A Primer on Security Clearances

Top Secret lighted screen

A security clearance is often essential to landing a technology job with a government contractor or federal agency handling sensitive information.

If you want to work at an organization serving the national interest, you may find your path slowed considerably, if not blocked entirely, by the lack of a security clearance. To obtain a clearance, you need an employer's backing and patience. Delays are common, given the government's backlog of clearance applications.

Related: Search for security clearance jobs.

Here's our guide to security clearances.

What Is a Security Clearance?

A security clearance is a government authorization for you to view classified information as your job requires. The information can be as varied as reports about border security or details on how spy satellites work. A clearance is not a blanket authorization to view all classified information; it simply allows you to view the information you need to know to do your job.

Dave Underwood, president of TAC Secured, a TAC Worldwide subsidiary that places IT professionals with active security clearances, stresses the importance of a clearance to work at defense contractors, homeland security firms and in other government-related positions. He likens the clearance to "a secret handshake" -- once you get it, it's transferable, meaning it will help you find other jobs that require a clearance.

Are There Different Types of Clearances?

Yes. The most common are labeled "confidential," "secret" and "top secret," corresponding to the sensitivity of the information you are allowed to handle on the job. Top-secret clearances may also give you authorization to view "sensitive compartmented information" -- specific information that's deemed particularly sensitive. Your employer will work with government officials to determine the appropriate clearance.

Can I Apply for a Clearance on My Own?

No. Sponsorship from a company or government agency is necessary to apply for a clearance. "The challenge for most candidates is that you can't obtain a security clearance on your own without having a government contractor or agency sponsor you for the background investigation," said Michael Fitzgerald, principal consultant at staffing firm Winter, Wyman and Company. "Such investigations also take time and money, which means obtaining your clearance requires patience and planning, as they can often take many months to finish." Employers pay the cost of the clearance process.

How Does the Government Evaluate Clearance Applications?

The process varies depending on the type of clearance being sought, the information involved and the urgency of the project. A lower-level clearance may entail a background check into your education, job history, criminal record, credit history and residences. If you're applying for a job involving more sensitive information, expect government or private investigators to interview you personally and delve into various areas of your personal and professional life. Investigators will also interview neighbors and friends and possibly have you take a polygraph test. Falsehoods and omissions in an application can disqualify you from receiving a clearance.

Does a Clearance Last a Lifetime?

No. If you need to continue to view sensitive information on the job, you will have to undergo a reinvestigation every five years for a top-secret clearance, every 10 years for a secret clearance and every 15 years for a confidential clearance. A clearance becomes inactive when your job no longer requires you to view sensitive information.

Is It Worth Applying for a Job Requiring a Clearance Even if I Don't Have One?

Lack of a clearance shouldn't stop you from seeking a job that requires one. If you don't have a clearance, the company may hire you, start the clearance process and have you work on other projects until your clearance is approved.

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