Top Secret – What’s it Like to Work in a Top-Secret Environment?


The majority of aviation workers don’t need a security clearance to do their jobs. Even top-paying positions such as commercial airline pilots may not require any form of security clearance.

Unfortunately, for some jobs, clearance is mandatory. Most of these jobs are found in the military, though you’ll also likely need clearance if working in an organization that requires access to restricted information. The highest type of security clearance you can have in the US is known as Top Secret clearance.

So, the question is – what should you expect when working in a top-secret environment? What’s different? What’s expected of you? What other skills would you need to succeed there? Let’s begin by understanding Top-Secret.

What is ‘Top Secret’

Under Security Classification Categories in the US, information or material that requires protection against unauthorized disclosure in the interest of national security can be classified as Top Secret, Secret, or Confidential.

Top Secret information refers to national security information or material that requires the highest level of protection. A piece of information is classified as top-secret if it can cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. Common examples of top-secret information include vital national defense plans, sensitive intelligence operations, and scientific or technological developments crucial to national security.

What’s Different in Top Secret Work Environments?

Working in a top-secret environment is significantly different from working in a regular aviation job. The following are a few things to expect;

  1. A security clearance is needed

Once it’s determined that you’ll be working in a top-secret environment, you’ll be instructed to complete the Security Clearance Background Investigation Questionnaire to set the security clearance process in motion. You’ll also need to complete the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-QIP). After that, you’ll go through investigations and interviews dwelling on character and conduct, with a focus on your honesty, reliability, trustworthiness, emotional stability, and criminal activity. The investigations are done by the Defense Security Service (DSS).

  1. The pay is significantly higher

Any position that requires security clearance typically pays higher. Reports suggest that you could make thousands more per year compared to uncleared colleagues working in the same position. In Washington, for instance, employees with security clearance earn up to 15% more. Those working in top-secret operations take home even more money, with HRA-NCA surveys showing that some individuals take home up to 60% more than uncleared individuals in similar positions. For context, the average salary for cleared professionals in the US is $99,600.

  1. Moral expectations are higher

Most importantly, though, as soon as you get a security clearance, moral expectations heighten as well. Giving false information on security documents constitutes a violation of Title 18, Section 101, and Article 107 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). You could be fined and even imprisoned for up to five years. You could also lose your pay & allowances as well as the security clearance. Since top-secret clearances are reviewed at least once every five years, improper behavior during your time in a top-secret operation can, therefore, land you in serious trouble. Therefore, if you desire to maintain your top-secret security clearance status, you must remain a constant high ethical and moral standard for yourself regardless of whether you are currently in a top-secret position or not. 

Getting Security Clearance

The government pays the cost of top-secret clearance for military and civilian employees. Some companies will also foot the bill. However, in some circumstances, you may have to pay from your pocket. If it comes to this, it’s important to remember that you cannot just apply for top-secret clearance at will. You must first get a job that requires that level of clearance. It’s only after you secure the job that you can apply for clearance. Top secret clearance costs can range from $3000-15,000/person.

Back to Learning Center