Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Part 9 -- The Five Things You MUST Have (How To Get A Job In Intelligence)

Part 1 -- Introduction
Part 2 -- The Intelligence Job Market From 20,000 Feet
Part 3 -- The Good News!
Part 4 -- Even Better News!
Part 5 -- Beyond The Big Three
Part 6 -- Beyond Borders
Part 7 -- Beyond Borders: India, Europe And South Africa
Part 8 -- Going It On Your Own

So far, this series has been about perspective and opportunity and a little short on tactical advice for job seekers. I hope to rectify that in (what I think will be) the last three posts in this series.

Specifically, I want to lay out in this post the five key things I think a job seeker needs to have in order to get a job in intelligence. These five things assume that the job seeker has at least the minimum qualifications for the job to which they are applying. In short, I am trying to identify those things that set some job seekers apart, that give certain job seekers an edge. These observations are based primarily on watching 500 or so seniors and second year graduate students go through the process over the last 6 years here at Mercyhurst.

I recognize that the Mercyhurst experience may not be typical for all job seekers. Because of the nature of our program, lots of employers come to us to find entry-level analysts. For example, our Career Services Department logged over 400 intel interviews on campus last year before Christmas. Not all of these were for jobs, of course; some were for internships but it gives a sense of the level of opportunity the college provides.

Likewise, the faculty here maintains good contacts with a number of agencies, businesses and professional organizations focused on intel. As a result, we get a lot of "Hey, we are looking for someone who can..." kind of job openings.

Finally, our alumni are increasingly becoming our best asset when it comes to finding jobs, internships and new students. I don't think a week goes by that I don't get a note from an alum about a job or internship somewhere that one of our students might be able to fill.

The point of all this is that the Mercyhurst experience is something of a special case and I recognize that. I realize that what I have noticed in terms of jobs may be a result of that unique experience and that my observations may not apply more generally.

That said, I am going to try to generalize here. What I have listed below are the five things that, from my observations, when they are done well tend to result in a greater chance of getting a job and when they are not done well or not present at all, tend to reduce the chances for getting a job. I think that they will apply to anyone seeking an entry-level job (and, particularly, an entry-level analyst job) in the intel communities outlined in the previous posts in this series.

Enough caveats and disclaimers! Here is the list:

The Right Attitude

This job search is not going to be "typical" and it may be difficult. The job seeker needs to take responsibility for the search and do so early in the process. This means two things: First, no one is exactly like you. No one has exactly your skills and abilities. No matter how difficult it gets, you have to remain positive about your search and your opportunities. You don't care if everyone wants you -- you only need one person, agency or organization to appreciate what you bring to the table.

Second, and as important (maybe more so), is that no matter how "special" you are, no one owes you a job. If you think jobs will fall on you because you are so brilliant or educated or experienced -- think again. The sooner you take charge of your job search and start working all the angles, the faster and easier you will find a job.

Finally, and also related to attitude, is to not bother looking for the "perfect" job. I hear students say stuff like "I was offered a job in counter-proliferation but I really want to work counter-terrorism" and it drives me crazy. Where an entry-level person in intel actually winds up is something that is virtually certain to evolve over the early years of that person's career. The one thing I know about jobs in intel is that they change and sometimes very rapidly (I am certain, for example, that about a year ago there were a whole lot of analysts who suddenly became Georgia-Russia analysts who were working other jobs just a few weeks previously...). No matter what you think you are qualified to do and no matter what you employer thinks they are hiring you to do, it will likely change (sometimes before you even walk in the door).

A Portfolio Of Resumes

A one-size-fits-all approach to resumes will not work in intel (and may not work anywhere). At the first level, I have had a number of recruiters tell me that students should have both a polished, finished resume and a text-only version. The text-only version is for use on job boards (such as Monster or Indeed). A text-only resume that contains an exhaustive list of a person's capabilities and credentials but little in the way of formatting is one that is most likely to show up in a keyword search (the way most job boards operate) but is least likely to choke that same system due to a format conflict (like a system that can't interpret all the fancy fonts you used...).

Having two resumes (polished and text-only) is the minimum you should do, however. Different jobs require different skill sets. While you should never lie about your skills, if a particular job needs a particular skill that you do have, why not put it up front? I have seen a student who was fluent in Arabic apply for a job that required fluency in Arabic but bury that piece of information at the bottom of his resume because "that's where I thought languages went." AUUUUUGGGHHH!

If you are serious about applying for a job, then you should take the time to carefully look at the requirements for that position. You should do some background research on the company or agency to fill in any gaps that the position description does not address. Finally, you should organize your skills, experiences, education and abilities on your resume in such a way that you match what they want to what you have (again, without lying or exaggerating). Blasting generic resumes at every position you can find may work, but is generally not very effective.

