Career / Career Progression

How You Can Get Top Secret Clearance

by Team Nuggets
How You Can Get Top Secret Clearance picture: A
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Published on April 9, 2018

1. Start with a Non-Classified Job

The best way to get a security clearance is to get a government job, but these can be hard to land. That said, the government (and its contractors) desperately need people with certain technical skill sets.

That means if you have the experience and the certifications to get one of these jobs, you'll get a clearance (or at least start the process when you accept a job offer).

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

2. 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 their work.

The form isn't as bad as it sounds. The Office of Personnel Management has a few tips on how to prepare before filling it out, 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 tedious, but that's covered in the first 40 pages. 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?

  • Have you illegally or without proper authorization accessed or attempted to access any information technology system in the last seven (7) years?

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 have it expunged.

3. Understanding the Different Clearance Types

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


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


This next level of clearance indicates that the information you have access to could cause detrimental harm to national security. The secret clearance process 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 doubtful that you'd start at this clearance level, but you can eventually work up to this level as you continue to be promoted. For your secret clearance, they'll look deep into your financials and seek out any criminal history.

For top secret, you should expect investigators to contact your references, former employees, professors, and 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 damage to national security if leaked. It's reevaluated every five years.

Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)

The top level of security clearance provides access to all intelligence information and material requiring unique 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 undoubtedly be interviewed and polygraphed. Any inconsistencies or coverage gaps will be scrutinized in this interview, and the polygraph will be used to cross-check your answers 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 most significant advice about this process: Be honest and thorough when you fill out your SF-86. Insufficient or inconsistent information will extend the time you have to obtain clearance.

Because the level of clearance and background checks can take time, obtaining clearance can sometimes take up to six months. Essential 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 more detailed and honest you answer questions, the quicker you will obtain clearance and start your government job.

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 need to be trusted with susceptible 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.


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