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Vivid description of the job of a special agent

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    Case Study:

    The FBI’s website provides a vivid description of the job of a special agent. One day a special agent may be focused on recruiting a human source of information from a foreign country to avert a terrorist attack. Another day may involve several different activities; testifying in court in the morning, planning a sting operation over lunch, chasing down a suspect on a Most Wanted list in the afternoon, and speaking at a community event in the evening. To be effective at these tasks, special agents not only need to be physically fit, but they also need to be able to work independently, be adaptable to changing and sometimes very dangerous situations, make logical decisions based on all available facts, and communicate effectively and articulately, both orally and in writing.

    To make sure new hires possess these abilities, the FBI requires that special agent applicants go through a series of examinations, which include a three-hour session consisting of cognitive, behavioral, and logical reasoning tests, a 90-minute written test that measures problem solving abilities, a one-hour panel interview intended to supplement the information gathered in the other testing, physical fitness tests, and a medical exam which, among other things, tests vision and hearing. One of the assumptions behind this testing is that new hires will possess the abilities necessary to have an effective and long career as an FBI special agent. But is this assumption valid?

    On the one hand, many of the abilities that are tested during the hiring process remain relatively stable over time. So, for example, an agent who scored high on the logical reasoning ability test when hired will have high logical reasoning ability years later. On the other hand, some abilities change over time, and not for the better! Most notably, physical abilities tend to erode due to the process of aging and coping with the demands of work and life. In recognition of this specific issue, the FBI recently instituted annual physical fitness testing. The test includes the number of sit-ups in one minute, a timed 300-meter sprint, the maximum number of pushups (untimed), and a timed 1.5 mile run. The scoring system is based on an agent’s age and sex, and those who score below standard (or who do not take the test without a medical excuse) are given a rating of no higher than “Minimally Successful” on the “Maintaining High Professional Standards” dimension of their annual performance review.

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