All applicants who accept offers for federal jobs must undergo a basic background investigation that — with some variation according to the opening — is designed to ensure that that they have no glaring deal-breakers in their backgrounds, such as legal problems.
But more and more jobs with federal agencies and government contractors are requiring security clearances that involve more exhaustive investigations than basic background investigations. A security clearance is an authorization to a fed or contractor to access classified materials needed to do a particular job.
You cannot apply for a security clearance yourself. To obtain a security clearance you must work for an agency or contractor that requests a security clearance for you because your job requires access to classified information.
The main types of clearances are:
Confidential: Provides access to information or material that may cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.
Secret: Provides access to information or material that may cause serious damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.
Top secret: Provides access to information or material that may cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.
Sensitive compartmented information: Provides access to intelligence information and material that may require controls for restricted handling within compartmented channels.
Some jobs are open only to applicants who already possess security clearances. But other openings are open to applicants who don’t have security clearances but would be expected to qualify for them. In government lingo, such applicants are called “clearable.” Offers to clearable selectees are usually made on a contingency basis, i.e. the job offer is not solid until the selectee passes his security investigation, and will be rescinded if he fails the investigation.
If you receive a contingency offer, remember that your new job is not a done deal until you pass your security clearance. Even if you consider your record squeaky clean, your job offer may be rescinded if snags are unexpectedly uncovered or if other problems unrelated to your background, such as unanticipated budget woes in your target agency, kill your deal.
The higher a job is up the security clearance ladder, the more exhaustive its associated background investigation will be. But all investigations for security clearances require applicants to complete Standard Form 86, which is accessible on the Office of Personnel Management website, www.opm.gov. Investigations also include interviews with the applicant, the applicant’s current and former friends, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, psychologists and psychiatrists; medical examinations to ensure the applicant’s medical and mental fitness; checks of the applicant’s travel history, foreign contacts, current and previous residences, academic records, military record, credit history, court and police records, employment history; and a polygraph test.
Depending on your target job and employer, you might need a security clearance to advance. Also, feds and contractors possessing clearances of “secret” and above are generally more marketable and generally earn significantly higher salaries than their counterparts whose jobs don’t require security clearances.
What types of jobs require clearances? Jobs addressing financial management, scientific research, diplomacy, defense, auditing, law enforcement and intelligence are most likely to require security clearances. Indeed, virtually everyone who works for the FBI — even administrative assistants — must pass security clearances.
Also, certain types of jobs are particularly likely to require security clearances — such as human resources personnel who access staffers’ personnel information, accountants who access confidential financial information, auditors who access legal information, and information technology professionals who access secure systems, to name just a few.