How to Write a Stand-Out Intelligence Resume
The Intelligence profession is nothing without skilled and dedicated employees. Whether it’s a small operation, a large three-letter agency, or an advanced technical center surrounded by data-mining and visualization tools, it’s the abilities of each individual that make these organizations successful.
Bringing people into an intelligence organization or operation requires a hiring and selection process similar to any other business. However, there are several unique aspects to the hiring process for intelligence jobs that you need to know. Above all, your resume is the most important factor in getting selected for that new job.
During my 14 years as a program manager in both a mid-size and large defense contracting company, I filled many intelligence positions and evaluated several thousand intelligence-specific resumes. Today’s recruiters and full-time hiring managers are looking at even more resumes every year, so it’s important to make yours stand out.
Resumes are written representations of you – they are your advertisement, your advocate, and your story on paper. That story needs to effectively sell you as an intelligence professional within the first few seconds of someone reviewing it.
When you’re writing your resume for an intelligence job, it can help to understand the hiring process and how your resume is treated once you’ve sent it off. Openings for intelligence jobs could be advertised individually, such as when a position is vacated and has an immediate fill requirement, or en masse, when an entire contract is competed, with several positions up for grabs. Multiple openings are primarily found in defense contracting positions.
In both cases, when the employer identifies the need to fill a position, they will start advertising for new candidates and combine the resumes they receive with those they already have on hand. Once your resume is collected, you are now part of a pool of candidates the employer is trying to winnow down to the best few or one. The typical hiring process follows these steps:
- Collection – Resumes are gathered through various sources
- Screening – First cursory look for key elements required for the position
- Evaluation – A more detailed look at your resume in direct comparison to others
- Interview – Verification that you are as competent as your resume says you are
- Negotiation – Includes salary, location, responsibilities, and work environment
- Award – Congratulations (sometimes contingent on contract award)
[Related: Four Ways to Start an Intelligence Career]
If your prospective employer is a small business, these hiring steps will probably be conducted by a few people or only one person from start to finish. Most mid- to large-sized companies turn to teams of recruiters, meaning several different eyes will be looking at your resume throughout the process. These people may include permanent hiring managers, potential supervisors or department heads, but each of them will be looking at your resume in a different way and trying to pull different things from it.
Employers quickly sift through hundreds of resumes early in the process so they can identify those that were either collected in error or those that could be easily disqualified after a cursory look. While many employers go through resumes manually, the growing trend is for resumes to go through an electronic data-mining process.
This is where algorithms written by job search sites, and used by recruiters and hiring teams, will search and pick out relevant resumes that contain pre-determined keywords. For Intelligence jobs, these search terms can get pretty specific. For example, while you may have a lot of experience as a Geospatial Analyst, if you don’t include the key terms associated with a GEOINT job, your resume could be missed by the software.
Once collected, the first two gates your resume must pass through are the screening and evaluation steps.
For most intelligence contracts with the government, resumes are screened based on government specifications that follow three criteria:
- Years of experience
- Clearance requirements
Hiring teams will initially screen resumes by those three criteria alone. For example, if a senior analyst position calls for Top Secret clearance and either 8 years of experience and a master’s degree or 12 years and a bachelor degree, they will quickly look for those items in their batch of resumes and toss out any that don’t clearly show you have those three items. The time it takes to screen and disqualify a resume takes seconds.
Resumes that survive the screening process then get a more detailed look, possibly by a different person altogether who knows more about what type of person the position needs. This is when your specific level of experience matters in terms of past duties performed, technical tools used, and certifications you may have.
In this step, resumes are evaluated and then racked and stacked in order of preference using a variety of rating methods so only the most promising candidates are contacted. Sometimes they will even assign some sort of system of grading or ranking resumes (like 1-5 stars, etc.) so someone else can pick up where they left off. For example, after the pile has been narrowed down, it could then be passed to the program manager to make the determination of who to contact.
To help you get your resume through the screening and evaluation steps, here are some resume tips based on what I’ve seen over the years. Besides the obvious tips like spell correctly and don’t use profanity, etc., here are my top five Dos and Don’ts for polishing up your intelligence resume.
- Put the Three Critical Items up Front: Clearly show your education, years of experience and clearance level at the top of the first page of your resume. If this information is hard to find, you run the risk of getting disqualified by a careless screener.
- Add Up Your Years of Experience: Include the length of time you spent at each of your past positions. Hiring teams will need to add up your time to ensure that you have the requisite number of years of experience for the baseline requirements of certain positions. Include both the start and ending month and date for each position. You can even include the length of time (e.g. 3 years, 4 months) to make it easier for hiring personnel to add your time up. As a warning, this could backfire if you either have a huge unexplained gap in your professional career or you have so many short stints in different positions you’ve just labeled yourself as a job surfer to your prospective employer.
