Ever wanted to work for a covert organization but felt your skills were less 007 and more ‘Spies Like Us’? That’s fine, U.S. agencies are increasingly recruiting candidates with skills honed through graduate business programs. For example, the FBI hires forensic accountants to uncover financial crimes, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis monitors banking systems for terrorist funding while the CIA is heading towards Big Data analytics and away from cloak and dagger.

Intelligence positions have a lot going for them. In addition to helping safeguard the country and its citizens, they can provide exciting projects, job security, health benefits and steady compensation. Further, certain federal intelligence personnel earn a generous pension and lifetime benefits (such as long term care). And since the organizations operate on the federal level, these benefits are likely more secure than with state or local governments.

Finally, working for an intelligence agency can provide lucrative opportunities later on in the private sector. Here are three degrees that should be in demand by our intelligence agencies.

  1. A Masters in Accountancy Degree (MAcc) for FBI Careers

If you watched the movie Skyscraper, you might envision the typical FBI agent like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The truth is you’re more likely to discover a bookish accountant pouring through financial statements. But their impact on crime fighting is the same.

Of its many tasks, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) protects the public from financial crimes and frauds. In theory, agent activity is pretty basic-gathering facts and evidence to solve and prevent criminal activity. But these are often conducted through advanced ‘forensic’ techniques. This is why so many of the bureau’s special agents are forensic accountants. It is “one of the most vital financial investigative careers in the FBI”.1

Forensic analysis incorporates accounting, auditing and investigative skillsets.2 Agents scrutinize financial statements (including balance sheets, income and cash flow statements and the interaction between them), documents (purchase orders, invoices, inventory and customer receipts, etc.) and digital records (GPS records, scanner logs, cell activity, email accounts, security footage, credit card payments, passwords, google searches, etc.).

Just as important as uncovering fraud is the ability to communicate the findings in an understandable manner to a judge and/or jury with the goal of prosecution.

While forensic accounting work typically focuses on the financial sector (financial institutions, securities and commodities and mortgages, Etc.) their skills are also used to bring down organized crime. One such forensic case led to the prosecution of Joseph Massino, boss of the Bonnano crime family.

Until Massino’s arrest, the Bonnanos had a 70-year streak where no ‘inducted’ member had ever cooperated with law enforcement.3 The two FBI agents who orchestrated the trap were both former accountants. Let’s not forget, it was forensic accounting by IRS agents that took down infamous Chicago gagster Al Capone (tax evasion).

Compensation and Benefits

Compensation, while not as high as the private sector, is nothing to sneeze at. The typical forensic accountant at the FBI earning nearly $83,000 with bonus and additional compensation.4 This doesn’t take into account other benefits plans.

FBI Benefit Plans Include:

  • Thrift Savings Plan Participation (the largest federal employee pension plan)

  • Group Life Insurance Policy

  • Health Care

  • Long-Term Care Coverage

  • Flex Spending Accounts

  • Line of Duty Death Benefits

  • Student Loan Reimbursement Plans (up to $10,000 annually with a lifetime $60,000 cap)

  • Reimbursement of tuition when pursuing applicable certificates or degrees

  • FBI Sabbatical Program

  • Public Transportation Commuting Cost Reimbursement

Besides their headquarters in Washington D.C., there are dozens of FBI field offices in desirable locations around the country. Here are some examples:

  • Atlanta

  • Charlotte

  • Denver

  • Honolulu

  • Las Vegas

  • Los Angeles

  • Miami

  • New Orleans

  • New York

  • Seattle

If you’re looking to get hired as a forensic accountant, here are some tips from the FBI itself. Candidates must have either a Bachelor’s and/or Masters in Accounting degree or 24 hours of accounting coursework (6 may be in Business Law).6

So if you don’t have previous accounting experience or a business degree, a MAcc would essentially be a pre-requisite. Preferred qualifications also include related certifications designations such as the CPA, CFE and the CFF financial designations. A Masters of Accountancy (MAcc) can prepare students for the CPA exam (tops in the accounting profession).

