Global Policy Studies & International Security LBJ School

Parsing the Dept. of State’s Security Clearance Process

Photo: (cc) Shashi Bellamkonda Social Media Swami Network Solutions

Crook Fellow Michael Deegan is based this summer in the Office of the Coordinator of Assistance to Europe and Eurasia with the State Department in Washington D.C., and shares his experiences and advice on the State Dept.’s security clearance process:

I couldn’t believe it. After all but giving up and starting a last-minute alternative internship search, interviewing, and deciding between several offers, an email appeared in my inbox last week: “You have been granted your security clearance to work at the Department of State this summer.”

The security clearance process is integral to doing an internship or pursuing a career in the Department of State. With it, you are a valuable candidate for future employment. Without it, the doors to U.S. Government work are closed to you (until you get it). After working abroad for a number of years and beginning my studies at the LBJ school of Public Affairs, I felt primed and ready for DoS work. However, last summer, despite being offered an internship with DoS, I was not able to go. I spent the summer waiting for my background investigation to be complete, and it never was. In August, I received an email from DoS saying that the investigation simply took too long and the process was stopped. I was disappointed, but being a dual degree student at LBJ, I had another summer, and remained hopeful.

What does the security clearance process look like?

In order for the DoS to do their best to ensure the protection of classified or sensitive information, they screen new hires or interns, to make sure they are trustworthy. Basically, this involves, a long questionnaire, a face-to-face interview with a Diplomatic Security Investigator, and a lot of waiting. As an applicant, you must first be offered a position: only then you will start your security clearance background investigation.

Once you have completed the above steps, the information is sent to trained security clearance adjudicators and evaluated according to set adjudicative guidelines. The amount of time this background investigation takes depends on the background information that is presented. Sometimes, other investigators will get in touch with your contacts–both foreign and domestic–in order to validate the information you have presented about yourself. If you have a clean record and have not travelled abroad much, this process will likely not take very long. If you do have a lot of foreign travel, you can expect to wait. Other factors can also influence and delay the process such as the current administrative transition.

My advice to future students interested in working at the Department of State would be to have a backup internship or job, especially if they have a lot of foreign travel or other adjudicative concerns. I discovered in my last-minute search that most places in D.C. are understanding and sympathetic to the security clearance process. Some organizations would even be willing to have your intern with them until your clearance comes through. However, it’s important to be upfront about your plans to work for DoS during this search so you don’t burn any bridges.

My second piece of advice for applicants to the DoS who are waiting for a clearance would be to adjust their expectations in terms of communication. The DoS is a huge bureaucracy processing many clearances for positions both domestic and abroad. Given that, once you have submitted your information and completed your interview there is not much you can do to get in touch with the investigators or to better understand how long your investigation will take. This is frustrating, especially for those who are prioritizing a DoS internship over others. It is important to note, however, that often, DoS will offer deferrals to interns who are not cleared in time. If this is something you want, you should ask your prospective supervisors to see if this is a possibility.

Monday, June 26th, marked the first day of my internship with the DoS. I’m grateful to be able to take advantage of this opportunity and work at the DoS this summer and I am looking forward to having this experience before starting my post-LBJ job search.

This blog post was first published by The Robert Strauss Center at The University of Texas at Austin on 14 July 2017.

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