If you start customizing your resume for each position and saving each version, you will soon find yourself with a portfolio of resumes so that when you do see a job that looks good, you will be able to pull out a resume that is close, tweak it a bit, and send it in.

Two more thoughts about resumes: First, just because you did something doesn't mean you have to put it in your resume. In other words, unless you are looking for a job as a fry cook at Wendy's, why would you take up valuable resume real estate with that particular nugget? I am not saying that these types of jobs should never be included in a resume but, if you do include them, you ought to have a reason (For example: The job calls for leadership experience and you were the day manager for Wendy's with X number of employees, Y amount of equipment and inventory and Z dollars in sales. It still might not be what they are looking for, but at least you have made it relevant).

Second, recruiters see lots of resumes. Many of these resumes are very well done; not just neat and clean but snappy looking, too. Appearances matter. If you would not wear a suit that was too tight to an interview, why would you hand over anything but a good-looking resume to a recruiter? Resume styles come and go and you want to come across as professional and competent, not cluttered, unorganized or dated. In my last post in this series, I will highlight some of the resume sites I have found but you should do your own research.

A Portfolio Of Your Work

If you are looking for a job as an analyst in any of the intelligence communities, having a portfolio of your work is particularly important. To begin with, you should scour your academic or internship work products (assuming they are unclassified) for good examples of analytic writing. Specifically, you should find a short piece (1-2 pages -- that's an SFAR if you are a Mercyhurst Student) and a longer, more detailed piece (an LFAR for you Mercyhurst types...). If you don't have such a writing sample (or you don't like any that you do have), you should create some.

Likewise, if you have ever had a chance to publish anything -- from an academic paper to an article in a newspaper -- be sure to include it in your portfolio. Actually having something published (particularly if you were paid for it) is like a gold star in your portfolio. It really gives the interviewer/employer confidence that you can write.

Being able to communicate in writing is still the most important skill for analysts but, increasingly, it is not the only skill employers are looking for. Your ability to brief or to design effective presentations is incredibly important and having some good examples of your work in your portfolio may well set you apart from other candidates.

Other communication skills are also becoming increasingly important. I recently had a former student tell me about the importance of our Wikipedia project to her career. Intellipedia uses the same basic technology as Wikipedia and the skills she learned in class have already helped her. Likewise, virtually any quality visualization of intelligence -- from an ARCGIS or Google Map product to an Analyst's Notebook chart -- should be part of the serious job seeker's portfolio. Concrete examples of other skills (a facility with pivot tables or an ability to make podcasts or short movies, for example) ought to make it into a portfolio as well. Depending on the situation, you may not use all (or any) of these, but you want to have them compiled and in one place.

Interview Skills

All job seekers should work on their interview skills. I have seen many students set themselves apart from the crowd by being good in an interview. I have also seen a number of otherwise highly qualified students falter at the finish line because their interview skills were sub-par.

The first thing to examine is your wardrobe. Anyone who has ever seen me in person knows that I am the last person to listen to for fashion advice. That said, it doesn't take a genius to know that wearing an ill fitting, wrinkled suit with filthy shoes is not the way to walk into an interview. Furthermore, the intelligence community typically is not looking for people who visually stand out (intellectually, yes; visually, not so much...). In short, I would save the nose ring for later and stick with something that was professional and comfortable.

The second thing to examine is the way you speak. You are not usually speaking with a peer when in an interview so your speech should be professional, not casual. Avoid slang and colloquialisms (no "you guys" or "y'all").

The single best thing you can do to prepare for interviews is to practice. Ideally, you want to have as realistic a situation as possible. You should be dressed and you should be facing off against someone who has done or does interviews in real life and who will brutally critique your performance afterward. If at all possible, you should record your interview so that you can look at yourself and hear how you speak. If you can't find someone experienced to practice with, then find a fellow job searcher to work with. As painful as this is (and as much of a hassle as it sounds...), nothing else you do will prepare you as well for an interview.

A Network

Just because I mention the "network" last does not mean that it is the least important. Frankly, many people get jobs because they have good networks and they know how to use them.

Friends and family are the obvious first places to ask. They may not be terribly helpful in getting a job in one of the intel communities (unless they are in one of the communities themselves) but it is an easy, low cost way to get things started.

Another relatively easy avenue may be to approach alumni from your institution that are already in one of the intel communities. Sometimes you can do this through your college career service department and sometimes (particularly with classmates) you can do this directly. Another possibility related to your college or university are the faculty.

