National security responsible for safeguarding home

April 14, 2021

Daniel Jensen

Introduction to national security

The events that have transpired over the past year, including the foiled plot to assassinate Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan,  the SolarWinds breach by Russian hackers, and the  at insurrection at Capitol Hill highlights the many dangers that society continues to face, and the need for able-bodied people to confront them head on.  

There is no clear-cut mold for the type of person needed to fulfill such roles. Organizations both public and private need individuals from a wide array of backgrounds to lend their expertise to countering some of the most dangerous challenges that threaten society.  

As one of the most challenging industries to get into, job applicants must find ways to stand out in the crowd and demonstrate their capacity to endure such stressful work. To better understand what it takes to enter the field, either in national or international security, this article will explain a variety of relevant topics, including paths in education and careers, and the process of getting a security clearance. 

Education pathway

Pursuing a career in national security is not an easy task to accomplish. These jobs are highly competitive and  obtaining a degree is a vital part of this arduous process. Both private and public organizations that focus on national security need highly skilled individuals who can lend their expertise to addressing some of the most pressing issues society faces.  

The most obvious path to take is to pursue a degree in the social sciences, particularly in political science or criminal justice. A bachelor’s degree within these disciplines often involves understanding theory (i.e., Thomas Hobbes and Foucault) as it helps lay the foundation for how practitioners within these subject matters go about their work. A realism or Machiavellian approach, which focuses more on raw power and cunning will take a far different approach to politics —national security in particular— than one based on an idealistic mindset that believes in advancing moral goals and ideals like democracy and international cooperation.  

There are issue-specific classes—for example, Latin American politics or energy security— that may be taught by experts within that field. Certain institutions might specialize in a certain area of study over others depending on their faculty. For example, a university in  Maryland is home to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) so it offers a minor in that discipline.  

A major in the social sciences is not essential to excel in the security field. While understanding international politics is a fundamental aspect of any career in this arena, students interested in the security field should not be afraid to explore other disciplines. One of the most important security challenges society faces, and that will only continue to grow in the decades to come, is cyberwarfare. This threat can manifest from the lone wolf with a vendetta against an institution, a terrorist group, or another country. A political scientist might be able to understand the issues surrounding this cyberwarfare —who the actors are, pros and cons of policy options, and the theory of the subject matter— but a student with a degree that includes computer science can apply their knowledge to better explain the more technical components and play an active role in thwarting attacks.  

Take for example the most recent cyber-attack on a water plant in Oldsmar, Florida. By accessing the mouse of the computer system, an unidentified hacker made serious changes to the amount of sodium hydroxide in the water supply:  from about 100 parts per million to 11,1parts per million. Such a change would have posed a significant danger to anyone who ingested the water if the plant operator did not notice what was going on. Cyber units from the Secret Service and FBI are trying to figure out who carried out this attack at the time this article was written, but this event is a sign of the growing necessity of skilled computer scientists who can leverage their abilities to mitigate or prevent future attacks.  

Language to communicate and understand culture

Another key skill that is great to have is to be fluent in another language, particularly in Russian, Mandarin, Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, or English (for any non-native speakers). Fluency in any of these languages adds weight to any resume. French and English are useful because they are the working languages of United Nations (UN)-related international bodies, while the rest are used in areas most relevant to U.S. security concerns.  

Numerous studies conducted on the impact of learning another language have shown just how useful it is not only when finding a job, but as a human being. English might be the dominant tongue at home, but as the world continues to become more interconnected, organizations will need more people who are fluent in other languages.  

Being fluent in a second foreign language has other benefits as well.  According to a report from Newcastle University (2011), during the process of learning vocabulary and grammar, “you’re also unconsciously learning a whole new way of seeing the world.”  Thus, it may be advantageous for a student to consider doing either a minor or major in a foreign language to increase their standing in the competition for jobs in the security sector.  

One of the key components of majoring in a foreign language are study abroad trips. Many programs require the student to spend a year or semester in the country their language is spoken in. Students get to take classes in the host country and possibly pursue internships.  Another living abroad opportunity to consider with a foreign language major is joining the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is dedicated to performing services for the community or developing critical institutions in a developing country. For example, students majoring in environmental science may be interested in helping rural communities in Guatemala build sustainable agricultural practices while students in a business or social sciences degree can work with relevant community members in North Macedonia to promote economic development by giving advice on marketing or teaching a class. Participating in these types of programs can result in a significant advantage when applying for future jobs as it demonstrates the ability to carry out rigorous projects in an entirely different culture.  

Upon being sponsored, the individual will need to complete a form online, namely SF-86 or e-QIP questionnaire for national security positions which asks for information that dates back to  the applicant’s 18th birthday. 

Possible career paths

There are numerous career paths people can pursue within the security field, either within the public or private sectors. Working in the government is the most obvious path to take as there are numerous agencies that one can apply their knowledge of relevant security issues. Most jobs are listed on the government website, USAJOBS, which has a plethora of filters for job hunters to use to find suitable positions. The benefit of taking the government route is that it has opportunities open specifically for current and recent college graduates of varying levels. The disadvantage is that due to the intensive screening of applicants, the process of hiring new employees takes much longer than in the private sector. 

