Routes Into Intelligence: How A Master’s Degree Is A Benefit As An Analyst

26 Jan 2022

A Graduate Analyst in the Intelligence & Investigations team, reflects on how her postgraduate degree has been a benefit in her role – and how the skills she gained in her master’s translate to a career in Intelligence.

One of the questions I was asked most in the run up to the start of my master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security was, “what are you planning on doing with it?”. Admittedly, this question wasn’t entirely unwarranted, given that I had chosen a rather niche course due to a love of the subject developed from brief encounters during my undergraduate degree. It’s a question that for most students, the answer is simple and transactional – you graduate from a postgraduate degree, and that extra qualification (hopefully) makes you a more attractive candidate and gets you a foot in the door for the interview process. As such, a quick survey of some friends and classmates in this showed that whilst most are confident their postgraduate degree helped them get (and keep) their job, not many could pinpoint why, and most appeared to believe that the subject they studied was inconsequential to their role.

Having reflected on my academic career and my experience in the working world so far, here are some of the ways I believe that a master’s degree is useful for my role as an intelligence analyst, and how these skills could be a benefit to someone considering a career in investigations.

Transferable Skills

In many ways, the transferable skills you gain throughout university can be more useful than the topics you studied. The essays we all got so good at writing during our academic careers have given us the ability to read, evaluate, and choose to use or discard large amounts of information in short spaces of time, something that is vital for an analyst, when you can be asked to provide accurate and actionable information about unfamiliar topics in a highly pressurised environment.

Most programmes require students to juggle multiple modules, occasionally alongside work commitments, meaning developing time management skills is a must, or we risk missing the unmissable: deadlines. It’s rare as an analyst to be working on only one issue at a time, so coming into this role already knowing when and how to prioritise helps you hit the ground running.

The requirement to accurately reference essays means that we can engage critically with the sources we use, reading between the lines to distinguish between facts and hearsay, and avoiding getting caught out by manipulative language. This is particularly important for us as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) analysts, who must partially rely on online research where there are fewer editing and fact-checking processes in place for those providing the data.

Work Experience

Many students will choose to work alongside their degree, or even spread the degree out; for financial reasons, I did my master’s part-time, over two years instead of one. One benefit of this situation is that we can gain important work experience. I was able to take on an internship, doing open-source research for a security consultancy company.

Internships, especially research-based ones, will often require you to delve into a range of niche topics, which you may not be knowledgeable about – but this can help us to become comfortable using different methods and sources to research new fields. Developing this skill through my internship prepared me more than expected for my current role in the Intelligence and Investigations team, where I often find myself not knowing what cases the week will bring.

Research internships may also necessitate self-evaluation of work completed in order for high level decisions to be made. These decisions are often made on the assumption that you have effectively assessed the identified information and have evaluated its accuracy. Although it can feel uncomfortable or unnecessary to be passing your judgment on to more senior and more experienced individuals, being the most familiar with the ‘ins and outs’ of the research, the assessment that analysts can provide on the value of the intelligence reported can be crucial.

Knowledge Base

Although a degree does provide non-course related skills that are helpful in a working environment, that isn’t to say that the subject of a degree isn’t also useful. My master’s programme delved into the key theoretical concepts of intelligence collection and analysis and provided me with a distilled history of the Intelligence field and its development.  this knowledge was based around intelligence in reference to security and espionage, the theoretical concepts I was exposed to have transferred themselves over to a less security-based field with ease.

Two concepts, the intelligence cycle and the concept of intelligence failures have been particularly helpful as I settled into my role as an intelligence analyst. The intelligence cycle is a relatively simple concept – information about a topic or target is collected, then analysed, and the disseminated to policy makers, who either make decisions based on the analysis or request more information. My familiarity with the concept not only helps me understand my place in the cycle within my individual work environment, but also the ways in which the cycle is prone to breaking and what steps I can take to avoid that.

Intelligence failures in the security world are often inevitable, and famous – think Pearl Harbour or 9/11. Although an intelligence failure in the security world often has far more dire consequences, and the circumstances of each failure are individual to that event, the lessons learnt from those failures are applicable to the day to day work of an intelligence analyst. These lessons include avoiding assumptions, remembering that you have a bias and attempting to challenge it where possible, and clearly evaluating and demonstrating the confidence in your assessments so that others can make more accurate decisions based on your research. Using the knowledge of famous intelligence failures examined during my master’s degree means that I am able to avoid making the same mistakes, albeit on a much, much smaller scale.

There are many routes into investigations – unlike becoming a solicitor, there is no singular path or qualification. But having a Master’s in Intelligence and International Security has given me an edge and I’m grateful that my day-to-day job as an Analyst is enhanced by what I learnt.