Sometimes a cockeyed notion

ImageWhen I was a graduate student, having earned a Master’s degree I moved to New Mexico for the PhD program.  I quickly obtained  burn out.  After all those years of schooling, from first grade to M.S.,  I was sick of school; tired of studying, writing papers; hours and hours of research.   Graduate students often hit a high pressure area in their careers and some crash and burn. Others just drag themselves through the mire.  There are different ways of coping. Some take a sabbatical (time off, typically measured in months).  Some give up earning a PhD and hit the pavement, looking for a job.  Some just keep going until they either become schizophrenic or get their PhD (or both).  But few anthropologists are “known” to have joined the CIA.

imagesOne Sunday while looking through the newspaper, mostly at the comics and the sales, there was a full-page ad for the CIA, looking to recruit behavioral scientists with at least a master’s degree. At first when I saw the ad I thought, hmm, since when is the CIA advertising for spies in the Sunday paper?  Well, they weren’t actually seeking espionage agents.  They wanted analysts who would be desk-bound in the D.C. area.  So, I sent in my curriculum vitae (sort of academic resume) and never gave it a second thought. Then the letter arrived from the CIA asking if I was still interested to call ‘so and so’  at the number provided.  I did. The nice gentleman asked me a few questions and told me he would send out some material for me.  He also informed me that I would have to take the CIA exam.

Image I wondered what kind of test the CIA  would give.  I pictured all sorts of things from target shooting to undercover rules of engagement.  I thought the whole thing was foolishness on my part but I really wanted to check out the test and see how far I could run the CIA  gauntlet. Now mind you, I told that nice gentleman that I did not want to be a spy– I was looking for an analyst position.  I had to keep repeating this along the way to all sorts of  agency representatives.  I felt a little guilty that I was letting down a former professor of mine who told me that the CIA liked to recruit anthropologists and that those who gave in were sullying the reputation of the field. He was at a conference once, soon after receiving his PhD and ran into a man with the name of Mr. Whitehouse on his name tag.  That man was a CIA recruiter.  They showed up at conferences and the like, hovering over fresh doctorates like vultures.  He asked everyone not to give in– our reputations would be ruined in the anthropology community.  I never forgot that.  I really liked that professor and I trusted that he was telling the truth.  That didn’t stop me, though.  I grew up Catholic– I’m used to guilt.

ImageNow, after that call I pretty much forgot about the CIA.  Weeks later I received a packet which contained paperwork to fill out; things I needed to do such as schedule the CIA exam and schedule a physical exam.  The accompanying letter indicated that I should not tell anyone what I was doing.  To say nothing regarding the CIA.   Finally the day came for the exam, which was held at the University of New Mexico.  Recall  the letter stated  not to tell a soul where I was going or what I was doing?  I spilled my guts to everyone.  My justification was that I didn’t trust the CIA.  If no one knew where I was or what I was doing, then it would be very easy for a clandestine kidnapping.  I imagined myself being air dropped into the Amazon to spy on drug runners.  And no one would know.

Did I mention that the CIA exam is 8 hours long?  Now, all this took place while the USSR and the ImageBerlin Wall were still standing.  The Cold War was still chilly but ebbing.  And mostly  Russian studies majors were taking the exam in hopes of getting into overseas positions, preferably in embassies.   I did learn a few things from someone who had taken the exam before.  There would be “ringers” in the room, trying to keep you honest, and the exam staff would have no sense of humor.  He was right on both counts.  But, the questions were hilarious.


ImageNormally an 8 hour exam would be a major effort.  However, I was so entertained by the questions that the time seemed to fly.  I tried  not to laugh out loud but sometimes I just couldn’t control it.  The staff, the ringers and even the Russian studies majors gave me evil looks.  Here are a couple of questions that I remember which caused me to laugh out loud. Written answers were required for these questions and the majority of the exam:

Would you accept a position in a country that is actively at war?
My answer:  No.

What would you do if you were at an event at a foreign embassy and you were caught by embassy security rifling through a desk?
My answer:  Lie.

As you can see I made little effort to indulge my unlikely,  future employer.  This exam was obviously meant for people who would engage in clandestine activities and in most instances I made it known that I did not want to be an operative.  There were a lot of foreign political questions, for which I knew the answers.  I had recently returned from  field work in Peru and many of the questions dealt with Latin American politics– surprisingly, the majority concerned Peru.

searchWith the exam finished I went about working on the forms that were sent to me.  At one point I just stowed them in a desk drawer and forgot about the whole thing.  Then came the “letter”.  I achieved the highest score in the group tested.  I was dumb-founded, flabbergasted, alarmed, incredulous and unquestionably horrified.  Scoring the written answers had to be discretionary– either someone liked my answers or, those questions weren’t important, which was very scary. The letter also contained instructions for the next step in my little adventure:  the interview.

Join me next time for the conclusion.


When I was a kid I wanted to be an "atomic" scientist. Not anything my mother expected of me. Well, I became a scientist, just not an atomic one.

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Posted in adventure, anthropology, CIA, horror, humor

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