So you want to be an intelligence analyst

Matthew Burton
Oct 10, 2013 · 8 min read
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Buckingham House: The Octagon Library. James Stephanoff. 1818.

Students occasionally write to me and ask for advice on getting a job in the Intelligence Community. (I became an intelligence analyst at DIA after undergrad. I was there for about three years, and after that, I did a few years of consulting for various intel agencies.) The below is a gist of that advice. It is heavily biased by my own experience, and none of the below is meant to be universal.

What is it like?

Intelligence analysis is a research job, pure and simple. Popular depictions of intelligence analysis–just like popular depictions of police work or emergency rooms–exaggerate the frequency of dramatic, nail-biting case work. The work can be dramatic at times, but most of the time, it is routine and ordinary. You do it from a cubicle. So if you’re not a researcher-at-heart who loves digging through stacks of information, don’t go through the arduous process of getting the security clearance. It will waste your time and your taxpayer dollars.

Your subject of focus won’t necessarily be a matter of public interest. You might work on terrorism. Then again, you could end up working on something like Ukrainian ethnography.

Why would the U.S. Government devote resources to Ukrainian ethnography when the current threat is Islamic extremism? The reason is important to understanding your role as an intelligence analyst: The primary point of intelligence analysis is not to defeat current threats. Instead, it is to foresee, prepare for, and prevent tomorrow’s threats. The Intelligence Community works for policymakers and military leaders. First, the intelligence apparatus produces assessments about global security threats–some immediately critical to US security, some not. Policymakers read the assessments of the immediate threats, then decide on a course of action: call a foreign leader, make a speech, inform Congress, drop a bomb, etc. The assessments about the non-critical issues are mostly ignored by policymakers. These people are very busy, and have time only for two things: things that will be in tomorrow’s headlines, and things that will be headlines unless the policymakers do something about it. Everything else gets largely ignored.

But when the next unforeseen threat arrives, it’s very important that the policymakers have immediate access to expertise–expertise attained through years of quiet research that, until now, received little attention. In order to ensure that this expertise is available, the Intelligence Community focuses on all sorts of subjects that, while not in today’s headlines, may become the next major threat.

Some of these subjects may never get widespread attention during your career. This means that in addition to liking the slog, you have to be content knowing that your hard work may never get any attention from policymakers. You are, in effect, being paid a professional salary to write doctoral theses that few people will ever read. Another way to look at it is that the US Government is subsidizing your intellectual curiosities in order to keep you on retainer, just in case your subject becomes the root of a national security threat.

Develop the right skills

I entered college ignorant to the importance of writing. A few key classes changed that, simply by forcing me to compile primary sources, state a thesis, and write a paper supporting that thesis. If you are in college and you want to be an intelligence analyst, focus your curriculum on classes that require you to do this–seminars, laboratories, independent study, etc–as opposed to test-driven, lecture-based courses. The exact subject matter is less important. Chemistry research, history research, Ukrainian ethnography research…it’s all of interest to the Intelligence Community. (Remember: even if it’s not a current threat, they want to be prepared for all possibilities.) If you can gather facts and communicate what those facts mean, you can be an intelligence analyst. Everything else on your résumé is icing.

Icing. While not as important as basic research ability, it does help if you have existing expertise in a subject of current import. Even though all subjects are of interest to the Community, there are more jobs available in Islamic extremism than Ukrainian ethnography. It’s especially beneficial if you have a skill that’s both applicable to a current threat and rare, like Arab linguistics or cyberwarfare.

Some subjects–particularly technical ones–will always be in demand: chemistry, nuclear physics, biology, and computer science come to mind. Expertise in these fields helps the country prepare for the most serious weapons threats.

Books. To help your writing, read On Writing Well. It is excellent. To understand the intellectual challenges of intelligence analysis, read The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. It is useful for all researchers, regardless of field. (An older edition is online for free.)

