assesses worldwide nuclear terrorism threats, nuclear proliferation, and foreign technology.
Department of Homeland Security Ensures the intelligence community and law enforcement share intelligence information and work together to respond to security threats. Its intelligence office focuses on threats to border security, critical infrastructure, cybersecurity, chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attack (CBRN), extremists within the US, and travellers entering the country.
Department of State The Secretary of State's principal adviser on all intelligence matters. Serves as the focal point for policy issues and activities involving the Intelligence Community.
Department of the Treasury Collects and analyses information that may affect fiscal and monetary policies. Also addresses illicit currency transactions that may finance terrorism.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Responsible for identifying national security threats and working to thwart these attempts in coordination with the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies. Primarily concerned with terrorist organizations, foreign intelligence services, WMD profilerators, and criminal enterprises.
Government Accountability Office (GAO) Analyses the effectiveness of American Foreign Aid programs and trade agreements.
Marine Corps Intelligence Department Supplements the work of the CIA in providing in-depth analysis of key technical issues related to specific missions
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration The Office of International Affairs is involved in international negotiations
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) The agency in charge of designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites
National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) Home to America's codemakers and codebreakers. Provides products and services to the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, government agencies, industry partners, and select allies and coalition partners.
Office of Naval Intelligence Supplements the work of the CIA in providing in-depth analysis of key technical issues related to specific missions
US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Provides legislative oversight on intelligence activities and programs
US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Created to “oversee and make continuing studies of the intelligence activities and programs of the United States Government,” to “submit to the Senate appropriate proposals for legislation and report to the Senate concerning such intelligence activities and programs,” and to “provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”


USA resources

The USA job market and recruitment timetables, for both internships and graduate jobs, for sectors of employment often differ from the UK.

The Careers Centre subscribes to the reputable independent USA careers information and vacancy provider Vault. The links below will take you directly to Vault subscription resources which cover this sector. You may find further useful and relevant resources linked from there as well.