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How You Can Get Top Secret Clearance

If your goal is to work in government, you need security clearance especially if you work in IT. You’re responsible for public (or not so public) data, and you need to be trusted with highly sensitive information. While background checks are standard in most private sector jobs, they are much more extensive for government positions. Here is some guidance for obtaining government clearance.

Start with a Non-Classified Job

The best way to get a security clearance is to get a government job, but they can be hard to land. With that said, the government (and its contractors) is in dire need of people with certain technical skill sets. That means if you have the experience and the certifications to get one of these jobs, then you’ll get a clearance (or at least start the process when you accept a job offer).

Alternately, you can start with a lower-level unclassified government job and get promoted into higher positions that require a higher level of classification.

While you’re gaining the experience you need to land the government job, you might also want to avoid getting into any situations that would cause blips on your record — like accruing debt, or even minor run-ins with the law.

Starting the Process

Every government employee undergoes a background check, but employees handling sensitive information are required to fill out an SF-86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions — a 123-page form that logs.

The form isn’t actually as bad as it sounds. The Office of Personnel Management has a few tips on how to prepare ahead of filling out the form, including collecting your employment, education, residency, and foreign travel history for the past 10 years. If you’ve moved, traveled, or changed employers a lot, it can be a tedious process, but that’s all covered in the first 40 pages or so. The other 80 pages are questions like this:

  • Have you ever held political office in a foreign country?
  • Have you ever knowingly engaged in activities designed to overthrow the U.S. Government by force?
  • In the last seven (7) years have you illegally or without proper authorization accessed or attempted to access any information technology system?

Provided you haven’t, um, attempted to overthrow any sovereign powers, then it’s just a long list to which you’ll be checking “No” without further explanation necessary. If you think something in your past might be questionable, you can contact a lawyer to possibly have it expunged.

Understanding the Different Clearance Types

Before you determine where you want your career to go, you should understand the four types of security clearance. Understanding these clearance levels help you evaluate where you want to apply within the government.

Confidential. This is the first and basic type of clearance. Nearly every government employee has this level of clearance. In fact, you’ll need this clearance to even get your .gov email address. Because you’ll be in charge of data and IT systems, you’ll probably start off at the next higher clearance level — secret.

Secret. This next level of clearance indicates that the information you have access to could cause detrimental harm to national security. The process for obtaining a secret clearance is a little more involved than the confidential process. After you fill out your SF-86, you should expect investigators to call your references and former employers. You can expect scrutiny over outstanding debts, criminal convictions, or suspicious foreign travel. Secret clearance is reevaluated every 10 years.

Top Secret. It’s highly unlikely that you’d start off at this clearance level, but you can eventually work up to this level as you continue to be promoted in your job. For your secret clearance, they’ll be looking deep into your financials and seeking out any criminal history. For top secret, you should expect investigators to contact your references, former employees, professors, and even neighbors. This level isn’t given unless you have a clean background as determined by a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). It indicates that you have access to data that could cause grave damages to national security if leaked. It’s reevaluated every five years.

Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). Being the top level of security clearance, this clearance level provides access to all intelligence information and material that require special controls for restricted handling within compartmented channels. To obtain this level of clearance, you should expect an investigation into your past similar to the secret clearance — with one big exception. You’ll certainly be interviewed and polygraphed. Any inconsistencies or coverage gaps will be scrutinized in this interview, and the polygraph will be used to cross-check the answers you gave to key questions. It’s a long process, but in the end, you’ll have the highest security clearance available.

Be Honest with Your Answers

Here’s the single biggest piece of advice about this process: Be honest when you fill out your SF-86. In addition to being honest, be thorough. Insufficient or inconsistent information will extend the amount of time for you to obtain clearance.

Because the level of clearance and background checks can take time, obtaining clearance can sometimes take up to six months. Basic clearance can take only 1-2 days, and secret clearance can take about 2-4 weeks. The faster you fill out your forms and the most detailed and honest that you answer questions will also determine the speed at which you obtain clearance and start your government job.


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