Your Career in DC: You’ve Got to START somewhere
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) is located at the University of Maryland, College Park, near Washington, DC.
Chef’s Table is a section on Ramen IR that provides readers insight into various professions related to international affairs and foreign policy. Authors share their experiences, offering an inside perspective of their respective fields. Ultimately, the mission of Chef’s Table is to better equip young professionals and students to break into the field of international affairs through lessons learned, career testimonies, and advice from experienced practitioners.
For researchers studying issues such as terrorism, insurgency, and criminal networks, working for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and other organizations that are part the Department of Homeland Security’s Centers of Excellence (COEs) network offers a way to work on interesting and topical problems while helping you build up a personal network in the International Affairs field.
These COEs form “an extended consortium of universities conducting groundbreaking research to address homeland security challenges.” They were set up, in part, to bridge the gap between academics and policymakers. In START’s case, the research agenda is not drawn up by academics but by government agencies that approach START’s researchers with pressing national security problems demanding solutions. It might, for instance, involve working with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on strategies to detect insider threats to civil aviation, or partnering with the Nuclear National Security Administration to study the safety of radiological source material in countries around the world, or on a revealing and slightly terrifying assignment to help the State Department develop indicators that could help the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission identify Pakistani nuclear scientists who may be susceptible to radicalization.
Your Resume Does Not Define You
I learned about START while writing my senior thesis on the use of terrorism within civil wars, which relied upon START’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD), the largest open-source database of terrorist attacks since the 1970s. With months to go before graduating, I had applied for START’s internship as an Advanced Researcher. Despite having spent the previous three years studying Arabic and conducting research on al-Qaeda and terrorism, I figured I was a long shot for the position. Previous Advanced Research interns had Bachelor’s Degrees from prestigious universities like Yale, Princeton, and Oxford or were already well on their way to earning their graduate degrees. Despite my doubts, I received a reply after several weeks, and after a few emails and a phone interview, I was offered the internship. One semester later, I was offered a full time position as a researcher as a result of my work.
One of the things that I like most about START is the value that the organization places on mentorship and teaching. One of the first tasks my supervisor gave the Advanced Research interns was to construct an Analysis of Competing Hypothesis (ACH), an analytical framework used by the CIA, and make a prediction about the Syrian armed opposition’s likely composition and behavior in the coming years. While I was brainstorming on writing an article with my boss related to my findings, START’s executive director walked in the room, spotted our notes on the board, and asked what we were working on. My boss gave the director a rundown of his earlier findings and asked me to talk about the Islamic State, the group whom I had been arguing was going to emerge as the most significant military actor in Syria. Coincidentally, START’s executive director had to deliver a briefing to Congress the following week on the similarities and differences between al-Qaeda and its affiliates and ISIS and asked me to help him prepare. The hearing went incredibly well. When the head of Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT), Major General Michael Nagata, later asked START’s director to contribute to a 2014 White Paper on the Islamic State, he agreed and brought me on as a co-author. My supervisor later chose me to be START’s representative for a SOCCENT simulation analyzing Operation Inherent Resolve. This collaboration began the start of an amazing mentorship for me, which continues still today.
START’s Organizational Ethos
One of the unique things about working for START is that I do not only work alongside people who have studied security studies, terrorism, or sub-state violence. My co-workers have backgrounds in fields as dissimilar as criminology, biology, infectious diseases, anthropology, and public relations. The benefit of working with such a diverse group is that we all approach new projects from unique vantage points and can draw upon many different bodies of literature and theoretical perspectives before beginning any new project.
This cross-pollination of academic disciplines has allowed me to study terrorism-related issues in ways that I probably never would have if left to my own devices. When working with TSA on how to prevent and detect insider threats, for instance, I spent time studying the literature on Counterproductive Workplace Behavior (CWB). The fact that reading about the disgruntled waiter who sleeps with the bartender’s wife or the store manager who steals from his boss might shed insights on why an airline employee might partner with terrorists was something that I never would have previously considered. Compared to other organizations involved in counterterrorism, START is much less wedded to one single analytical framework or set of policy tools; working with such a diverse array of subject-matter experts, I constantly find myself impressed by my co-workers’ insights, contributions, and policy prescriptions.
The benefit of working for an organization like START is that dissent is encouraged. Back when the Arab Spring seemed like a time of hope and change, my co-workers were willing to hear me out when I told them to be dismissive of claims that the democratic uprisings would be the nail in the coffin for groups like al-Qaeda. In this city, it’s rare to find this intellectual freedom. Look no further than the run-up to the War in Iraq or allegations of SOCCOM leaders “cooking the books” on the anti-ISIL campaign and you see how politicized analytical work can be; going against the grain and contradicting the politicians and talking heads is often the quickest way to career purgatory. At START, by contrast, I have been rewarded for challenging commonly held viewpoints and questioning the establishment’s talking points, provided I had the evidence to back my claims up.
The benefit of working with START is that the research projects are specifically drawn up by government agencies so you know that there’s some interest and, hopefully, some practical value in your findings. Another benefit is that it gives academics an opportunity to see firsthand the difficult scenarios and poor set of policy tools that national security agencies are often working with. It is one thing, for instance, to confidently write about the low-probability event of a CBRNe (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives) terrorist attack from one’s Ivory Tower office; it is quite another to write that same report when poring over intelligence documents about unsecure radiological materials or the ménage of terrorist groups dreaming of using unconventional weapons against the West.
While working for START allows academics to get one step closer to actually making policy, it is frustrating to see one’s research and policy prescriptions run up against the nearly immovable forces of government bureaucracy, institutional cultures, and risk-aversion in Washington DC. While Homeland Security bureaucrats might nod in agreement with START’s findings, many of our findings get caught up in traditional DC politics and mudslinging. A 2010 START report on the threat posed by right-wing extremists, for instance, ignited a political firestorm; former DHS Secretary Napolitano was forced to walk back her public support for our finding that right-wing terrorists posed an increasing threat to law-enforcement officials and military members. In this city, politics is a game that we must all play; the ivory tower is no longer sufficient deterrence against outside criticism.
Washington can be a cruel city, and she is a terrible tease; politicians love to thank you for your work, pat you on the back for your findings, and then wash their hands of you. Don’t get me wrong– my decision to apply to START was one of the best career choices I made. All I’m saying is that if you really want to change the way Washington operates, run for political office; on second thought, just ask President Obama how that worked out for him.
Ryan Pereira’s views are solely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of START, the University of Maryland, Ramen IR, other authors, or any of their organizations or affiliations.