Top Three Takeaways from A Career Apart: Life in the CIA

On Friday, September 8th, Batten hosted two former CIA agents for “A Career Apart: Life in the CIA” . Both men were on the Operations side at the Agency. The first, Tom Billard, started in the Army doing intelligence work before transitioning to the CIA. The second, Rich Hotchner, was a Foreign Affairs and Russian double major at UVA and got an internship at the Agency which eventually led to a full time job.

The talk was awesome (special shout out to 2nd year MPP student Isabel Dlabach, who moderated it!) and ended up being incredibly informative for anyone interested in a career in the CIA or in the Intelligence Community more generally. Here are my top three takeaways from the discussion:


  1. Prioritize foreign languages, foreign travel, and study abroad


When asked about what the Agency looks for in potential candidates and what skills and experiences to focus on, both Billard and Hotchner emphasized the value of foreign languages and time abroad. A career at the Agency in the Operations side likely involves a lot of time abroad and a high level of cross-cultural knowledge, so they said it’s helpful to show that you have knowledge of another language or are comfortable living abroad! 

(Here’s a link to a past blog post about studying abroad at Batten!)


  1. Reading skills, global knowledge, adaptability, flexibility, and a willingness to learning anything are also invaluable


Foreign languages and experience abroad aren’t the only things that can make you stand out in the hiring process! Billard and Hotchner said that being an agent involves a lot of writing (“if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen”) and comprehensive knowledge of global events. They recommended reading The Economist – or the news in general – and working on your writing and researching skills.

They also talked about how adaptability, flexibility, and a willingness to learn anything were key characteristics of a good agent. Assignments can be all over the world and about anything under the sun, so the ability to adapt and a general curiosity and willingness to learn can go a long way to being a good agent or a strong candidate.


  1. It’s not all glamorous 


Towards the end of the talk, Isabel asked about how the secrecy and discretion requirements that come with life at the Agency affected their personal lives and relationships. Billard and Hotchner made it clear that the high levels of discretion required to be an Agent do have a significant impact on your relationships, but that it gets easier over time. They said normal things, like hosting a dinner party or having friends over, becomes way more difficult when you have some people who know what you do and others don’t. Additionally, whenever they told someone what they did, they placed a burden on them to keep the secret as well.

They also talked a little bit about work-life balance at the Agency. Here, too, they talked about the sacrifices required to be an Agent. Although they talked a lot about how the culture of the Agency is changing and how work-life balance is definitely improving, they said there will always be times when you have to miss an important life event (like a wedding, or the birth of a child) in order to do your job. 


Overall, both Billard and Hotchner made clear that they loved their careers with the Agency. They talked extensively about the incredible people they met, experiences they had, and the purpose they felt going into work every day. The talk left me feeling inspired about a career path in the IC, but also more prepared for the lifestyle it may require.