Entering college “undeclared” or choosing the wrong major can lead to more significant long-term debt and reduced odds of getting the job you want after graduation. In contrast, selecting the right major improves your chances of success both in college and after.
If you want to be involved in drug investigations and disrupting the drug trafficking that is prominent across the country, a career in the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) may be right for you.
Skills Needed to Become a DEA Agent
Because being an agent is a demanding career, the DEA enacts a thorough hiring process. Aspiring agents submit applications, undergo interviews by a panel of Special Agents, and perform several physical tasks. The whole process can take over 12 months to complete.
According to the DEA, prospective agents must fulfill a number of basic requirements to be eligible:
- Must be between 21 and 36 at the time of appointment
- Must be a United States citizen
- Able to obtain and keep a Top Secret clearance
- Possess a valid U.S. driver’s license
- Excellent physical health and condition
- Willing and able to handle firearms as needed
- Willing to relocate anywhere in the U.S. as needed
Before pursuing a spot in this federal agency, you must first have a certain amount of training and skills that prove you have what it takes to do the job. Experience and education requirements include:
- A bachelor’s degree or greater; or
- Closely-related, in-field criminal justice experience, which may include assisting law enforcement personnel, collecting data for criminal investigations, or presenting evidence in court; or
- A bachelor’s degree plus three years of significant work experience and special skills that would benefit you on the job. For example, the DEA prefers applicants with foreign language fluency.
Beyond the above requirements, DEA agents must have:
- Oral and written communication skills
- Attention to detail
- Sound memory
- Interpersonal skills
- The ability to work on a team
- Decision-making skills and good judgement
- Problem-solving skills
- Integrity and honesty
- Self-management skills
Though you may already have several of the listed skills, completing a postsecondary degree program can further hone them and help you practice the ones you don’t already have.
1. Criminal Justice
Criminal justice students gain an understanding of policing, the courts, and corrections. Studying criminal justice involves learning and employing research methods for criminological theory, criminology, and psychology as it relates to criminal behavior. In this field, you’ll learn how to help society operate safely and effectively.
Many of the courses you’ll take when studying criminal justice relate to criminology, psychology, sociology, and political science. Foundational courses include law enforcement problems, the American political system, introduction to criminal justice, and statistics for criminology. In later years, you’ll take advanced classes on topics like civil liberties, constitutional law, problems of corrections, contemporary criminological theory, crime and delinquency prevention, and courts and sentencing.
A criminal justice program teaches you several skills relevant to becoming a DEA agent.
- Ethics: As an agent, you’d be on the front line of upholding society’s basic ethical standards. Therefore, you must become well-versed in the law and commit to always acting ethically in making decisions.
- Written Communication: A surprising amount of criminal justice careers involve writing, so you must have strong communication skills.
- Verbal Communication: Likewise, agents speak to a lot of people in formal and informal situations. The ability to listen and convey information is essential to doing your job, especially when it comes to testimony and interviews.
2. Social Sciences
You’ll study human behavior and interactions with other humans and their surroundings in the social sciences. As a social science major, you will learn to integrate the diverse fields of psychology, sociology, history, geography, political science, international relations, and anthropology, providing a holistic view of human behavior that will serve you well in the DEA.
The social sciences are an integral part of any liberal arts education. This field investigates human behavior while helping you build problem-solving and analytical skills, both of which can be leveraged into a job with the DEA.
In the first two years, you’ll study several general education classes to gain a breadth of training for advanced courses. Most colleges require you to take math, communication, English, history, and the natural sciences. In addition, social science topics help you build critical thinking, making them a common choice as a general education requirement for most majors.
Students collect data to project trends, analyze texts to understand the meaning, and research social institutional changes in social science classes. Below are some essential skills you’ll gain from this degree program:
- Analytical Abilities: A social sciences degree emphasizes how to analyze multiple types of sources, including numerical data, written sources, and survey results. Students will conduct qualitative and quantitative analyses and reach conclusions based on their work, teaching them to make data-supported recommendations.
- Communication: Strong communication skills will benefit you in any field, including law enforcement. Social science students learn to communicate through writing and speech, emphasizing persuasive communication.
- Problem-Solving: Training in the social sciences sharpens your problem-solving ability as you learn to define problems, gather data, and reach data-driven conclusions.
- Critical Thinking: Finally, you’ll learn to synthesize your analytical and evaluation abilities to identify the most useful sources, question evidence, and discover patterns in the data.
Pre-law college degrees traditionally prepare aspiring lawyers for law school, often including an eclectic combination of social sciences and humanities classes. As an undergraduate, you may also have to attend seminars on specific areas of the law, such as constitutional law, as well as classes on topics like public policy, sociology, economics, or accounting.
