By Daniela Baches-Torres
Faculty Member, Intelligence Studies
The Intelligence Community (IC) and the intelligence tradecraft have benefited from the growing number of intelligence-related academic programs created in the last two decades.
In the U.S., intelligence courses became core subjects of both undergraduate and graduate collegiate programs in security, crisis management, international relations, criminal studies, or law enforcement. At the same time, more universities began creating intelligence-focused degrees or tailoring their bachelor’s and master’s programs in intelligence to better match the intelligence profession market.
Some institutions are providing a more theoretical curriculum, while others are shaped around a more applied, hands-on approach. But keeping up with the growing demand for intelligence professionals, as well as the evolution of the tradecraft, represents a challenging task for academics who are expected to provide students with the skills needed to enter the intelligence workforce.
A considerable portion of the graduate students who join the IC, or alternatively embark in a career in corporate intelligence, do not necessarily have a degree in intelligence; only some of them have taken a course in or related to intelligence analysis.
Many early-career intelligence analysts earned degrees that provide them with a rather general background and understanding of international politics, criminal justice, psychology, or cultural studies. They become acquainted with the intelligence tradecraft in the first months of on-the-job training.
The immersion process can provide a future government intelligence analyst with more time to discover the world of intelligence and structured training programs. In the private sector, however, the training is a “learning by doing” experience that starts on the first day, especially within recently created Private Sector Intelligence Units (PSIUs). Thus, it is essential that students understand the importance of skills they can develop during an academic program — particularly when pursuing a degree in intelligence studies — that they can successfully exploit when beginning a career in intelligence.
A quick review of internships or career opportunities in the IC or law enforcement agencies, as well as of the many job descriptions within PSIUs, provide an overview of the main skills that an intelligence analyst is expected to have from entry-level to more senior levels.
Intelligence studies programs usually include courses that aim to help students achieve these skills through tailored readings, case studies, and assignments. However, these skills also pertain to most academic programs that aim at providing students with the tools to become critical thinkers, good communicators, and independent professionals able to navigate different fields within a profession, industry, or sector.
The main functional and knowledge-based skills students can learn during their studies and further develop as intelligence practitioners include research skills, critical thinking skills, analytical skills, communication skills, technology skills, teamwork, and time management skills.
Refining Research Skills
Intelligence practitioners in general, and intelligence analysts in particular, are curious researchers always looking to answer questions, identify knowledge gaps, become aware of unknowns, and hunt for the missing information to extend their knowledge.
Courses in research methods provide the foundation of information collection and analysis of information, providing students with the tools to access sources and navigate the information available. Both in government and in the private sector, the analyst is also a planner, a collector, and a disseminator of intelligence. That requires drawing actionable meaning from multiple sources that the analyst needs to access and validate. Other courses focusing on collection methods in intelligence and open source intelligence (OSINT) provide additional foundations for specific knowledge-based skills that will assist the analyst in gathering the necessary intelligence for both tactical and strategic products.
Enhance Specialized Critical Thinking Skills
As David T. Moore wrote for the National Defense Intelligence College,“Analysts and analysts alone create intelligence. Technological marvels assist analysts (…), they do not do analysis. To be most effective, analysts need an overarching, reflective framework to add structured reasoning to sound, intuitive thinking.”
Critical thinking is at the core of intelligence analysts’ work. It shapes their cognitive and analytic abilities to provide accurate, unbiased, purposeful, and actionable assessments to enable informed decision-making. The development of critical thinking skills is a continuous intellectual and learning activity that involves both structured thinking and thinking about thinking.
But while there is consensus about the importance of critical thinking, teaching it remains a complex task; one that involves commitment, consistent practice, and exposure to extensive readings and experience that build cross-domain knowledge and the wisdom to doubt, question, challenge the status quo and the accepted “known.” A wide range of academic subjects can provide strong foundations for critical thinking, from more general subjects such as Philosophy and Logic to more specialized courses like Critical Analysis, Denial and Deception, or Structured Analytic Techniques (SATs).