- Include Certifications and Other Qualifications: Besides the top three criteria listed above, the hiring team will often be looking for specific sets of experience. These could be demonstrated with courses, certifications, and experience with certain data-mining tools. Be sure to include all tools that you can competently use on day-one of the job. Don’t list tools you have only seen a couple of times because you will be called on to use them and removed quickly if you can’t perform. List certificates, training courses, or any commendations, awards, or professional affiliations relevant to the position.
- Add Personality Items: If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I would have gotten that position if they only knew who I was as a person,” your resume failed to tell your story. As a document, your resume must portray who you are beyond sterile professional information. It’s okay to list items like hobbies, side-work, or interests to help the reader see a real-person. These interests need to be positive. For example, letting the employer know you’re into triathlons or volunteer work at the local shelter. I’ve always given deference to Eagle Scouts or Girls Scout with their Silver, Gold, or Silver Trefoil Award. On the other hand, no one cares that you’ve just hit your 6th prestige in the latest Call of Duty game. Each of these items will help the reader to associate your name with something memorable like Joshua the Dog Rescuer or Heather the Swim Instructor.
- Brag, Brag, Brag: Your resume is your only advocate in the initial stages of a job search. You have to argue for yourself through your writing. If you are a humble person by nature (a good quality), you will be at a disadvantage if that humbleness makes it onto your resume. Many intel professionals have done some incredible and superlative things in previous jobs but hiring teams, especially those who don’t have a similar background, won’t pick that up from a wallflower resume. Include every great thing about yourself that is a) true and b) relevant to the work. Perhaps the best place to do this is in an experience summary or bio paragraph. If you don’t have one in your current resume, you are presenting yourself as a series of different positions. Let your future employer know you’re ready to put on your fedora and grab your whip for them and don’t be shy about how you avoided that big rolling ball in a previous job.
- Don’t try to “Civilianize” your Resume. Meaning, don’t try to convert all of your military or law enforcement experience into something you think a civilian hiring team would better understand. I know many transition briefings will tell you do this, but I disagree. If you were a Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (otherwise known as an NCOIC), just spell it out. A large majority of hiring, program, and capture managers come will understand what an NCOIC is over something like a “supervisory manager for daily operations” or some other generic description you tried to use as an equivalent. When you over-civilianize your resume you run the risk of either under-stating the importance of the position or have hiring teams think you’re either embellishing or hiding something.
- Don’t Worry about Page Count: Most resumes that are selected for competitive work have to be reworked by your prospective employer to fit the format of a company’s proposal to the government. Better to have more information for them to draw from than to leave them scrambling to fill the space because you were trying to be succinct when you wrote it. It requires a lot of extra effort to track you down and trust that you can send them additional information in time for that section of their proposal to be completed. If it’s too much trouble, your resume gets tossed for another one that has all the required information right there. Just don’t over-do it; 3-5 pages are fine.
- Don’t Avoid Discussing Clearance or Classified Jobs: Just because you spent time in a covered or black program doesn’t mean you need to leave a gaping hole in your resume. You can include the fact you worked in a classified environment without discussing items that are classified. For example if you worked in a Special Access Program, just include it and explain your role in a way that doesn’t compromise security protocols. Be sure to check and double check what you’ve written with any classification guidance. You can also contact the associated security manager if you’re not sure. You can talk about what you did; you just have to do it in a way that the reader will understand without violating any regulations.
- Don’t Use too many Acronyms or Abbreviations: Government, law enforcement, military, intelligence, and cyber communities all use abbreviations and acronyms. However, don’t overuse them for the sake of cramming information into a smaller page count. If you do end up using an acronym, spell it out the first time. This also goes for using too many abbreviations. Shortening your title from Strategic Planner to something shorter risks confusing or misleading the reader. And never ever abbreviate analyst or analysis in order to save space.
- Don’t Include a Salary Requirement: Most hiring managers already have a limited salary range to work with based on contract requirements and pricing strategies. Unless you are a fantastic psychic or gambler, putting your salary requirements on your resume is a huge risk. If your number is too high, you resume will simply be tossed, usually with a derisive laugh. If it’s too low, you’ve signaled to less scrupulous companies that you can be taken advantage of. Either way you’ve already tipped your hand prior to salary negotiations, provided you were lucky enough to even make it that far in the process.
While subsequent steps of the hiring process, including the job interview and negotiations process, are also critical for landing an intelligence job, that first relies on your resume getting you through the door. Knowing how to conduct yourself in an interview won’t matter if your resume can’t outshine the competition. Intel job hunters work in a pretty specific world, but the method of landing a new intel job works like the rest of the job market. Your intelligence resume should be bold, accurate, and argue for you better than a celebrity lawyer would.
About the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Business Development in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife and two children.