Required Courses and Skills Learned
Even students who don’t intend to become lawyers can benefit from the skills gained through a pre-law program. Additionally, as a future DEA agent, it can help you understand the law you intend to defend. Although the exact courses you’ll need to take as a pre-law major depend on the institution, there are a few common topics that most students will have to take.
- Political Science: All DEA agents should understand the basics of government, so be sure to add a variety of political science courses to learn about politics and international relations.
- Philosophy: Students with a strong philosophy education perform better on the LSAT thanks to their knowledge of formal logic. The same is true for aspiring agents who will need logic on the job.
- Sociology: Understanding society is crucial for law enforcement, especially for agents engaging with the public. Sociology courses in ethnicity, gender, race, and education can give you essential tools to become a better officer.
- English: English courses heavy in academic reading and writing will teach you the skills needed to get through several obstacles you’ll come across in your DEA career.
- Public Speaking: As a DEA agent, you may one day be called to court to testify and present evidence collected for an arrest. Developing your public speaking skills will make this part of the job smoother.
4. Public Safety Leadership
Getting a degree in public safety leadership offers classes designed to help law enforcement persons transition into leadership positions. Depending on your institution, you’ll take courses covering foundational topics that build great leaders, teams, and organizations.
Public safety leadership provides an overview of organizational culture, adult human development, and the characteristics shared by effective teams. You’ll also learn how to integrate each of these topics to apply them effectively to public safety. Additionally, these classes will cover personal leadership styles and discuss common challenges to effective team building and leadership in public safety.
Required Courses and Skills Learned
Many public safety programs feature a similar range of courses, especially as you complete the first two years of general education requirements and start introducing yourself to the topic. You can expect more flexibility in designing your coursework in later years as you begin to advance in the major.
The following classes are commonly taught in public safety leadership degrees:
- Foundations of Public Safety Administration: In this class, you’ll receive an overview of approaches to public safety in a post-9/11 world, innovative solutions to challenges, ethical foundations, and public safety coordination.
- Community Relations Theory: A public safety service provider’s operations are more effective when the community positively perceives the organization, especially when it comes to law enforcement agencies. In this course, you’ll explore theories and best practices to community relations while learning how this interaction can impact funding through the political process.
- Public Finance: Whether you’re a DEA agent or end up in another public organization, your ability to serve your community depends on funds. This course provides an overview of financial management and procurement.
These days, getting a degree in Spanish can open lots of doors. Of course, fluency in a second language is excellent for any resume, but Spanish is spoken widely in the United States and has more possible applications in American law enforcement.
Majoring in Spanish will require a hefty amount of reading, studying, and rote vocabulary memorization and practice; it’s not an easy degree for anyone who doesn’t have any experience with the language. Additionally, you’ll constantly learn new vocabulary and need to incorporate it into sentences correctly to carry on a conversation with a native speaker effortlessly. Finally, you’ll be expected to become fluent in the language, gaining a working knowledge of standard terms, slang, and advanced technical expertise in other fields.
Spanish majors focus on four main areas:
- the culture and literature of Spain
- Latin American culture and literature
- Spanish-speaking communities in the United States
Through these classes, you’ll learn to read attentively, write more clearly, and communicate your ideas more effectively in both Spanish and English. Thanks to an insurgence of Spanish-speaking people in the United States, these skills are essential in law enforcement.
More and more, officers run into people who can only speak Spanish, and the solution is not as simple as telling them to speak English. Protecting the public means communicating with people, and learning Spanish can help agents achieve that.
Psychology majors examine the science of mental processes and human behavior, including the study of the brain, mind, and human social interactions. This degree touches on a wide range of psychology, such as cognitive, social, personality, social, and developmental.
No matter which field you specialize in, psychology is a skills-based major that prepares students for advanced degrees in psychology, law, and education. However, it is also a widely customizable major that you can apply to many careers, including law enforcement.
Introductory psychology courses typically include:
- general psychology
- research methods in psychology
- lab courses, such as psychology as a natural science
- statistical methods in psychology
General psychology classes cover the nature and history of psychology’s core fields and the relations between the brain and behavior. Lab courses give you experience designing experiments, conducting research, learning observation techniques, and analyzing data.
After meeting the prerequisite courses, students can enroll in advanced classes like learning and behavior, developmental psychology, social psychology, or drugs and behavior.
Aspiring DEA agents can gain several useful skills from a psychology major:
- Communication: You’ll learn to write and talk about complicated issues in detail. Additionally, students become familiar with concise writing within a pre-determined format as they complete practical reports.
