I decided to pursue journalism after spending 18 months working toward a position with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2018, when investigations targeting Russian interference in the 2016 election had led to heightened animosity toward federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, I heard an interview with an agent on a podcast. He detailed how these organizations are full of employees determined to help keep America safe without the use of a gun and a badge—like janitors, call center representatives and line cooks. I had always held values like truth, integrity and justice very highly, but I never wanted to pursue a career in the military or law enforcement because of my introverted and very pacifistic nature. But then—oh wow, making the realization that I could have my cake and eat it, too, was exhilarating.
On a whim, I applied to the FBI that same week. A position was open for an intelligence analyst, and it sounded exciting; an analyst focuses on gathering, parsing and relaying important information to agents in the field to keep them (and America) safe. It sounds a little boring compared to what one can see analysts do on shows like “Homeland” and “Jack Ryan,” but it was completely my speed.
Life chugged along, and, after four months, I had almost forgotten that I had applied to be an analyst until I got called in to take an intelligence test that, statistically, only had a 60% pass rate. “No sweat,” I thought—I wasn’t desperate for a new job, but I did want to have a larger impact on the world than making great espresso for my neighborhood. I still didn’t know for sure if becoming an analyst would be as fulfilling or exciting as turning my at-home passion for coffee into a career, but I decided that I would stick through the process to test my mettle. It’s not often we get to see so plainly our own value to others.
After passing the first test, I got invited for another, slightly more difficult exam. And another. And another. Then, I reached what many say is the apex for the FBI obstacle course: the “phase 2 exam,” which has the lowest passing rate of all of the hurdles. The exam is a sort of trial run, where applicants are given fake reports and are asked to make recommendations to make-believe agents in the field (any more specific and I would be violating an NDA). After 90 minutes of feverish typing and flipping through papers like a conspiracy theorist, I submitted the exam and spent the whole drive home smiling: that was the most exciting and rewarding 90 minutes I had in my entire adult working life.
But what happened? Well, I passed the phase 2 exam. Then, the FBI flew me out to Arizona for the phase 3 exam, which I passed, and I received a job offer. I bought my first suit, and I started thinking about where in the country the Bureau might take my family. I daydreamed about training at Quantico, and I was practically bursting with excitement as I told every person I knew that I was going to work at the FBI.
My excitement faded when it came time to take a polygraph (or lie detector) test. Every federal agency hiring for positions that deal with secret or top secret information requires applicants take one. It was the first time in the whole process that I was nervous. I lead a remarkably boring life and have nothing to hide, but I was concerned about a false positive—I was worried that the test would say I was lying about something when I wasn’t. A quick search on your favorite search engine shows all sorts of horror stories of civilians being mistakenly branded as liars, and I had hoped that I wouldn’t become another one. But…that’s exactly what happened.
I was defeated. After a year and a half, and after pouring so much time, energy, money and faith into the process, a failed polygraph test stopped me in my tracks. I spent about six months coming to terms with what really amounted to a loss that wasn’t too dissimilar to death, and I started to see how journalism follows a lot of the same values that drove me to the FBI in the first place: truth, integrity and justice.