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Intelligence Career Options: What Degree Should You Consider?

By Dr. Nicole Drumhiller, Program Director, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

In my day-to-day work, I’m often asked questions like: What research paper topics are important to the intelligence community? What classes should I take? I’m currently working in (or would like to work in) the intelligence community, in what program should I enroll for my next degree?

When it comes to this last question, students are often thrown through a loop when I respond with, “Well, what do you want to do within the intelligence community?” It’s almost as if we default to jobs like those of actors played by Claire Danes or Rupert Friend on the popular TV show Homeland. While these roles are no doubt made salient by Hollywood, careers within the intelligence community are pretty diverse.

[Related Article: Challenges of Today’s Intelligence Analysts to Protect the Homeland]

Degrees to Consider
There appears to be a common misconception that people seeking intelligence community (IC) jobs, or to move their IC careers forward, should only be focused on studying political science or intelligence studies. In actuality, getting a degree in these areas is a good start, but it doesn’t end there.

Intel AnalystFor students looking to work in IC, the first thing they should realize is that it’s an extremely interdisciplinary career field with a lot of job variety. By interdisciplinary I mean that it pulls from a wide variety of subject areas, similar to jobs in international relations, or homeland security. To capitalize on this diversity, students should spend time contemplating what interests them, and examine how different degrees might make them more marketable, either in their current positions, or later should they ever want to change careers.

If I were a student completing a bachelor’s in intelligence studies, it might make sense for me to continue to pursue a master’s degree in the same area. But just because you get one degree in intelligence studies, doesn’t mean you have to get a second. For example, think about a person that already has a bachelor’s in intelligence studies. What kind of doors might open up if they were to pursue a master’s in economics, finance or business? With such a degree combination, one could pursue a path focusing on illicit finance, business intelligence and corporate espionage, for example. Some of the more obvious degree pairings may include intelligence studies (either a bachelor’s or master’s) coupled with psychology, anthropology, history or ever-proliferating degrees in cybersecurity. But the options don’t end here.

[Related Article: Intelligence Analyst Balances Deployment and Education]

For those interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the IC also has an array of opportunities specific to these areas. For example, check out the CIA’s “Career Opportunities” webpage, where you’ll find a wide variety of job opportunities that go beyond being a political analyst or operations or collections officer. Within its Directorate of Science and Technology, you’ll find opportunities for applicants with backgrounds in areas like biology, physics, and a number of engineering fields. Since I don’t want to play favorites, I should point out that these diverse opportunities are not just limited to the CIA, but are also present within other branches of the IC.

Career Transition Considerations
Similar guidance would also apply to people already working within the IC seeking to change careers. While a person might be focused on doing intelligence analysis within a government agency, they may want to work outside of government doing either something similar or totally different.

A good way to gain insight on what degree fields are relevant to specific jobs is to carefully review job announcements. When “other relevant field” is listed as an option, the prospective employer is basically saying, “Convince me you are a good fit.” This is where writing skills can make or break an application package.

Another option is to contact a recruiter directly, either through a job announcement or at a job fair. They can be a wealth of knowledge and insight into the type of skill set an employer is looking for. Here, establishing rapport is key as this recruiter may keep you in mind if another position becomes available when the first one wasn’t a good fit.

Bottom-line, don’t get caught up in the, “which degree is best” game and instead focus on determining your interests and then fashion your education around those interests.

The key takeaway from this is that your education, and the impact that it has on your career options, is only as limited as your imagination.

A similar version of this article originally appeared on AMU’s In Homeland Security.

Nicole Drumhiller_SMAbout the Author: Nicole Drumhiller graduated with a Ph.D. in Political Science from Washington State University. She is currently the Program Director of the Intelligence Studies Program at American Public University System. Nicole teaches courses in analysis, profiling, deception, and propaganda. Her research interests include cognition, group and leadership psychology, and extremist studies.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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