During the two years that I was so sick with MS as to be functionally bedridden the majority of the time, I had a lot of opportunities to think. About my life, for instance. About potentially viable alternate lives. If I could do anything, what would I do? The answer was clear: I would do the opposite of what I had been doing for the past four years. I would leave academia. I would leave my house. I’d avoid pursuing a PhD. I’d experience anything whatsoever in favor of the complete and utter stagnation my existence had become.
So, fuck it, I applied to the CIA. Most people, I suspect, apply directly for “Clandestine Service” (aka to be a spy), but knowing I had MS and would never under any circumstances pass the medical exam, I decided to low-ball it and apply as a Foreign Language Instructor. I was fluent in Portuguese–one of their “target languages”–and had plenty of experience teaching. I held a Master’s degree and had just entered my PhD program. So why not? I filled out an online application, similar to the one here.
I really didn’t expect anything to come of this. I knew that my chances were slim to none, since the CIA processes around 10,000 applications per month. But what did I have to lose? Nothing, really. I wasn’t going anywhere, wasn’t doing anything. I was in a bed. So, fuck it.
Some time later (weeks? months? — memory fails me) I received two consecutive voice mails from the same person who identified himself as “Jason, a Federal Recruiter” and indicated he’d “like to talk to [me].” I was given a phone number to call and I did so in public, from Harvard Square. “Jason” (I think it’s safe to assume that none of these names are ever real), asked me some interview questions, including one about why I thought I’d be a good fit for the Agency.
Apparently I passed muster, because “Jason” enthusiastically mentioned something about “taking [me] up in a helicopter and throwing [me] out of it,” which I correctly deduced was his way of both conveying his support for me as a candidate and informing me that he wanted to advance my application to the next stage.
I also recall, vaguely, that “Jason” had some very innocuous looking Yahoo! email address (I’d post screen shots, but I deleted the Hotmail account I was using at the time and to which his emails were sent). We exchanged a couple of messages, and one of his expressed the Agency’s vigorous passion for The Economist. In fact, I distinctly remember reading the line: “The Economist. We love The Economist.”
“Jason” had wanted me to get a head start on my Agency-related reading, you see. He also indicated that I’d be receiving some materials in the mail and to follow the instructions enclosed. Soon enough, this nondescript-looking brown envelope arrived in my mailbox:
Inside it contained a cover letter, an assigned CIA reading list (no, really), and a bunch of forms for me to fill out:
[Um. I advise against calling that number and asking for “Rhoda.” The number likely isn’t even active any more, and if it is you’re just going to unnecessarily excite the Feds. Also, “Rhoda” is definitely not this person’s real name.]
I love that there is a reading list. The only thing better than there being a reading list is the fact that it looks so plausibly unofficial–as though hastily slapped together by an awkward 12-year-old boy with too much time on his hands and unauthorized access to the photocopier at his Mom’s office. There is absolutely no way anyone will ever believe this is the official CIA reading list given to prospective recruits. Then again, that’s probably the point. 
The “personal résumé” consisted of around 15 pages of information (when counting all of the pages containing my typed answers to essay questions, as well as the “writing skills” assessment). Some of the more compelling short answer questions included:
- Why do you wish to work for this organization?
- What is your principal asset?
- What is your principal shortcoming?
- How would you describe yourself? (One page or more)
I won’t grace you with the responses from my 28-year-old, Solumedrol-brained self. For “Writing Skills,” the following prompt appeared: So that we may assess your writing skills, write an essay (about 500 words) on a subject of major current international interest.
After casting about various periodicals for promising topics, I settled on the (then) recent presidential election and political unrest in Zimbabwe and proceeded to dutifully compose my assigned 500 words detailing the situation as it stood in 2008 and interweaving some brief historical, cultural, economic, and political analyses of conditions I felt contributed to Mugabe being able to maintain his long-term stranglehold over the country. (Mugabe is still in power as of the writing of this blog post.) Actually, the essay was not bad–and I say this now as a college professor re-reading my own work as a young grad student. Given the word-count constraints and the fact that I started with zero knowledge of Zimbabwe, really: not bad. I’m guessing the CIA wasn’t a big fan of my Endnotes and meticulously organized Works Cited list in MLA format, but then again I’ll never know. They don’t exactly give feedback.
Another fun part of the application was the online IQ/personality test:
At the time they were using this website/company for testing. What I remember about this examination was that it was extremely long and quite boring. The personality portions of the test are easy enough to rig—mainly they try to trip you up by asking the same questions repeatedly using different wording (and obviously they will notice any inconsistencies in your answers), and some of the questions were clearly designed to weed out sociopaths or people with other types of personality disorders. Example: “I like torturing animals.” –> Strongly Agree / Agree / Neutral / Disagree / Strongly Disagree.
I’m pretty sure I bombed the IQ test, largely because I suck at math and especially at mentally manipulating 3-D objects in space, and the test seemed to contain a lot of that. Oops….
Once all the paperwork was done, I was to FedEx it back to a facility in Reston, Virginia using a prepaid mailing form also provided in the manila envelope. I did indeed complete the materials and send them back:
I knew when I prepared this extensive application that I would never get a job offer from the CIA. I knew that an MS diagnosis was an automatic medical disqualifier. I knew this from the moment I applied online to be a Foreign Language Instructor (completely not expecting to get recruited as a spy!). I knew that even if I were deemed desirable in every other way (unlikely just because of how competitive these jobs are), I would ultimately be disqualified because I had a chronic, incurable neurological illness. Yet knowing this, I pressed on with the application.
Why the hell not? I wanted to see how far I could get. My goal was to make it to the on-site interview and polygraph examination in D.C., which would have been the next stage had I managed to advance beyond the contents of that fateful manila packet.
Alas: a couple of months later, I received my official-unofficial CIA rejection letter in a slim white envelope bearing the same return address as the application packet I’d received earlier:
So close, yet so far away. Their loss: I would have made a most excellent spy, even with MS.
***1ST DRAFT: SATURDAY, MAY 10th, 2014. 17:23H EDT***
1 – Also, note that all my materials are from like 6 years ago. I assume the Agency has changed things up since then. In fact, some recent reports suggest they’ve dispensed with the return mailing addresses shown here and are now using “Yoder and Young” (a fake cover firm) for correspondence purposes. Either way, I always found it amusing that the zip code 20505–a zip code used exclusively by the CIA–is displayed prominently on all correspondence from my application process. Cover blown by the USPS much?