As a faculty member teaching undergraduate- and graduate-level courses in intelligence studies, homeland security, and criminal justice, I find that many students come into college programs unable to conduct fundamental research, think critically, or engage in thorough analysis.
These skills are imperative for those pursuing careers as intelligence analysts and I’m not alone in my observation. There are widespread concerns that aspiring intelligence analysts are not being adequately prepared to take on the challenges associated with the intelligence field, particularly in the ever-changing information world. Industry and academic professionals have long stated that students entering the workplace often lack the necessary writing, research, and critical thinking skills, which are needed for the “real-world of intelligence.”
Better preparing future intelligence analysts falls largely on the backs of academic institutions that must equip students with the necessary skills to be successful in the field. There are several ways that aspiring intelligence analysts can enhance their skills, inside the classroom and out, so they’re better prepared.
Learn to Accept Feedback
Students enrolled in degree programs are there to learn. A significant part of learning is accepting criticism. Students need to accept that instructor feedback is constructive criticism aimed at helping them improve their skills, not disparaging their intelligence or abilities. When professors point out areas that are lacking in a student’s research paper, they are providing ways that student can improve.
All too often, students expect a certain grade, which is often based on what they want, not what they deserve. Students must understand that assignments are graded on more than just the content, but also on their application of critical thought and their ability to collect, correlate, and analyze information.
As a professor, I’m always evaluating whether students demonstrate critical thought in their writing and whether they submitted a clear, concise and succinct research paper stripped of bias, assumptions, and preconceptions. Is their thesis statement defined with a focus that the reader can grasp, and did they draw a conclusion that is well supported by credible sources?
Understand Different Sources
Evaluating sources is a critical skill for intelligence analysts. However, many students do not know the difference between reliable and unreliable sources. I often instruct students not to cite news or media reports for academic papers because it is difficult to decipher how trustworthy these sources are. Furthermore, many students will cite information that is 20-plus years old and not think about the fact that it is outdated, and newer information likely exists.
Students should first ask themselves what type of information they’re looking for. Are they looking for scholarly or peer-reviewed articles? Professional or trade journals? Government or think-tank technical reports? Search categories are generally broken into three distinctions: databases (for articles), library catalogs (for books), and internet-based searches (for everything else, but where finding a good source is like finding a needle in the haystack).
Databases often provide the best access to high-quality, up-to-date information and in many instances provide online full-text articles. The great thing about databases is they are typically geared towards specific topics of research. Students should limit their use of internet search engines like Google or Yahoo, which often return excessive results that don’t include very many usable articles. Ultimately, the internet is no match for using a database or catalog search.
The only exception regarding internet searching is the use of Google Scholar. This search engine only returns scholarly literature from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other websites. It includes articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions. Google Scholar excludes any non-scholarly news and media content that otherwise would be found on Google.
Tips on Improving Search Efforts
While students are often given access to powerful multi-search databases, many do not fully understand how to exploit and manipulate the search functions of these sites to extract information. Becoming proficient at finding information from a variety of different sources is a critical skill that will be used throughout an analyst’s career.
Students should start with a basic topic search. If an initial search brings back too many results, using multiple search terms will retrieve a smaller number of articles. It is a good idea to start with general terms and continually refine the search to allow for better management of results. I recommend including synonyms and related words and taking notes of which search terms produce the best results.
Students should also be aware that almost all databases have advanced search options that allow for a more sophisticated inquiry. It is possible to search multiple terms and search specific fields such as author name, article title, publication title, and subject. In addition, limiting features can be set to return only scholarly or peer-reviewed articles or only articles published within a particular date range.
Boolean operators can also be used to define the relationship between search terms and helps either narrow or broaden the results. The most commonly used Boolean operators are AND, OR and NOT. Search engines in portals or websites may have additional logic and operators to help refine a search.
Whether they’re narrowing a search due to too many results or expanding a search because of too few, students should remain flexible. Adding, deleting, or simply changing terms allows students to be more strategic in finding the most relevant sources for their research.
Focus on Self-Directed Learning
Students can learn a lot in the classroom, but true improvement comes through self-motivation. Aspiring intelligence analysts should always be looking for additional ways to improve their skills.
Improve Reading Comprehension
In addition to constantly reading, it’s important to focus on improving one’s comprehension. As a professor, I’ve found that students often read material but don’t always fully comprehend the information. They scan the material believing this is reading. In the end, for example, when I ask students to provide a synopsis of an article, many cannot provide an accurate overview of the document.
How do you improve comprehension? One technique that students can use is applying their previous knowledge to new situations by previewing (scanning) material. For example, previewing text—which is more scanning material versus in-depth reading—taps into what a student already knows. This technique can assist students in better understanding what they will read once they give their undivided attention to reading the text in-depth. Previewing text helps students form a framework, or structured technique, that assists them in developing new information by bringing it into context based on their previous knowledge.
When students make predictions prior to reading, they create an expectation based on prior knowledge about similar topics. The drawback of this is that it creates bias through assumptions. However, the benefit is that it encourages students to actively think as they read by forcing them to mentally revise their prediction while gaining more information and insight.
What’s the Main Idea?
As with analytical writing, students should actively identify the main idea of what they are reading. By identifying the main idea, then summarizing it, the individual can determine the importance of the overall material while putting it in their own words. This process is implicit as the individual attempts to synthesize the purpose of the text.
It may sound cliché but let the material speak to you through pictures in your mind. Visualizing while reading allows students to better recall information. Taking advantage of illustrations that are embedded in the readings will reinforce what you are learning, as will creating your own mental pictures or images.
Question What You’re Reading
Asking and answering questions is a great way to focus on the meaning of the material. Asking questions about what you just read will reinforce the information. This strategy also leads into a student’s ability to make inferences. Not all information is explicit and therefore requires the reader to learn how to draw on prior knowledge and recognize clues.
Seek Out Mentors
Students should actively engage with professors and seek to learn from their experiences. Many faculty members are current or retired practitioners in their field of expertise and it’s important to ask how the information being taught in the classroom applies directly to the work of intelligence analysts. Seeking out professionals who are willing to provide knowledge and mentorship can help students hone their skills and abilities and give them greater insight into the realities of the field.
The students of today will be the professional intelligence analysts of the future. It is up to both the educator (professor and institution) and the student to improve critical thinking skills first and foremost. If critical thinking skills lack, then so will research abilities and writing capabilities. We ALL must continually seek to improve ourselves in reading more actively (comprehension), thinking more critically, and writing more accurately.
About the Author: Charles M. Russo is an instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He possesses a PhD in Public Safety Leadership from Capella University and an MA in Intelligence Studies from American Military University. Charles served in the US Navy for 17 years as an Intelligence Specialist and has taught Criminal Justice, Homeland Security and Intelligence at American Military University, Colorado Technical University and several other state universities, having previously taught for the State University of New York at Canton. He is a retired intelligence analyst after serving more than 26 years in the US Intelligence Community which included the US Navy, US Air Force, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is the CEO of Intelligence Career Services, a provider of mentoring and assisting individuals looking to become active in the IC. He is also a consultant supporting intelligence, law enforcement and emergency response training and education efforts across state and local government. He currently lives and works in Carson City, Nevada.