One note of caution: As you move away from family and friends, you want to make sure that whatever relationship you have with these other networks is a positive one. It really doesn't make much sense to approach a faculty member, for example, when you did very poorly in their class. Likewise, alumni that you know personally and think well of you are probably going to help you more than alums that have never met you. The obvious corollary to this note of caution is that it is in your interest to get to know some students in the year groups ahead of yours and to get to know the faculty in your field and the career services people handling your discipline before starting your job search.

If you see intel as your profession then you should also get involved with the various intelligence-oriented professional organizations. If you are into business, then you probably want to join SCIP, if law enforcement is your thing, then IACA or IALEIA. If you are more interested in national security then there are a good number of options ranging from the military associations to organizations focused on very narrow areas (such as nuclear materials management) to academic organizations focused on intel.

The key piece of advice here is to actually get involved. Merely becoming a member does not really count. You want to plan events, go to conferences and conventions -- meet people. Obviously, getting involved with these organizations early is better than trying to make up for lost time but getting involved at any time is better than not being involved at all.

Students today should also not overlook their strong online social networking skills (years of fiddling with Facebook has to be worth something, right?). The competitive intelligence community seems to be out in front right now on this with active social networks on Ning and within LinkedIn. There are even a number of CI specialists who are worth following on Twitter.

A Final Comment On Grades

One of the things I have not mentioned is grades. In general, all things being equal, grades are important. I rarely see someone get a job in intelligence with less than a 3.0 and I try to tell students who have a 3.5 or better to keep it above a 3.5 because, in my experience, there is a cognitive leap from a 3.49 to a 3.51 that is sharper, perhaps, than it should be among recruiters.

The real point, however, is that all things are never equal. I can pretty much guarantee that a fluent Dari speaker with a 3.0 in intelligence studies and a US passport is going to have an easier time getting a job than an otherwise average 3.7 political science major and that a student with an active Top Secret clearance is going to beat them both regardless of grades. The intelligence communities are pretty much looking for a wide variety of people all of the time. Grades are the lowest common denominator -- focusing on those skills that are in demand yields a much higher payoff.

Next: Advice From The Trenches
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Steven said...

I have really appreciated your blogs over the past year that I have read them, I think you offer some great insights to an intel career path.

I am currently a student in Hopkins Intel Analysis Master degree program, and have continued to refer to your blog as evidence that our faculty needs to put themselves out there more. Along those lines, we are in the middle of writing a case study on our program, and part of that is comparing the program to other intel-related programs out there. I would like to quote some of your blog here, and would like to know if I mention you name in the case study?


Anonymous said...

I caught myself saying "y'all" once during an interview, to this day I wonder if that had anything to do with NOT getting the job!

Andrew said...

Concerning the "portfolio" of works...

I've heard several different methods. Should I put a bunch of projects in one big binder? Or carry 3-5 projects (professionally bound, of course) with me? I've always had a hard time finding the BEST piece of work to fit with the recruiters needs.

Sometimes it's frustrating to know I put so much grueling, detailed, amazing work into a project only to have it casually flipped through.

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


You are welcome to mention Sources and Methods and me by name in your case study. In fact, I would be interested in seeing it once you are done, if you can share it.


As a southern boy myself, it pained me to write it. Frankly, I don't think y'all is all that bad but "you guys" is simply awful.


This is a very good question and I hope some other readers weigh in on it. One of the things I would consider is the nature of the job. If I thought the potential job held a number of opportunities for me to brief, I would make a point of bringing a great presentation to the interview, for example.


Anonymous said...

One of my Mercyhurst classmates went to a job fair hosted by one of the USIC intelligence agencies. They had people working the floor and then others in a backroom reviewing paperwork delivered to them. My classmate said they kept asking for samples from her portfolio to carry to the backroom. She ended up getting a job offer that very day after several sections of that same agency looked over samples of various projects. She told me she used a pocket folder and carried multiple copies of her resume and samples of her products.

As for knowing someone in the USIC, applications go through a central process and cannot be influenced by a current employee unless he/she happens to be on the hiring review panel for that particular applicant. Current employees who have recently gone through the hiring process can give you the best advice on getting a job. Old dogs working in the USIC really have no idea about how to get in anymore, so pay them little heed on this issue. Kris on the other hand has a great vantage point to give advice. But no one on the Federal level can reasonably be expected to ease you into a position the way things are set up these days.

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


Many thanks for your insights. I have heard the same story and I think the point about having multiple copies of relevant examples for hiring fairs, etc. is a very good one.

I did not mean to imply, by the way, that students should think that they can use their network to unduly influence the hiring process. Most of the battle today, however (for those who are otherwise well qualified for a position), is just finding the open positions.

While the USIC does a pretty good job of listing their positions, as I discussed in the previous parts of this series, most of the intel and intel-related jobs are not actually in the USIC but in the law enforcement and business communities. In these communities a network is invaluable at helping a job seeker spot openings.