What Is a Security Clearance, and How Do I Get One?

So, you’ve found what appeared to be the perfect job while browsing through new opportunities online—and, as you read through the listing, realize you’re the ideal candidate who meets all of the employer’s experience, education, and skills requirements—only to find out the employer is exclusively interested in hiring someone with an active or current security clearance.

What is a security clearance

At that point, your instinct might have been to apply for the position anyway—assuming you could obtain a clearance in the meantime. If you’re reading this with the hopes of figuring out how to quickly secure the prerequisite credentials, prepare yourself for disappointment. Getting a security clearance can take many months or even years and isn’t a process an individual can simply initiate on their own. But, don’t give up just yet—let’s take a look at what exactly a security clearance is, and how you can get one. 

What’s a security clearance?

First, a security clearance is an authorization given to an individual which grants them eligibility for access to specific levels of classified information necessary to perform the duties and responsibilities required of their job. As outlined in Executive Order 13526, there are three different classification levels for information requiring a security clearance to access:

Confidential: the lowest level of classification for information that is “owned by, produced by or for, or is under the control of the United States Government,” and which could be reasonably expected to cause “damage” to national security in the event of an unauthorized disclosure

Secret: information that would cause “serious damage” to national security through unauthorized disclosure

Top Secret: the highest level of classification which applies to information that would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security in the event of unauthorized disclosure

The level of security clearance an individual is granted will be determined by their need for access on a need-to-know basis. Interestingly, a lot of people apparently either need access to classified information or might inadvertently be exposed to classified information in the normal course of their job—as of 2017, there were over four million individuals with security clearances.

How do I get one?

As we mentioned earlier, applying for a security clearance is not a process you can simply initiate on your own, and it requires an applicant to be sponsored by a federal agency directly or through the request of a contractor working for the federal government with a need for access to classified information.

This means you must already be employed by the authorized entity or have a conditional offer of employment before you are even eligible to begin the security clearance process and background investigation. So, how do you get a job which requires that you already have a security clearance when you must have the job before you can get one? In short, you can’t.

However, you can get another job that will ultimately require you to have a security clearance, but that doesn’t make it mandatory to have before applying for the position. Below are the four key stages of the security clearance process, and what you can expect at each point.

1. Pre-investigation: after the sponsoring agency determines an employee or contractor does indeed require access to classified information in order to perform the duties and responsibilities required of the position, the individual will be required to fill out and submit a standard form 86 (SF86), the questionnaire for national security positions. 

2. Investigation: during this phase the applicant will be subjected to a background investigation based on the information that was provided in their clearance application materials. The depth and scope of the background investigation typically depends on the level of clearance being sought by the applicant.

3. Adjudication: upon completion of the background investigation, the application enters the adjudication phase where a determination will be made as to whether or not to grant the applicant a security clearance. 

4. Reinvestigation: security clearance holders are subject to periodic reinvestigations in order to maintain their clearance.

Finally, security clearance holders can expect to command a salary premium of anywhere between 5 and 20 percent from companies seeking candidates who have already been granted clearance. The long investigation times and high costs associated with the security clearance process are two of the main reasons behind employers wanting applicants who already hold a security clearance.

The good news is, once you have a security clearance, you’ll have a full five years before you’ll have to be reinvestigated. In the event your clearance is inactivated while you’re between jobs or about to start a new one, having it reinstated is typically easy as long as it is within the first 24 months and before a reinvestigation is required.

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