Episode 153: Q & A – With Special Agent FBI Recruiter

Special Agent Cerena Coughlin, an FBI recruiter for the Philadelphia Division, provides answers to questions about the FBI sent in by FBI Retired Case File Review listeners interested in applying to become analysts and specials agents with the FBI.  All potential FBI Special Agent candidates must start the application process online at FBIJobs.gov.

Special Agent Cerena Coughlin has been with the FBI for more than 18 years. Currently, she is the Employment Recruiter for the Philadelphia Field Office and also the local Coordinator for InfraGard, a public/private partnership between the FBI and representatives of critical infrastructure. She was a member of the Los Angeles Innocent Images SAFE Team where she investigated cases involving the sexual exploitation of children, and was assigned to Counterterrorism squads in the Los Angeles and Baltimore Divisions. In the Philadelphia Division, before being assigned as the FBI recruiter, she was on a Cybercrime squad. She is married to an FBI agent and they have three children.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to listen to Episode 041: FBI Special Agent – A Career Like No Other where I spoke to SA Coughlin’s predecessor SA Greg Branch regarding qualifications and the different phases of the FBI hiring program.

Special Agent

Cerena Coughlin

March 2001  – Present












FBI Core Competencies – Definitions

Interpersonal Ability.
Organizing and Planning.
Problem Solving/Judgment.

FBI – YouTube Channel

Becoming an Agent series


The following are the questions during this FBI  episode with FBI recruiter Special Agent Cerena Coughlin and the first name of the listener who sent in the question. Thank you. Listen to the interview with SA Cerena Coughlin to hear her responses:


I wanted to ask a couple questions about the policies of tattoos and how or if that hinders you from becoming an agent.

I know that you have to have a bachelor’s degree but are there specific fields you have to be in?

I have 3 children and I wonder how being an agent would affect them and their lives.


What the heck is an “analyst”? What kinds of work do they do, and how are they hired and trained?


I have a question about intelligence analysis positions. I have been applying to the FBI for the last couple of years but I have not had any success yet. I understand that divulging specifics is not allowed, but would you have any general insights, thoughts, pointers you could share that may help me revamp my resume or that might give me insight into what they are looking for?

The FBI is looking for people with unique skills, experiences, and backgrounds to become Special Agents. To learn more visit FBIJobs.gov.


Why are FBI Agents all “Special Agents”? (Are there Agents who aren’t ‘Special’?) What is the hierarchy of “Special Agents” within the Bureau?  (“Supervisory SA” vs. “SAC” vs. etc.)

When are FBI Agents required to carry their firearm, when are they recommended to carry their firearm, and when can that lock it up? e.g.: Are you expected to carry your firearm at family holiday gatherings, or if you go out to the bar with friends? How do you manage your firearm in places when it’s not convenient, like going to the gym or pool (or even the bathroom)?

FBI Agent pay is based on the General Schedule (GS). What grade does an agent start at? At what point would an agent be promoted up a grade? How do the ‘steps’ factor into all of this? How often could an agent expect to be promoted up a step?

If you were married and becoming a Special Agent, how would you maintain a relationship with your family while you are at Quantico? (21 weeks would be a very long time to not see my wife and 5 year old daughter.)

I’ve heard of retaliatory violence on prosecutors. Is retaliatory violence something that FBI agents have to reckon with? If so, how is it handled?

How do the ancillary duties (eg: SWAT, tech team, ERT) work? How does a Special Agent get onto the “tech team”?

Given the diverse employment background of FBI Special Agents, and given that the FBI expects to train you up on many of the obviously relevant skills (investigation, surveillance, marksmanship, etc.), then what is the commonality among highly competitive agents? What are the core competencies that would qualify you for being an FBI Special Agent?

How often and in what cases would an FBI Special Agent become a first responder?

What does the first placement look like? Are you more likely to be placed at a division field office or a resident agency? Is there a probationary period, and how does that work?


The hardest part for me is the physical aspect. It would be awesome to hear a history of the PFT and some hints/tips/tricks to beat it.


Is it required that agents live in the city they are assigned?

