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I'm currently doing a PhD in a STEM field, partly sponsored by a start-up company. I am potentially interested in continuing a research career either in the UK or the US, and have noticed that some of the labs that carry out this research are twinned with government bodies (e.g. US DoE). The nature of the research is not a case of top-level national security (e.g. nuclear weapons) although it is an area that is gaining a lot of traction due to global importance and scientific advancement (nuclear fusion). As far as I am aware, you only really need some form of security clearance for nuclear jobs if you are working with nuclear fission, due to the radioactive waste it produces. Nuclear fusion is much cleaner, as it doesn't produce any undesirable radioactive products.

I am aware that some nuclear jobs require some form of background check before starting - for example, a Baseline Personnel Security Standard (BPSS) check. This amounts to not much more than a criminal record check and address check, which I have successfully completed without any issues. However, I am conscious of the fact that some jobs require a higher level security clearance, which can probe into different aspects of your life.

I went through a dreadful mental health crisis just over a year ago, and obviously I am keen to avoid going through any sort of relapse or anything that might bring up upsetting thoughts or events relating to my episode. Even though I don't live some sort of double life as an axe-wielding homicidal maniac, naturally I am nervous about the prospect of bring probed on things that are not directly related to the job for which I am applying.

What level of clearance would I need if I was to work for a national/government laboratory, in the UK or in the US (for example, one twined with the DoE)? And would having mental health difficulties and being neurodivergent (autism/ADHD) be considered a red flag when it comes to completing any background checks? (just to be clear, I don't mean in terms of disability discrimination, but whether knowing that I have these disabilities and mental health issues could be interpreted as being more error-prone or more likely to divulge classified information without realising?)

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  • Isn't information about health protected? Can they probe that info, at all? I only found this about UK checks, and it looks like just police information: gov.uk/…
    – jwsc
    Jan 18, 2023 at 10:31
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    Working on something potentially dangerous can be very stressful. Are you sure that this is good fit for you ?
    – Hilmar
    Jan 18, 2023 at 10:31
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    @PhilipKendall Indeed.. it's also worth pointing out that when it comes to vetting the employer is not asking these questions (UKSV is), nor are they privy to the answers. All the employer gets is a basically a yes/no as to whether the person passed vetting.
    – motosubatsu
    Jan 18, 2023 at 12:28
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    @JoeStrazzere it isn't the fact that I would be going through a background check that would necessarily be upsetting, but more the invasiveness of it. At the answer below details, the Developed Vetting (DV) clearance has the scope to be incredibly traumatic for me, so I would rather not go for any job that requires one. On the other hand, the Security Check (SC) level sounds fine.
    – user138344
    Jan 18, 2023 at 12:33
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    “And would having mental health difficulties and being neurodivergent (autism/ADHD) be considered a red flag when it comes to completing any background checks?” - There are likely hundreds of thousands of individuals with security clearances with diagnosed cases of Autism and ADHD. The questions asked on the SF-86 application can be viewed, if you are worried, start filling it out. If your serious about wanting to work in the field you state, you might have to accept, that will involve a background check. Seeing a therapist is healthy, working on mental health is healthy, ignoring it is unheal
    – Donald
    Jan 18, 2023 at 12:43

2 Answers 2

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I can only really speak to the UK side of security clearances, but the ones here that start getting in-depth into your personal/private life are Enhanced Security Check (eSC) and Developed Vetting (DV), below that you probably have nothing to be concerned about.

Having been through the regular Security Check (SC) clearance process myself I can attest that at no point was I asked about my mental health or neuro-divergent status, there's no interview at that level, just a detailed background check into employment history, criminal records, travel records, and some fairly light financial scrutiny. For my part I just had to fill out a form (mostly about address and work history IIRC) and provide my ID and the rest happened in the background.

eSC is a more stringent version - essentially it's like SC with an added vetting interview and some extra financial checks.

Developed Vetting is another matter entirely, and would likely be required in any situation where you would be coming into contact (or have access to) governmental nuclear assets, information or category 1 nuclear material in general. I don't know whether fusion research would count (I confess I don't know enough about the current state of the topic to know) but it also can apply where you might have access to classified information belonging to another nation (e.g. the US). A friend went through the process for a role that had access to a nuclear-adjacent facility (I don't want to be too specific here!), they weren't in the nuclear field themselves, and had no access to any nuclear material - but were working on the facility's IT systems, which meant they could have theoretically accessed sensitive data. From what they've discussed with me it's an extremely in-depth trawl through your life, financial records, and in-depth interviews with yourself and the people in your immediate circle (e.g. family members). The interview is aimed at probing pressure points for potential vulnerabilities and is designed to deliberately make you uncomfortable - as a result nothing is off limits. Finances, family, friends, sexual proclivities, health, substance use etc. it's all potentially in play.

They don't really care if you've had mental health issues - they care if those issues either; (a) could be used to blackmail you or (b) would pose a risk if you were to relapse. So a history of mental health issues wouldn't automatically rule you out from getting DV clearance - but you can expect they would be probing at that area to see how you responded, so it's not likely to be pleasant!

So where does this leave you? Your best bet is to look at job postings for the sort of roles you're interested in - they will all say what the required vetting level is. Only you will really know where you're at but I'd suggest if you were looking at roles requiring DV or higher clearance you would need to be prepared for some tough topics to come up.

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I can only speak regarding US clearances on a limited basis.

If memory serves, the investigations really get in-depth with Top Secret (TS) clearances and above (The joys of e-QIP), with Secret and below being much less involved. TS involves full history of relatives, places of living, places of employment, financial situation (are you underwater/foreign assets), criminal record, etc. At this level (TS), they definitely do inquire about past issues including mental health.

Mental health, or even past criminal history are not automatic disqualifiers (although they don't necessarily help). The biggest questions that need to be answered are:

  • Are you honest (Lying to them is about the worst thing you can do, always be up front and honest)
  • Are you trustworthy (Are you reliable/good character/responsible?)
  • Are you exploitable? (Are you deep in debt? Do you have any financial/relational ties with foreign entities/nations? Is there anything you could be blackmailed with?)

With all of that said I have worked people who had DUIs/other alcohol issues, criminal charges, mental health issues and more who all were able to obtain (TS) or above. So long as they feel it is no longer an issue and doesn't impact any of the above questions then you can still get one. Basically everyone has had past issues, so long as you took the needed steps to address said issues then you shouldn't be too affected. This is especially true if you were the one to initiate getting help as they explicitly ask if you sought help yourself or if you were forced to either by your work or court.

As for what clearance level you would need, I can't speak to that. It entirely depends on what work you are doing, where you are doing it, and with what information. Sadly have no direct experience with the DoE side of things.

General US Clearance FAQ (Page loaded strange for me, had to scroll down a ways for actual FAQ): https://www.state.gov/security-clearances-faq-updates/b

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