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Sharpening Scholarly Skills Can Enhance Professional Performance

By Dr. Kate Brannum, Program Director, International Relations at American Public University
Dr. Nicole Drumhiller, Program Director, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Many graduate students are uncertain about how to engage in academic discussions. They know that as advanced practitioners and emerging scholars they need to sharpen their scholarly skills and learn to go much deeper in their classroom discussions. However, it can be challenging to make the transition from casual conversations to something more analytical within the classroom. Moving from an environment in which you’ve collected and packaged information to one in which you need to critically evaluate that information and make recommendations can be challenging for students. In addition to this, there are challenges associated with knowing your audience and contributing to a high level of dialogue in a scholarly setting.

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At the graduate level, conversations need to be professional as well as have a high degree of “scholarly rigor.” One trap that students fall victim to is drawing solely on their work experience when responding to questions and failing to consider what the literature holds on the subject under discussion. This level of discussion tends to begin with phrases like, “In my experience at XYZ organization…” or “What I’ve personally seen occur within this field…” Unfortunately, only drawing upon one’s own experiences doesn’t meet the standard for approaching a topic with “scholarly rigor.”

From Classroom to Workplace

Scholarly skills and rigor aren’t just for academic types; it’s something desirable by government and private organizations as well. One of the reasons the military and U.S. government want intelligence and military officers to have higher education is that they don’t want their knowledge bases to be limited to only what they or their immediate colleagues and supervisors have experienced. They need to go outside your comfort zone and discuss the important works in the field as well.

Sometimes this is hard for new students who want to share the knowledge they have coming into their studies. And there may be a place for that. However, students must remember that even if their personal knowledge isn’t classified, their classmates can’t verify it. If someone says, “Well, I know this is true because when I was in China, I saw…” there’s no way for classmates to double-check that information. It’s far better to draw on research and scholarly material to support assertions.

Scholarly Skills Can Make You A Better Intelligence Analyst

Students in the intelligence field face some additional challenges. One common comment we hear from graduate students with security clearances is, “I can’t provide support for my assertion because it is classified. Anything I say is informed by what I know from my career.” Even if that is the case, upper-level intelligence professionals learn to become comfortable talking in both classified and non-classified environments. Officials may need to testify in open hearings, participate in symposiums or conferences, give other invited talks, or simply brief folks with different security classifications. Being able to use scholarly skills to speak appropriately in a professional capacity is a crucial skill, and something that can be cultivated within graduate-level seminars.

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While students may draw from their experiences, they must then look to the literature to see how that might compare, with the mindset that personal experience, unless otherwise professionally examined, is an N of 1. The forums are a great opportunity to discuss the shared material read by all students as part of a class. One of the tricks is to follow the model of how academics and professionals interact at conferences and meetings. For instance, someone may comment this way:

“I recently read……. How do you think that would fit into your argument that…?.”

“I’m curious how you would respond to so and so’s argument that…”

Learn to Accept Being Challenged

In terms of building scholarly skills, it is also important to learn how to accept challenges to your ideas without being defensive. Challenging each other’s assertions is an important part of analytical discourse and a crucial classroom exercise. It brings everybody’s work to the next level. Someone who just writes “good job” or “really interesting” isn’t helping you develop your ideas. You don’t have to agree with what the challenger says or change your own position; you just need to consider it.

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This brings us to the next important point of areas to build scholarly skills: You need to anticipate counterarguments. Whenever you put forth an idea you should think about any potential weakness or vague areas. Sometimes you may want to address them right away in your initial post and sometimes you may just want to be ready to respond. Preparing for counterarguments is always a good way to address a topic from all angles. While we might be invested in seeing an answer to a question turn out a specific way, what we’re really doing is inserting our own bias by not considering an alternative view point. When working on a specific topic, if you are omitting counterarguments or fail to take the other side into consideration, you might consider asking yourself why, since the goal within an academic setting is to challenge current views and think outside the box.

About the Authors:

Kate BrannumIn 2011 and 2013, Dr. Kate Brannum was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award for the School of Security and Global Studies. Kate received her bachelor’s degree with a concentration in international relations from James Madison College of Michigan State University. She earned her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research focused on international compliance with norms against torture. Dr. Brannum has been working as an instructor and administrator for the last 20 years. Her current interest is international norms and human rights.

Nicole DrumhillerDr. 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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