The Top 3 Job Requirements For a Homeland Security Career

Industry Advice Political Science & Security

Individuals interested in a career in homeland security have myriad options. At the national level, the Department of Homeland Security has an estimated 260,000 employees, 35,000 employees work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and another 69,000 are employed by the Department of State. Many other homeland security careers are available with state, local, or tribal government agencies, as well as with large private-sector organizations such as banks or transportation firms.

Homeland security professionals have a wide range of job responsibilities depending on their work environment or the geographic area they serve. Some may focus on front-line disaster or emergency response, while others may gather intelligence to help plan counter-terrorism missions or specialize in cybersecurity defense. Some may look for man-made threats, whether it’s criminal activities or hazardous materials, while others may monitor natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

You may think that homeland security job listings come with a long list of requirements or skills, but that’s actually not the case, according to John Terpinas, professor of the practice and lead faculty for Northeastern’s Security and Intelligence Studies program and a 21-year veteran of the FBI.

“Homeland security organizations are looking more for the right people than the right skills,” Terpinas says. That’s because the technical skills required to get the job done can vary tremendously based on an agency’s needs. One agency or mission may need individuals who can speak fluent Arabic, while another could need helicopter pilots, he noted. Setting specific requirements for technical skills could limit an agency’s ability to find the right people.

In addition, as with other industries, it’s also valuable for homeland securities organizations to recruit and hire individuals from diverse personal and professional backgrounds. Someone with a degree in philosophy, for example, will approach a problem differently than someone with a degree in criminal justice or international relations, Terpinas says. Both perspectives are important: “Otherwise, everyone is going to talk the same way or think the same way.”

3 Essential Homeland Security Job Requirements 

According to Terpinas, there are three key traits that homeland security agencies look for when they are hiring: A sense of duty, leadership, and problem-solving skills. 

1. A Sense of Duty

Many students earn degrees with concentrations such as criminal justice, counterterrorism, international relations, or cybersecurity, but that alone isn’t reason enough for them to pursue a career in homeland security. 

“Most people in this field have a desire to do something bigger than themselves,” Terpinas says. “That’s what draws them in. It’s not just the degree.” Individuals who want to have a firsthand role in keeping their community and country safe will stand out during the application and interview process, he noted. 

2. Leadership

One area of emphasis for Terpinas and Northeastern’s security and intelligence program is developing leadership skills. Public agencies, as well as private employers, are increasingly looking for individuals who can take on a leadership role in any given situation, whether it’s data analysis or incident response. 

The important part of assuming that role is knowing when to lead, Terpinas says. “You need to be able to think on your feet. Some days, you need to be a leader. Some days, you need to be a team player. Some days, you need to be an independent worker. That’s a character trait that not everyone can develop.”

3. Problem-Solving 

At the times when homeland security professionals need to be independent workers, problem-solving and critical thinking skills are an important part of the job, Terpinas says. “We’re trying to develop leaders in the security field who can search out and find answers to difficult problems themselves—who can work on teams but also work without supervision.”

Terpinas gives the example of a driver who keeps getting a flat tire. The driver could continue to change the tire—or they could try to figure out what’s causing the flat tire in the first place so it stops happening altogether. 

Additional Homeland Security Job Requirements

While a sense of duty, leadership, and problem-solving skills are valuable qualities for all homeland security professionals, there are some basic requirements for specific roles.

For homeland security roles with the federal government, job requirements fall into two categories: eligibility and qualifications.

Eligibility means that potential applicants fit into a specific group from which the agency wants to hire. Some jobs may be open only to current or former federal employees or only to U.S. citizens. Other roles, such as agents working in the field, may have physical fitness requirements or age limits for first-time applicants. In addition, applicants for certain homeland security jobs may be ineligible if they have been convicted of a felony, defaulted on a loan, or failed to file tax returns. 

Qualifications refer to work experience, skills, level of education, and overall knowledge of the field. For example, applicants may be required to have previous experience in law enforcement or a master’s degree related to homeland security

The federal government will consider eligibility requirements first and separate applicants who don’t meet the criteria. Once eligibility has been determined, the hiring agency will look at applicants’ qualifications. Applicants for certain roles will be required to pass a background check and a drug test.

To help applicants understand this range of homeland security job requirements, the federal government has mapped out hiring paths to help students, veterans, federal employees, members of the public, and other groups see what types of roles they are eligible to apply for.

At the state and local level, and for private firms, homeland security job requirements vary depending on a potential employer’s specific needs. 

Common Types of Homeland Security Roles

While the standard image of a homeland security professional may be an agent in uniform, there are many types of roles that fill a variety of needs. 

The Department of Homeland Security divides its agencies into five mission areas:

  • Law enforcement includes agencies such as the Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These roles focus on protecting individual members of the government as well as national borders and critical infrastructure. 
  • Immigration and travel security includes the Transportation Security Administration as well as Citizenship and Immigration Services. These agencies protect transportation networks and ports of entry and oversee immigration into the U.S. 
  • Prevention and response includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard. These agencies prepare for, respond to, and mitigate the impact of natural and man-made disasters on the public, the economy, and the environment, 
  • Mission support includes the Office of Inspector General as well as executive and management departments that support other agencies within DHS.
  • Cybersecurity focuses on incident detection and response and commonly works in conjunction with other federal agencies. 

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a range of jobs that include special agents (based at headquarters as well as in 56 field offices across the country) along with specialized roles in information technology, forensic analysis, and victim support. 

At a state and local level, homeland security professionals fill a variety of roles. In addition to law enforcement and public safety positions, individuals with experience and education in homeland security may work for emergency management, public health, infectious disease management, or hazardous material management agencies. 

Finally, many private-sector organizations—especially those that operate on a global scale— employ homeland security professionals. These individuals may serve as security agents who protect employees working in hazardous or dangerous situations, or they may monitor criminal activity such as money laundering, smuggling, or fraud that directly impacts their company.

Advance Your Homeland Security Career

Earning a Master of Arts in Security and Intelligence Studies from Northeastern University prepares students for leadership roles in the field of homeland security. Our curriculum will help homeland security professionals develop skills in critical thinking and analysis while also emphasizing the importance of partnership in pursuit of a common goal.

Explore our program page to learn more about the homeland security program and prepare to take the next step in your career.

Editor’s note: This article was originally written in 2021 and has since been updated for relevancy and accuracy.