Professional development

How to get security clearance and win more contracts

Tyra Appleby
May 13, 2020 by
Tyra Appleby


Having a security clearance can increase your job options and make you a more sought-after employee. An individual is not authorized to obtain a clearance on their own: they must be sponsored by the government or a cleared contracting company. Many employers would prefer to hire a candidate that already has a security clearance, because going through the process can cost up to $15,000, but many still hire qualified candidates and sponsor them to obtain a clearance.

In order to qualify for a security clearance, the candidate must be a US citizen and of good character, mental health and financial standing at the very least. These are appealing traits to any employer. It suggests a certain level of stability and reliability in the candidate.

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You are only sponsored for a clearance if your job duties require you to access classified information. If at any point that requirement stops, your clearance will no longer be sponsored. As long as you gain sponsorship again within two years, your clearance is reactivated. If your lapse continues outside of the two-year window, it is treated as a new investigation.

Having a security clearance can increase a worker's salary — in some cases, drastically. Two workers with the same job title, the same number of years’ experience and the same educational background, could see as much as a $20,000 increase in salary going towards the cleared employee. This makes obtaining a security clearance worth enduring the often long and intrusive process.

There are three levels of clearance, as well as a related status.


This clearance level is issued to personnel that need to access material, which, if improperly disclosed, could be reasonably expected to cause some measurable damage to national security. The vast majority of military personnel are given this fundamental level of clearance. An employee with a confidential level clearance needs to be reinvestigated every fifteen years.


This clearance level is issued to personnel that need to access material, which, if improperly disclosed, could be expected to cause serious damage to national security. An employee with a secret level clearance is reinvestigated every ten years.

Top Secret

This clearance level is issued to personnel that need to access material which could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if it was released without authorization. An employee with a Top Secret-level clearance is reinvestigated every five years.

Public trust

Some government positions require an increased level of sensitivity, but not a security clearance. These are public trust positions. 

The investigation for public trust positions is similar to the clearance levels listed. It is often misrepresented as the fourth type of clearance; however, it is not actually considered a clearance, just an investigation type. 

If you have worked on a public trust position before, that might help you be viewed as a “clearable” candidate, meaning you could obtain one of the clearance levels listed.

Obtaining a clearance

Obtaining a clearance is a three-step process:

  • Initiate
  • Investigate
  • Adjudicate


After you apply and interview for a job requiring a security clearance, the Facility Security Officer (FSO) of the contracting company starts the process. They send a request for an investigation through the Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS). 

After this request is submitted, you are required to fill out questionnaire forms called the SF86. At times, this may be a set of physical paper hard copies that you fill out by hand, but often you use an electronic system called e-QIP (Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing). It is identical to the paper copies but using the e-QIP system sends your completed application to the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) for review. 

After that, they forward the electronic submission to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Some of the information you are required to provide includes:

  • Previous residences, employment history, military service, education, marital status, relatives and associates
  • Any issues relating to mental health, criminal activity, drug/alcohol use, credit, and allegiance to the United States
  • People who know you and can verify the information you provide

Once OPM receives the information from your DISCO-approved e-QIP forms, they are responsible for conducting the investigation.


The investigation is performed by the Defense Security Service (DSS). Officials interview individuals who know you to verify the information provided about your background. Some of the individuals who are subject to interview about your qualifications and background include:

  • Friends and associates
  • Employers and coworkers
  • Neighbors and landlords
  • Teachers and classmates
  • Law enforcement officials
  • Former spouses
  • Other sources as needed

The DSS investigator is looking to determine your loyalty to the United States, your reliability, your honesty and overall conduct. The answers you submit on the SF86 must be truthful. If the officer discovers some discrepancies during the investigation, these can delay the process. The officer would then need to re-verify information with you

Once the investigation is complete, OPM sends the findings to DISCO. If everything is in order, the clearance is granted. If not, the results are sent to the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA).

The time it takes for an investigation varies. It varies based on the clearance level and the current backlog of pending investigations. Of course, a Confidential clearance level investigation takes less time than a Top Secret one. 

The backlog varies from month to month. The current wait time for a completed investigation, particularly for a Top Secret from initiation to adjudication, is around a year.


If you're approved, then that means your clearance is adjudicated. The customer agency that issued the work requirements and contracting company's FSO receive notification that your clearance is finalized and approved. After the adjudication is complete, you are ready to work on your assigned project.

You maintain your clearance for the number of years tied to your clearance level:

  • Confidential: 15 years
  • Secret: 10 years
  • Top Secret: 5 years

At the end of this time, you go through a Periodic Reinvestigation (PR). You fill out the SF86 again. If you initially did your paperwork in e-QIP, many of your previous responses are stored, saving you some time. 

You can also be chosen for random investigation earlier than your set time. This is especially true if you trigger any potential red flags. This could include large debt, odd or erratic spending, any arrest, or other potentially suspicious or alarming events. It's crucial to maintain good credit and reduced debt and avoid any illegal activity or arrests. 

Maintaining your clearance

Maintaining your clearance is essential. When companies bid for government contracts, having employees who are already cleared can make them more attractive. The wait time for clearing an individual can be extensive, and if the government needs to complete a project quickly, they would prefer a company that could get started promptly as well. 

Maintaining your clearance is beneficial to you as well as your company. If you decide to leave the company you currently work for, your clearance can move with you if you take a position that also requires the same clearance level you had or a lower-level clearance. This means that if you have a Top Secret clearance and decide to take a job that only requires a Secret clearance, you maintain your clearance at least at a Secret level while in your new position. 

In this example, companies would likely try to maintain your Top-Secret level because the higher the clearance level, the more beneficial you are. It behooves you to try to maintain your highest clearance level, if possible. On the other hand, if you have a Secret level clearance and apply for a position that requires a Top Secret because you have a clearance, a company may still hire you and put you through the process of upgrading to the higher level. This can be less time-consuming than hiring someone with no clearance at all.


Clearances are valuable. Treat them as such. 

A job applicant with a high-level security clearance on their resume instantly says several things to a potential employer. One, you are eligible to do projects or tasks that require security clearance. But it’s much more than that. A security clearance shows a potential employer that you are dependable as an employee and as a citizen, that you have essentially been pre-vetted for your applicability to difficult jobs. 

What should you learn next?

What should you learn next?

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If you have the opportunity to get or maintain a security clearance, even if you don’t immediately need it in your profession, you should treat it like any security certification: keep it up to date and use it for the calling card that it is.

Tyra Appleby
Tyra Appleby

Tyra Appleby is a CISSP certified lover of all things cybersecurity. After serving 4 years in the Navy as a Cryptologic Technician, she continued supporting various DoD and government agencies as a Systems Security Engineer. She has a passion for writing and research, particularly in the areas of Reverse Engineering and Digital Forensics. When she’s not working, you can find her at the beach with her Rottweiler Ava.