Alumni Spotlight: Jim Crotty '03
Published on Nov 13, 2019
ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: JIM CROTTY ’03
Although his dad wanted him to get a business degree because it was “more practical,” Jim Crotty followed his passion for international relations, national security, and most importantly, public service. Crotty, a firm believer in doing what you love, says he has no regrets. After graduating from Auburn in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, he went on to earn a master’s degree from Boston College, and a law degree from the University of Alabama. After a brief time in the private sector, Crotty joined the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and began a rewarding career that has taken him around the globe. From drug trafficking and money laundering to cyber investigations on the dark web, Crotty has spent the past decade working in a field where he puts his liberal arts education to use every day.
Where are you from and how did decide to attend Auburn University?
I moved around quite a bit growing up. By the time I graduated from law school, I had moved 12 times and lived in 11 different cities. I was born in Dallas, but Atlanta is my home away from home. My wife was born and raised there, and we both have a lot of family that live there now. I moved from Atlanta to Tampa after my freshman year in high school. I was a competitive swimmer and that is what led me to Auburn. I wanted to swim in college, and Auburn had one of the top...probably THE top program in the country at the time. I was a good swimmer, but not a great one. Dave Marsh was the head coach, and I was fortunate he gave me an opportunity to be a part of the team.
How did you decide to major in political science?
I was undeclared until the last possible moment. I came to Auburn with the very idealistic – and real – notion that college is a place for higher learning and figuring out what you want to do with your life. One of the advantages of being an undeclared major in the College of Liberal Arts was that I was exposed to a lot of different courses and fields of study through the core curriculum. That gave me a little time to figure it all out. I remember sitting down with course catalog – which back then were all in paper copies – and highlighting all the classes that interested me. I basically went back and counted them up and found that the majority were in political science.
Who was your favorite professor?
Gary Zuk, a professor who, unfortunately, passed away a few years after I graduated. I took at least half a dozen courses with him. He taught a number of courses on international relations and national security, which was very much in line with my own interests. I also partnered with him on a directed readings course in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Honors College. He recommended several books for me to read, such as Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, and to this day they are among the most memorable and influential in my academic career. Professor Zuk was a very friendly, approachable, down to earth guy, and one you could tell really enjoyed teaching and spending time with his students.
What advice do you have for students?
Broadly speaking, I’d say try to appreciate the limited time you have in college. It’s a rare opportunity to focus on personal growth and learning, and occasionally having a good time. There’s a lot of pressure these days to take a certain path that will lead to a stable career. There is a lot of criticism for liberal arts majors because they’re not as “practical.” One of the old jokes I used to hear was, “what do you do with a degree in political science? Go to law school.” I understand the sentiment because ultimately we all have to do something after we graduate. However, I very much believe people tend to do better at the things they enjoy, so my advice would to figure out whatever it is you’re passionate about, and do that. It certainly worked for me!
What led you to pursue a master’s and a law degree?
I graduated a year early from Auburn, and if I’m being honest, I wasn’t really prepared to get a real job. I really enjoyed my time at Auburn, and wanted to learn more about political science and especially international relations, which led me pursue a master’s degree. I was attracted to Boston College because I’d never lived in that part of the country, and also because their political science program – like the College of Liberal Arts – allowed for a lot of flexibility to concentrate in whatever interests you (within limits). After completing my master’s, I again found myself at a crossroads, and needed to figure out what to do next. I explored a few different options, including the military, a PhD, and law school. Having just finished my master’s thesis, the thought of completing a dissertation kind of dissuaded me from going the PhD route. I was actually selected to Officer Candidate School in the Marine Corps, but after discussing it with my then girlfriend, now wife (who I met at Auburn), decided against it. So I ended up going to law school. Even before I started, I had a pretty good idea that I didn’t really want to practice law. That said, I made a lot of good friends in law school, and the skills I learned there are applicable to many different fields. And Auburn won the Iron Bowl all three years I lived in Tuscaloosa, so that was worth sticking around for.
You mentioned internships played a big part in your academic career. Tell us about those and your path after law school.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of internships when it comes to gaining practical work experience to develop your resume, and helping you find a career. I completed two internships while studying at Auburn, one at the Attorney General’s office in Montgomery, and another on the Hill at Senator Richard Shelby’s office. Working for Senator Shelby was actually my first exposure to the intelligence community outside of TV and movies. At the time, he was the ranking member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and it gave me an opportunity to learn more about the types of careers available in intelligence. In law school, I was selected for an internship at the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, which is a little like the CIA for the Department of Defense. That is really what got my foot in the door, and from that point on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for a career. When I graduated from law school, I worked briefly in the private sector with a consulting firm engaged in national security work. I worked with some really bright people, but found it wasn’t a great fit. I was looking for something a bit more operational, so when an opportunity to join DEA came up, I jumped at it and have been with DEA ever since. While it may not pay as much as a law firm or a consulting firm, I’m believe in the ideals of public service, and have found this is exactly where I’m supposed to me.
