A Chinese-American graduate student named Dongxia is strolling through what has become a springtime mating ritual at the nation's top schools of engineering: the tech job fair. In an attention-grabbing booth on one side of the gym at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recruiters from Microsoft make work for the software giant seem like a highly paid extension of college life: a video shows young men and women at the Redmond, Wash., headquarters playing with Nerf toys between all-night bouts of writing code. Nearby, the Boeing booth touts its work on the space station. But Dongxia (pronounced doong-shee-ah), 32, like many of the 500 techies mobbing the job fair, is soon drawn across the gym to a navy-blue booth that bears the seal of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The attraction is mutual. "You're prime time for us," coos recruiter Bryan Peters. "Have you had much work in toxicology? In things that would harm living organisms?" Dongxia is intrigued. "It sounds very exciting," she says. This just might be the start of a beautiful relationship.
The CIA is looking for a few good geeks--about 300 this year alone: computer scientists, electrical engineers and biochemists who may know nothing about using a handgun or microfilm but are equipped to tackle today's big intelligence-gathering challenges. These include not just analysis of scientific data intercepted abroad or detection of biological and chemical weapons, but also running techno-spies as field-deployed case officers. Says CIA recruiter Gilbert Medeiros: "We're looking for more of those with a technical background so they can talk technical out in the intelligence-collection world." The CIA, which once recruited at 190 colleges and universities, now focuses on 66, almost all of which have strong science and technical programs. The agency's traditional recruiting grounds, Ivy League schools like Princeton and Yale, last year provided only about 30 of its 1,000-plus hires.
The CIA can pay new recruits about $50,000 a year--mere beer money to many of the top science grads, who are courted with six-figure salaries and stock options by Internet start-ups and established tech firms. But the agency carries a certain cachet among some lab dwellers. "I'm interested in the challenge, the exciting lifestyle," says Alan, 30, a postdoctoral student of biomedicine at M.I.T. (He and others asked that their last names not be used.) The dotcoms are too volatile, he says, and too many big companies are "on cruise control." Quentin, 20, a junior student of electrical engineering, says, "It's kind of a noble job."
Recruiter Peters works to sell the adventure of the job to Jessica, an apprehensive sophomore majoring in computer science and electrical engineering. "We've had young people like you getting a passport and heading overseas," he tells her, "and they've come back with some wonderful stories."
Such lines don't always work. Peters pours the charm on Dongxia, but she already has a better offer: running her own lab for a research company that would start her at $80,000 a year. Still, all is not lost for the agency. Alan, the biomedicine student, is hot to trot, and there are more where he came from.
--By Massimo Calabresi/Cambridge