Additionally, government employees within these jobs often receive exceptional pay and benefits starting out. A political analyst for the CIA can expect a starting salary between $58,070 – $159,286 depending on their level of education, previous work experience with the possibility of a foreign language bonus. Other positions that involve STEM— for example a science, technology and weapons analyst or an analytic methodologist— enjoy similar salaries that will only increase as they go up the General Schedule (GS) pay scale. 

The private sector also has bountiful opportunities available in the security field. They can be found on any jobsite or the organization’s website. 

Thinking about think tanks

People interested in national security policy should consider internships with a think tank—  a private organization made up of scholars in a particular area who try to work with the government to formulate and implement policy ideas.  The most notable think tanks that cover security policy include the Brookings Institution (BI), Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).  

Positions at think tanks vary: see this job description from CEIP for one example.  An advanced degree may lead to a position as a research scholar that could involve writing  research articles and op-eds, attending conferences, and meeting other scholars or politicians to discuss policy. Other positions may include becoming a research assistant, social media manager, or helping with organizational management as a program assistant. Many think tanks and government agencies also run internships that will help students get a foot in the door for a full-time position upon graduation. 

Other options include private security groups and intelligence companies. These organizations often provide threat assessments and other critical information to their clients, public or private, through methods such as monitoring social media. Employees who work as intelligence analysts or in another related position may focus on a specific region in the world and compile reports about what they have found to send to a client. For instance, if there is a video on Twitter from Syria showing ISIS militants in the area of a U.N. convoy and an analyst spots this, then they can alert the U.N. so the convoy can hopefully dodge what would most likely be a disaster. Compensation for these positions can vary. The average salary is $73k, with a low of $40k and a high of  $111k. Ultimately, these positions can be a great starting point for those interested in intelligence but are not yet ready to apply for a similar job at a government agency.

Some examples of job duties expected by a private risk assessment company are listed below. This information comes from a position advertised by Worldaware:  

To monitor travel to high-threat locations by clients, including providing intelligence as requested 
Preparation of situation reports and risk assessments  
During an emergency, you are expected to provide surge capacity 
Monitor open-source media and other sources for issues that may affect business operations and staff
Client liaison to comprehend their concerns and requirements 
As required, the organization and lead of stakeholder incident management calls 
Communication of threats and company exposure to clients adhering to escalation procedures
Effectively collaborate with security team members 
Reporting metrics tracked in relation to production and deliverables

Security clearances 

One of the last things to keep in mind when pursuing a position in national security is that many jobs will require a specific type of security clearance, most likely Top Secret/Secret Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) clearance. The reason for this is simple, as someone who will likely be handling sensitive information relevant to national security that hostile actors would love to get their hands on, security organizations need to ensure their employees can be trusted not to let this happen. Obtaining a TS/SCI begins with your employer submitting the relevant forms to initiate a thorough investigation of your background.  This is referred to as a sponsorship.  

Upon being sponsored, the individual will need to complete a form online, namely SF-86 or e-QIP questionnaire for national security positions which asks for information that dates back to  the applicant’s 18th birthday.  This includes information about schools, previous employers,  financial details,  foreign contacts, and travel outside of U.S. prior to turning 18. An agency, the FBI or a similar government agency, then conducts a thorough investigation that includes interviews with the applicant and their references. Applicants should keep in mind that the interview process may involve a polygraph test to verify answers given on the questionnaire.  

After the interview process, the applicant faces the adjudication process by the agency involved in the investigation. The purpose of adjudication is to come to a final decision regarding the applicant’s loyalty to the country— a high but important bar to pass. Security clearances do not last forever, particularly if the holder is away from the field for too long. Nevertheless, obtaining and maintaining a security clearance can be beneficial as many private contractors such as Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems require applicants to have active TS/SCLs by the time they are onboarded.  

Conclusion 

Working in national security can be both personally and financially rewarding, although such an employment pursuit should be due to a desire to make the world a better place rather than for personal gain. Accomplishing this career goal will not be easy. To clinch a job in the field,  applicants must demonstrate that they have the relevant skills necessary to excel in the position they are seeking. For some entry-level positions, this will require fluency in a foreign language or experience using computer algorithms. 

Within national security, a wide assortment of employment possibilities exist.  This can be a government agency, think tank, or private security company.  Note, that there will be other hurdles to pass, for example obtaining a security clearance or the potential for postings to dangerous situations. Regardless, the people employed in national and international security are critical in ensuring the security and freedom of people all over the globe.  

Newcastle University. (2011, March 15). Bilinguals see the world in a different way, study suggests. ScienceDaily.  

Spieker, Joerg. (2011). Foucault and Hobbes on Politics, Security, and War. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. 36. 187-199.  

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