Developing Analytical Skills
In the narrow sense, an analytic thinker can break down information to discern and convey meaning. However, the analytical skills an intelligence professional must possess refer to the broader ability to understand the function of intelligence as knowledge within a context. Analysts collect and analyze information to detect patterns, identify trends, anticipate changes, and provide intelligence products that can guide decision-making. Courses like Intelligence Studies, Intelligence Collection, Intelligence Analysis and Problem Solving provide students with an understanding of the role and use of intelligence in recognizing threats and anticipating risks to enable informed decision-making.
Improving Oral and Written Communication Skills
Intelligence job descriptions across sectors expect candidates to have excellent writing skills and be good communicators. An intelligence professional in general and an intelligence analyst specifically must be able to communicate effectively for different audiences and in different situations. The successful delivery of intelligence depends upon the analyst’s ability to deliver the message in accordance with the customer’s needs.
When speaking truth to power, the analyst must deliver the message in a succinct but comprehensive way. And also adapt the content and presentation to the type of action the customer should take. That can be either short, tactical reporting for immediate responses or more detailed, strategic assessments for resource allocation and planning). Both Academic Writing and Analytic Writing courses are excellent tools for students to develop their communication skills.
Developing Digital Technology Skills
Emerging technologies are transforming the intelligence tradecraft, augmenting analysts’ ability to craft strategic and value-added analysis and insights. Both in government and in the private sector, intelligence professionals are expected to be tech savvy. Threat actors and organizations target essential technology and use technology. To mitigate the risks they pose, intelligence professionals must be able to speak the language and understand the modus operandi of these actors.
Intelligence practitioners must also be able to integrate technology-driven tools in their daily information collection and processing, especially as open-source information (OSINF) and OSINT are driving the analytic process. Moreover, the delivery of actionable intelligence to decision-makers is increasingly being shaped by interactive multimedia content, infographics, hypertext, or immersive communication. Technology is increasingly imbedded in academic teaching and learning, which gives students a strong foundation to navigate the ongoing digital transformation of intelligence.
Teamwork Skills and Networking
Collaboration is essential in intelligence. While the ability to work independently and be a self-starter are among the main requirements of a job in intelligence, collaboration is also vital. An intelligence analyst is anything but an insular individual. Learning to work with one’s peers, proactively engaging with subject matter experts and stakeholders, and building a network of knowledge is the path toward a successful career in intelligence. Just as students should not give the professor the opportunity to tell them to interact more, intelligence analysts should be one step ahead of their managers and engage with colleagues and experts across the industry and beyond.
Time management. The amount of information and the workload often outpaces the intelligence analyst’s time. Being able to assess the urgency of tasks and to prioritize requests will mean better management of the resources available and a more efficient execution of work. The academic workload and the diversity of assignments combined with extracurricular activities and personal life are comparable in many ways to the time management challenges that building a career involve. Add to that the many last-minute tasks, briefings, new information collection, and unplanned crises that will require the intelligence practitioner’s immediate intervention.
Another set of paramount skills to the intelligence professional pertain to more personal attributes. While these skills are not directly related to the coursework, they can be shaped and nurtured within the academic environment and further developed throughout one’s career:
- The ability to receive both positive and negative feedback and be able to capitalize on constructive criticism
- To have a flexibility and versatility that adapt to different contexts and situations
- To have foreign language skills that open doors to better understanding other cultures and accessing information
Government and the private sector are increasingly competing for talented and skilled intelligence professionals. Likewise, the competition among candidates aspiring to join the intelligence profession is getting fiercer every day. Thus, students should strive to build a strong set of versatile skills that can add value, make a difference, and drive change in the professional environment.
In addition, students aspiring to become intelligence professionals must remain open to continuously expand their expertise and knowledge through never-ending new activities; everything from traveling overseas to learn foreign languages, developing new hobbies and interests, and remaining flexible to planned or unplanned experiences and projects.
Note: This article is the author’s own and does not necessarily reflect the views of her current or former employers or other affiliated organizations.