  1. A Masters in Business Analytics Degree for CIA Careers

There is maybe no agency in the world that intrigues like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). While commonly regarded as our spy agency, today’s CIA is becoming more transparent and modern. Going forward, there could be less emphasis on field operations and more on quantitative analysis. With an exponential amount of global data to filter, it’s no surprise they have a new Directorate for Digital Innovation.7 Is this ushering in the Big Brother era?

Analytics Magazine reports that with so much data to ‘classify’ (i.e. which is confidential or not) that the CIA is partnering with the University of Texas and the National Archives to begin applying machine learning techniques to the classification system.8 We imagine that’s just the first step in its AI capabilities.

If you think there’s no way you can add value to the CIA you might be surprised. Considering that disciplines such as machine learning and artificial intelligence are still in their infancy, it’s unlikely many candidates interested in this area have the necessary background or training. And since technology changes so rapidly, a prior background in older technologies may already be obsolete.

Compensation and Benefits

According to Glassdoor, CIA intelligence analysts average $99,000 in total pay.9 This number is so high because many have the opportunity to rack up significant extra compensation (overtime, Sunday premium pay, night differential, foreign language incentives and holiday pay).10

CIA employees have similar financial retirement benefits but they also have the opportunity to contribute to a 401(a) plan which is a pooled pension system without employer contributions. If that wasn’t enough, it’s possible to retire at age 50 after accruing at least 20 years of service (including 5 years of qualifying overseas service).11

Landing a Job at the CIA is not an easy task. But one essential skill set is data analysis. While there are not many Big Data undergrad degrees, a number of universities are offering Masters in Business Analytics degrees or similar programs related to business intelligence and data mining. Such a credential could add tremendous value to a CIA candidate. And a clean record, of course.

  1. An MBA in Fraud Management for OIA Careers

You probably wouldn’t imagine a job at the U.S. Treasury Department as being ‘exciting’. But their intelligence arm, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA), is changing that perception. Without a storied history like the FBI or CIA (the OIA was just established in 2004 in response to 9/11) the OIA is often overlooked as a financial career option.

Nevertheless, the agency has a crucial task- it “collects and analyzes foreign intelligence as it relates to matters of money that affect the security of the United States.”12 The intel is then directed to the appropriate government office, military post or intelligence chief.

OIA analysts uncover financial frauds, disrupt terrorist funding and identify money laundering operations (often via drug cartels). Often, agents will work in U.S. embassies overseas, providing them closer access to investigations.

For example, OIA analysts might determine whether a country or state-sponsored organization is skirting U.S. sanctions. Such judgements can have devastating effects on violators (as Chinese tech company ZTE recently discovered).

They also coordinate ‘other’ payments. A special operations team operating in hostile territory may offer financial payments to locals for intelligence and support. Such operations are run through the Department of Treasury’s OIA.13

While landing a job at the OIA won’t be easy, it’s worth the effort. There is great pay and benefits with about as much excitement as you can ask for with a career in finance. One way to increase your chances of getting hired at the OIA, without an inside track or connection, is with an advanced degree.

Many of the techniques taught in graduate-level Fraud Management programs would translate well to the OIA. They include relevant curriculum such as detecting cyber-crime, advanced interrogation techniques, surveillance, ethics, liabilities of business organizations, trade-based money laundering and economic analysis.

But since many fraudsters are one-step ahead of the law, it is imperative that any program you choose include the latest techniques and strategies in fraud prevention. Some universities will ensure this by partnering with major investigative or anti-money laundering AML associations. For example, New York’s Utica College offers an online MBA in Economic Crime and Fraud Management which has partnered with ACAMS, the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists.

And even if you don’t make it into the OIA, you’ll have a degree that’s in high demand (and well-paying) across a variety of industries. In the private sector, AML professionals have a median starting salary of $79,000.14 So step out of your comfort zone and consider a financial career within the U.S. intelligence agencies.

For more articles like this check out Financial Career Options Resources.