Get noticed

Fortunately, because you took college courses that require original research, you have a portfolio of work that proves you have writing skills. Don’t hide your proof. Publish it online. This is the single most important thing you can do to help yourself stand out from everyone else. Don’t worry that your papers aren’t good enough; after all, you aren’t a professional yet. The reader will understand that. Managers seeking recent graduates want to see initiative, curiosity, and potential.

Publishing online used to be hard. That’s not true anymore. If you’re reading this, you can put your research online in under an hour for no fee. Do it. Then provide links in your résumé.

(Bonus opportunity: though not as common an assignment as writing, oral presentations are also a good way to show you can communicate clearly. And unlike the written word, a video shows a hiring manager how well you present yourself and how clearly you speak.)

After you update your résumé with links to writing samples, get your résumé into the hands of a person who physically works at the agency you want to work for.

Note: Many government agencies centralize their recruiting instead of letting individual teams do their own. This means that if you apply for a job online through the standard procedure, your application will go to someone who has no idea what you do or whether you’re good at it. Go ahead and fill out the official application. It can’t hurt. But your time is better spent finding someone on the inside who loves your skills and will advocate for you.

How do you find such a person? Visit career fairs, use your alumni network, and look for connections on LinkedIn. (I have personally never gotten any value out of LinkedIn, but it is extremely popular in DC. One caveat: most people in intelligence do not advertise their affiliation on social networks.) If you make contact with anyone, send them your résumé and make sure they see your research portfolio. (Caveat: just because a hiring manager wants to hire you, it doesn’t mean they can. The federal hiring process is byzantine. The reasons why merit their own write-up. But the benefits of being known to the hiring manager are invaluable.)

A word about intelligence analysis masters programs. Traditional four-year universities have recently begun offering undergraduate programs in intelligence analysis. Some students have asked me if it’s worth attending. I tell them not to.

Why? Because intelligence analysis isn’t a skill. Research is a skill, and it can be learned in all sorts of different college-level courses. Intelligence, on the other hand, is a practice. And a practice is really best learned on the job.

Will an intelligence analysis degree teach you how to do research? Maybe. But: 1) so will lots of other undergraduate programs, many of which will give you more flexibility as your career preferences evolve, and 2) an intelligence program will probably try to teach you about the bureaucratic machinations of the U.S. Intelligence Community; such things are really best learned on the ground.

For example, one such program’s web site claims that its Bachelors recipients will graduate knowing how to:

1. Describe the theory and history of the discipline of intelligence.

2. Demonstrate critical thinking skills.

3. Analyze collected data/information using a variety of analytic techniques and methodologies.

4. Communicate analytic products in written, oral, visual, and/or multimedia formats.

5. Execute extensive open source research and collection management.

6. Implement and manage intelligence processes and practices.

1 can be learned by reading a few books. 6 is something best learned on the job (because the processes and practices will vary from agency to agency). 2–5 are basic research skills that you should learn in any seminar-intensive college curriculum. Specifically, 5 is a fancy way of saying, “Use the library.” That’s no small feat–most people never come close to understanding all the tools offered by a modern library–but mastering this skill should be a goal in any research-intensive undergraduate program.

Two caveats:

  • Such programs have–or at least try to have–good career fairs and job placement resources that cater to students seeking jobs in intelligence. So while these programs might not make your résumé better, they could make it easier to get that résumé into the right hands.
  • Some intelligence programs focus on particular disciplines, like geospatial intelligence. This is a specialized type of research, and it is definitely a skill that will make you valuable in intelligence as well as many other sectors. If you know you love maps and want to work with them, go for it. Keep in mind that such programs are available at schools not focused on intelligence, and that they are just as good.

As I said at the beginning, this advice is heavily biased by my own experience. Different intelligence analysts have learned different lessons. Neither of us are wrong. But the above advice worked for me.

Thanks to David, Chris, and Mike for reading drafts of this.
This was inspired by Steve Friedl’s far superior
So you want to be a consultant…?


Originally published at matthewburton.org.

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