Stemming from #1: Is an hour+ train ride commute to an agents assigned office reasonable given the workload as an agent? Do you see it as being troublesome to an agents career? (Example: an individual living in bucks county that commutes to the NY Field Office for work)

Is eyesight required to be corrected through contacts or is it acceptable to wear glasses?

I heard from a friend that recently graduated from Quantico and also read in the Special Agent brochure that if you select NY, LA, and a few other large field offices as you’re number one choice, that you are just about guaranteed to get it. Is this accurate based on you’re understanding?


I’m already 34, and am in terrible physical shape. Do you or the recruiting agent have any suggestions on how to reach the fitness requirements to join?

I’m also wondering if everyone who joins the FBI needs to meet those requirements. I’m a lawyer – does that give me any leeway?

My final question is about the drug policy. I made the mistake of trying some of those edible marijuana things from Colorado about a year and a half ago. I’m not sure when I can apply – do I have to wait until the three years has passed and then apply, or can I apply in anticipation of joining by the time the three years have passed?


Currently I am earning an MBA in Forensic Accounting and Fraud. Every day I become more intrigued about working for the FBI, IRS, or other government agencies as some type of criminal investigator for economic crimes. I was curious if you have any words of wisdom or know of any special programs that are potentially offered around the country that would help me gain Forensic accounting experience or allow me to stand out on a government application.


What are the main cultural differences between the FBI and the military, and what general difficulties do veterans have in adjusting to the new environment? One of my reservations to making the jump is the sense that I will be replacing one large federal bureaucracy for another.

Is it possible to get a conditional offer (I believe stage 3 per the website) and ‘hold a slot’ for a future class? Specifically, I owe several more years of service, and was wondering if I can go through most of the process and keep a ‘foot in the door’ with the FBI (full disclosure- every source I’ve researched points to ‘no’)

One of the major incentives that is delaying my entry to the FBI is the desire to transfer my GI Bill to my kids, which requires 10 years of service in the military. Does the FBI offer any equivalent dependent educational benefit or incentive program to transfer the benefit?

Is it true I will have to renounce any reserve or National Guard affiliation to join the FBI?


How similar is the depiction of the training academy in the show “Quantico” to the rigor and intensity of actual agent training?


Is there any chance possible I’d ever be able to join the FBI with only a high school diploma. I never did go to college to further my education, and I don’t think I really have any specific skill that I’m good at. I really think it would be such an amazing job kind of traveling around helping solve crimes around the states.


I am currently taking the CPA exam. I know the Bureau has an interest in applicants with an accounting/ finance background. Is it recommended I complete the CPA exam and licensure before applying, or can I apply while I am in the process of taking the exam?


If I move forward and am selected to go to Quantico, what are some things that I can do to prepare myself ahead of time for the rigors of the academy? I assume I’ll have to keep in shape, but would it help to study anything ahead of time?

I’ve heard that there are some FBI Field Offices that specialize in certain kinds of cases. If that’s true, can you please go over which offices might specialize in which kinds of crimes?

I realize there’s probably not much you can say, but any tips on the Phase 2 test and interview would be appreciated!


What are some of the sacrifices in their careers and personal lives made by the significant others of agents in order to support their wife or husband in the FBI?


Jerri Williams

View posts by Jerri Williams
Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, jokes that she writes about the FBI to relive her glory days. After 26 years with the Bureau specializing in major economic fraud and corruption investigations, she calls on her professional encounters with scams and schemers to write police procedurals inspired by true crime FBI cases in her Philadelphia FBI Corruption Squad crime fiction series featuring flawed female FBI agent Kari Wheeler. Jerri’s FBI for Armchair Detectives nonfiction series enables readers to discover who the FBI is and what the FBI does by debunking misconceptions about the FBI in books, TV, and movies. Her books are available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks wherever books are sold. She’s also the host of FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast with more than 300 episodes available on all popular podcast apps and YouTube.

1 Comment

  1. pascal carcanFebruary 14, 2019

    Beautiful, I would have a second life I would have liked to be an SP Agent at the FBI.


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