- Problem-Solving: Psychology majors learn how to approach problems using various strategies and identify the steps needed to employ a solution.
- Critical Evaluation: You’ll learn to assess evidence and see it for what it really is.
Sociology majors focus on studying humans and exploring diversity in social interactions and behavior. In addition, students seek to understand the human perspective by investigating institutions and groups, such as families, religious sects, or race.
Sociology is a social science focused on studying individuals, groups, organizations, cultures, communities, and societies. For example, you’ll look at interactions as small as two strangers meeting at a coffee shop to massive behaviors involving globalization. In addition, students look at a range of historical interactions, including the present day.
Most sociology majors start with an introduction to the basic principles of analysis. Because students study societies throughout history and examine what went right and what went wrong in each situation, it is essential to know how to analyze information and gain valuable data from it. Therefore, foundational sociology courses focus on helping you develop your observation methods, research techniques, and means of establishing questionnaires and surveys.
Once you’ve built a foundation of research skills, you’ll apply these methods to study a population. For example, you might take a class on ethnic and race relations, drugs and crimes in society, family interactions, or sex and gender, each of which can provide valuable insight for a future DEA agent.
Aspiring DEA agents can gain valuable skills in the sociology major, including:
- Communication: Being able to express yourself in verbal and written form is useful in any career.
- Interpersonal: You’ll learn how to work cooperatively as well as share leadership and responsibility. Law enforcement agencies seek applicants who can work on tasks forces but also initiate ideas and independently pursue projects.
- Leadership: Being able to motivate others to achieve their best is always a plus to employers. You’ll develop tenacity and tolerance for risk-taking and how to function in undefined situations.
- Cross-cultural understanding: Aspiring DEA agents should have an understanding of ethnic, racial, and gender differences and perceptions.
A communications degree focuses on effectively communicating through various mediums in a wide range of fields, including law enforcement, journalism, business, law, and politics. By studying this major, you’ll learn how to research and analyze information and cogently communicate with others verbally and in written form.
Communications majors take courses in research strategies, public speaking, theory, journalism, writing, and rhetoric. Additionally, they’ll take several elective courses and hone in on a chosen area of specialization in later years. The required courses vary depending on the institution and field of focus, but common ones include:
- Introduction to Communications
- Public Speaking
- Interpersonal Communications
- Media and Mass Communication
- Politics and Communication
- Computer-Mediated Communication
Law enforcement personnel must have interpersonal skills to communicate with their supervisors, peers, community members, subordinates, private organizations, and the courts. The ability to communicate effectively is especially crucial when investigating a crime, building trust in the community, de-escalating a situation, writing crime reports, and for those who want to assume leadership roles in law enforcement.
It’s no secret that community mistrust in law enforcement is rising throughout the country. In response, police departments have focused on de-escalating strategies when making arrests and otherwise interacting with the community. Learning to communicate with different populations isn’t easy, but studying for a communications degree can help.
Philosophy majors contemplate ideas that humankind has pondered for centuries, confronting questions about morality, free will, consciousness, and much more. Students study past approaches to major topics and learn how to develop their own ideas, making them well-positioned to apply critical thinking in law enforcement.
When you study philosophy, you develop several skills directly applicable to careers in law enforcement:
- Critical Reasoning: You’ll learn the key issues in decision-making and how to link related problems together and evaluate evidence.
- Communication: You’ll learn to understand different points of view and how to convey information to others.
- Information Management: The ability to organize complex information is invaluable in law enforcement.
- Management and Administration: Likewise, being able to set priorities and identify useful resources will help you in your career in the DEA.
10. Emergency Medical Services
Training as an EMT may not seem like an intuitive choice for a prospective DEA agent, but medical training can help you become a better officer.
Police are often the first to respond to an emergency, arriving minutes or more before paramedics do. Sometimes, those emergencies require help from someone with emergency medical experience. Additionally, an officer can also be hurt in the line of duty. Therefore, knowing how to treat those injuries can make you incredibly valuable to the DEA.
Most areas of law enforcement require some basic medical training, but studying emergency medical services puts you several steps ahead of the police academy class.
Common Courses and Skills Learned
Emergency medical training includes courses on assessing a patient’s condition, dealing with blood loss, first response treatment, emergency childbirth, administering bandages, and managing respiratory emergencies. This training will help you:
- Strengthen your background check and DEA application
- Stand out when applying to law enforcement by exceeding training requirements
- Improve your odds of becoming a DEA agent
- Deliver assistance to fellow officers before the ambulance arrives
- Train for chaotic situations
- Understand public safety radio procedure