So, you just found out that you’re going to need a security clearance to start that internship you landed with the federal government.


You can’t help but think of that one time in college when you imbibed vodka cranberries a bit too freely, and now you’re worried the outcomes of that evening will come back to bite you in a dark room with sensors taped to your temples facing a mind-reading federal agent in Men-in-Black-esque shades.

“They’re not looking for a perfect person, but they are looking for an honest person,” said Matt Myers, associate director of employer and alumni engagement for George Mason University’s career services.

A few years ago, Myers and his team realized that the path to a cleared job, which is especially popular in the Capitol region for its allure, stability and prestige, isn’t always obvious, and that both students and employers could benefit from a sort of “runway” to security clearances instead of just initiating that process once a young jobseeker has left college.

That idea became GMU’s Clearance Ready Program, which doesn’t provide clearances but does help demystify the process and give students a sense of what to expect from it and how they can be prepared.

For one, it offers a reality check: the process is not instantaneous and students in search of a job need to be prepared for it to take weeks or months for a clearance, though the times have shortened post-pandemic and since the government has sought to reform the way it renews clearances.

It takes, on average, 54 days for a secret clearance and 83 days for a top secret, per a 2021 report from the Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council.

“What we’re hearing from a lot of our employers, especially on the intern side, is that they’re able to push some interns through within eight weeks or so if they have a relatively easy background check,” Myers said. “So things are speeding up [and] moving faster, but I would still advise any student to be able to plan for a long process and be pleasantly surprised if it’s quicker.”

Clearance = Money

What employers know and what students may not realize is that security clearances equal money.

First, it means money for companies who sponsor a job candidate’s clearance for them. That’s another thing to know: you as the applicant do not pay for all the questionnaires, background checks and investigations required to verify your eligibility.

“We’ve heard from organizations that putting somebody through for a clearance can cost the company upward of $30,000 depending on how complicated the clearance might be,” said Myers. “So if you already have one and the company doesn’t have to spend $30,000 to get you in the door, they’re gonna probably look at you first before somebody who doesn’t have a clearance already.”

The average salary increase for the cleared workforce in 2022 was 7%. If you’re clearance also requires a polygraph, that can further boost pay by $20,000, according to a report by ClearanceJobs.

And clearances are not just reserved for those in high-level positions; over half of the total cleared population earns a six-figure salary, ClearanceJobs reports. Myers said his team encourages students to go after an internship program that will net them a clearance because it makes them “far more” competitive when they graduate.

It’s a good thing to have if students are interested in government or national security work, but they should also be aware that going down this career path necessitates a certain lifestyle, Myers said.

This may require routine financial disclosures, reporting contact with foreign contacts, being extra careful with government computers and cellphones or being required to work in person at a secure location.

Pot precaution

That also means holding off on other things that might be sanctioned in private life but won’t fly as a government employee — like recreational use of marijuana.

There have been some fledgling efforts to prevent marijuana use from disqualifying an applicant from a clearance or employment but none of them have completely removed that from consideration.

“Every year, qualified and dedicated individuals seeking to serve our country are unable to secure federal jobs and security clearances because the federal government has not caught up with the widely established legal use of medical and recreational cannabis,” said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, who introduced a bipartisan bill on the issue in July.

And in 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a memo that “disregard of federal law pertaining” marijuana use may be still relevant to a candidate’s file, but “not determinative” of eligibility.

Generally speaking, there are three “buckets” of security clearances: confidential, secret and top secret. And many applicants will also fill out the SF-86, a standard form that aids agencies in initiating a background check. (You can view what that form looks like here.)

“They’re going to ask you about your travels, your family, your finances, your activities at college, who your friends are, where they work,” he said. “Get ready and comfortable to answer those questions and answer them as honestly as you possibly can.”

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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