Take us through your career with the DEA. I think many people immediately think of “kicking in doors with a gun and badge and arresting people,” but your position wasn’t like that.
Yes, there’s a little more to the DEA than that. Within DEA, we have roughly 10,000 total employees, give or take. Of those, about half are Special Agents, which is what most people traditionally think of as DEA. Beyond that, on the operational side, we also have Intelligence Analysts, and Diversion Investigators, who are focused on the illegal diversion of pharmaceutical drugs. I’m on the intel side of the house, and while we perform a lot of different functions depending on our assignment, our primary role is to support intelligence driven operations. As I like to say, we don’t kick in the doors, we tell them [the Special Agents] which doors to kick in. My first assignment was in a strategic unit at DEA headquarters. I was effectively a “desk officer” responsible for Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. In some ways, it was a kind of an academic environment. We were responsible for preparing briefings and strategic intelligence products to help inform policymakers. It involved a lot of reading, writing, and analysis. It was a good fit, and directly applicable to what I had learned in all those years of school.
But like most people that join DEA, I also wanted to do some of the cool, sexy stuff, so I volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan with one of our Foreign Advisory and Support Teams, or FAST teams, which were modeled after Special Forces units and performed a lot of interdiction and lab destruction operations. I was in Afghanistan during the “surge” in 2010 – and also during the Auburn national championship game – and it was a really incredible experience being there in what felt like a pivotal time in the conflict, and also showed me a very different side of the job.
I was then selected for a tour of duty in our London Country Office in the United Kingdom. A lot of people don’t realize DEA has the largest law enforcement presence of any federal law enforcement agency, with 90 offices in almost 70 countries around the world. I was stationed in London for five years, which is also where my wife and I had our two little girls. When my tour ended, I was promoted to a Group Supervisor position in Chicago, where I oversaw a group of Intelligence Analysts supporting drug cases in / around Chicago. I was in that role until just recently, when I was selected to be the Executive Assistant to the Administrator, the head of our agency. It’s kind of a boring title, but it’s a pretty important role. In the military, it would be like an executive officer; in other places, it would be like a deputy chief of staff.
What are some key skills that a person needs in your line of work?
I think the perception of law enforcement is you need to be physically fit and have a clean record, and those things are certainly important. But one skill I found really useful in every step along my way was being a good writer. Reading, writing, and analysis are key no matter what field you’re in, and everyone in college should seek to master those skills. In law school especially, we did a ton of it, which really helped me along the way. You also have to have a “growth mindset,” and continue to learn and improve no matter what you do. Even now, I continue to seek out training and professional development opportunities.
Intelligence and law enforcement agencies are frequently looking for people with diverse backgrounds, good grades, advanced degrees, and other specialized skills such as computer science, accounting, and languages. You can still get a job in these fields without those specific skills or credentials, but there still some technical skills that, even as a liberal arts graduate, you will be expected to know. For example, you have to know your way around a computer, how to effectively use PowerPoint, Excel, that kind of stuff. Technology is moving quickly and you have to move with it.
In my field, language skills and knowledge of other cultures can also be a real advantage, especially if you want to live and work overseas. I minored in French at Auburn, and studied abroad in France one summer, but sadly, it’s a perishable skill, and I speak very little of it now. Still, learning a new language changes your perspective and your way of thinking, which is always very helpful.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career over the years?
One of the biggest challenges I faced in pursuing a career in intelligence and law enforcement was the barriers to entry. That is another reason I sought additional schooling and experience: to make myself more competitive for these highly sought after positions. I would also note that the application process for some of these positions can be very lengthy and opaque. The lesson there is if this is your goal, you must be patient and persistent in that pursuit.
What has made you successful?
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint any one thing. I have had a lot of help along the way from my parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and family. But I think ultimately what it boils down to is just working hard. A lot of the other things we’ve discussed can be learned, but it’s hard to teach a strong work ethic.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
I genuinely love what I do. As I said before, I’m a true believer in public service, and in upholding the rule of law. At DEA, we go after the worst of the worst, both in the U.S., and around the world. Our job is to bring to justice the people that flout the rules we as a society have all agreed upon, and profit from it. I have a lot of great stories to tell about my time at DEA, and a lot of things I’m proud of, but in the end, our job is to put bad guys in jail – and we’re really good at it.
It sounds like you job has a great deal of stress with it. What do you do to decompress? For fun?
It’s tough work and can be all-consuming at times, so I try to decompress by hitting the gym. On the weekends, I like to watch sports, mostly college football, and spend some quality time with my family. I don't have a lot of free time, so if when I’m not working, I'm with my two little girls, ages four and 1.5. They’re the most important thing in my life.