Security Clearances

Please note that federal IT jobs usually require 'Secret', 'Top Secret', or 'Top Secret-SCI' clearances. Secret requirements vary widely, and 'Top Secret' is the one that most program participants have been required to attain, so it will be discussed here. Depending upon your foreign travel, number of residences, and how many times you are required to take the polygraph, the process generally takes from 5-9 months once you have been made a conditional offer. Some processes in exceptional cases have taken as long as a year and a half. The following are factors that affect an applicant's ability to attain a 'Top Secret' security clearance

  1. Drug usage. This does not automatically disqualify an applicant, but they will look at how many times a drug was used, what kind it was, how recently it was used, and whether the applicant ever sold drugs.
  2. Registration for the selective service. If you are a male, you must have registered for the selective service.
  3. Foreign travel and country of citizenship. If you have traveled extensively to countries which do not have friendly relationships to the United States, that may affect you ability to attain a clearance. This is looked at on a case by case basis. If you claim dual citizenship, you may be required to denounce citizenship of the non-US country.
  4. Relationship to foreign nationals. If your parent, sibling, spouse, or co-habitant is not a U.S. citizen, they may have to become one as a condition of your clearance process.
  5. Debt problems and failure to repay student loans. If you have poor credit, delinquencies, or have ever defaulted on a student loan, you may not be able to get a clearance. Debt itself is not necessarily a disqualifier (as long as you pay your bills.)
  6. Criminal history and convictions. If you have ever committed a felony, that will probably affect your clearance process. Misdemeanors committed within the last 10 years (or back to your 18th birthday in some agencies) may not affect your clearance, but should definitely be disclosed.
  7. Military history. If you have been dishonorably discharged from the military or had actions taken against you while in a position of trust, this may affect your ability to attain a clearance.
  8. Past security clearances. If you have had clearances in the past, that may positively or negatively (they have to verify past clearances, which may be time consuming) affect your process. If you have had clearances, make sure to get all available supporting documentation to expedite the process.
  9. Association to groups that want to violently overthrow the government. Hey, if you have ever tried to violently overthrow the government or belonged to a group that wanted to do so, you are probably in the wrong program. This is likely to disqualify you.
  10. Mental health history and alcohol abuse history. If you have had mental health issues or have been treated for alcohol abuse, this information needs to be disclosed during the background process.
  11. The responses of your past co-workers, verification of residences, verification of education. The investigators will visit your schools, residences, and workplaces to verify your character and location during your past.
  12. Ability to pass a drug test, polygraph verification of responses, and psychological battery. You will be tested in these manners to verify the truthfulness of your answers.

Please note that the evaluation criteria listed here are merely intended to provide a basic foundation of the factors that will be considered in determination of suitability for employment. These factors vary by agency and it is your responsibility to make sure that you are eligible for a clearance. The standard form, SF-86, is linked in the 'more links' section. It is in Acrobat form-filler format so that you can fill it out with your computer. Please note that it cannot be saved with Acrobat reader, so you can print it once it has been filled out, but not store the information you have entered. It is strongly recommended that you make copies, as it is a lengthy process to fill it out even once.

A few words on the polygraph

Honesty is the best policy. If your past includes some... indiscretions, you are much more likely to successfully get a clearance if you are honest up front. For instance, if you used marijuana once in high school, admitting that will probably not disqualify you. However, if you lie about it, they will almost certainly find out about it and your process will end quickly.

Many (seemingly honest) people end up having to retake the polygraph examination and then pass it on the second or third try, so make sure that you have a clear conscience when you go to take it. Each review of the test takes 1-2 months, so having to retake the exam is likely to delay your process.

The questions asked vary depending upon whether you are given a 'lifestyle' poly, a counterespionage poly, or both. In general, agencies such as the NSA and FBI ask questions from both realms during a single polygraph session. The DOJ, on the other hand, may not ask for a poly at all (but they still go through all the other motions inherent in an intensive background investigation.)

The lifestyle poly is mostly just a verification of your statements on the SF-86 form with little variation. Don't think they'll miss some omitted items or half truths- you are likely to be asked multiple times during your examination if you were truthful on the form, and a guilty conscience will probably make you sweat in the hot seat.

The counterespionage poly seeks to determine if you have ever given away classified information before (which you could not possibly have done unless you already held a clearance and had access to such information) or intend to pursue actions against the United States using the privelaged access which would be granted by employment. No trick questions here.

OK, so in summary, the way to reduce your stress level about the polygraph is...

  1. Be honest on your SF-86 and don't have committed a felony (even if not caught).
  2. Don't be a terrorist who wants to do bad things to the U.S.

It is absolutely straightforward. If you fulfill aforementioned requirements 1 & 2, you will pass through without a problem. Good luck!

*Please note that other factors may also factor into your ability to attain a clearance.