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How to Obtain a Security Clearance

How to Obtain a Security Clearance

Roberta Chinsky Matuson /

July 12, 2008

Suppose you’ve come across an hourly job that looks like a great fit. There’s just one small matter: The position requires a US security clearance, and you don’t have one. You may think that you can just apply for the clearance and in no time the job will be yours, but the process isn’t quite that simple.

You cannot obtain a security clearance for yourself. Your current or prospective employer has to do this for you. Since the process is costly and time-consuming, organizations won’t do it unless it’s absolutely essential. Make sure you arm yourself with the following information so you’re ready to apply for the jobs you are targeting.

What’s a Security Clearance?

A security clearance is used to confirm an applicant’s trustworthiness and reliability before providing access to national security information.

There are three basic levels of security classification:

Confidential: This clearance refers to material which, if improperly disclosed, could be reasonably expected to cause some measurable damage to national security. The vast majority of military personnel are given this very basic level of clearance. It must be reinvestigated every 15 years.

Secret: Unauthorized disclosure of the information this clearance covers could be expected to cause grave damage to national security. This level gets reinvestigated every 10 years.

Top Secret: Individuals with this clearance have access to information or material that could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if it was released without authorization. This level needs to be reinvestigated every five years.

Who Needs a Security Clearance?

If your job requires access to classified government documents or if you work in a government-secured facility, you must hold a security clearance.

Hourly positions that may require a security clearance include secretaries, security officers, librarians, system administrators and computer-support personnel who have access to classified documents or systems.

Obtaining a Security Clearance

According to John Wojcik, manager of security and safety for a Department of Defense contractor, it can take up to two years to obtain a security clearance due to the high number of background checks already in progress. The process varies by federal agency and is constantly being tweaked based on current threats. Here is how it generally works:

1) Applicants must go through the application phase, which involves verification of US citizenship, fingerprinting and completion of the Personnel Security Questionnaire (SF-86).
2) The Defense Security Service conducts thorough background checks.
3) Last is the adjudication phase, during which findings from the investigation are reviewed and evaluated based on 13 factors determined by the Department of Defense. Examples of these factors include criminal and personal conduct, substance abuse and any mental disorders.
4) Clearance is granted or denied when this part of the process has been completed.

Things to Consider Before Proceeding

“The process of getting clearance can be very intrusive,” says Dave Archibald, director of compensation for Bedford, Massachusetts-based MITRE Corp. The procedure may include polygraphs, discussions with neighbors and interviews in which very personal questions are asked.

Moreover, Wojcik suggests you find out from human resources what the disqualifiers are before you quit your current job. “You don’t want to quit a good job only to find out that you are not eligible for clearance because you have relatives that live in another country,” he says.

Avoid Scams

Experts warn job seekers about recruiting firms, attorneys or other companies that promise to obtain a security clearance for you or “preapprove” you for a security clearance — for a fee. They are scams.

Get Your Foot in the Door

If you are serious about obtaining a position for which a security clearance is a must, Archibald suggests starting in a nonclassified job. Put in your time, and let your manager know that you are interested in moving up to a classified position.

Also see Security Clearances 101: How to Maximize Your Earnings

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