September 5, 2023

Pursuing a Career in National Security Intelligence

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Given the start of the school year I wanted to take a moment to answer a question I get asked a lot by students interested in a career in National Security – What degree do I need? Or what degree will help me in my career.

I am not a recruiter so take this as my advice rather than help with your C.V. In my opinion focus on developing your skills just as much, if not more, than your core academic knowledge. It is absolutely helpful to have base of understand of what our National Security apparatus does and the threats that we face. For starters it will help you identify what branch of service you may ultimately want to work in – this can either be different roles at my former employer CSIS or other agencies like CBSA, CSE, RCMP etc.  Stephanie Carvin, Craig Forcese, Thomas Juneau, Leah West, Stewart Bell, and Jessica Davis have written books and people I recommend following to understand the range of national security careers and agencies.  

In my experience – and from here out speaking specifically of CSIS – my former colleagues came from a range of academic and professional paths. There were teachers, lawyers, social workers and I was an investment advisor. One of the unique aspects of CSIS recruitment is its lack of specificity regarding the field of study required. All you need is a degree. They don’t specify what that should be. I think they recognize that diversity in education can contribute to a broader perspective within the Service.

Skills and Qualities

So, while your choice of degree is important, I believe it’s equally vital to possess the right skills and qualities that will make you a successful intelligence officer (and will probably serve you in other roles or departments). Here is my list of key attributes for all of you students to think about while you work on getting that degree out of the way:

  1. Language Skills: Proficiency in multiple languages, especially those relevant to regions of interest, can significantly enhance your candidacy and opportunities in the Service. BUT you NEED to speak English AND French so might as well start brushing up now.
  2. Emotional Intelligence and interpersonal skills: The ability to build rapport and relationships of trust with other people is a key part of the job. Recruiting and managing human sources of information can be stressful and emotionally challenging. Often these are people from very different backgrounds than you. Some people like to constantly make new friends, for others not so much.  
  3. Writing and Communication Skills: You can be the best recruiter in the word but if you can’t articulate what you learn in a report, it’s useless. Clear and concise communication is paramount. Intelligence officers must be adept at writing reports, briefs, and other documents that convey complex information accurately and comprehensibly.
  4. Analytic Thinking: On the subject of reports, first you must be able to separate what you know, from what you believe. Quantify and qualify the difference as well as be able to make logical and compelling arguments for your reasoning. The ability to analyze information, spot patterns, and make informed assessments is central to intelligence work.
  5. Flexibility: There is an old saying at CSIS. Don’t read the book until you are sitting at the desk. Just because you are an expert on a threat, doesn’t mean you’ll work that file. I had a background in international finance and applied to work on our financial investigations unit – they put me in the human source policy shop. It happens. You need to be able to get up to speed on a geographic area and subject matter quickly. You make work many different files in your career. The threat landscape is constantly evolving. It is important to be able to adapt to changing circumstances, think on your feet, and make sound decisions under pressure when you may not be an expert in the subject.
  6. Teamwork and Collaboration: National security is a community. You are rarely alone and often collaborating with members of your own team, service, as well as stakeholders and government clients. Being a team player and effectively working with others is essential to your personal success.
  7. Networking: There’s another old joke at CSIS. Be nice to your office mate as you’ll probably end up working for them one day. It’s a small intelligence community. It’s important to build your personal and professional network. Don’t wait – go to office hours. Get on LinkedIn. Make contacts with your classmates and colleagues. Build your network and be there for each other as you move through your careers. Be nice to your classmates… you could end up working for them one day.


Embarking on a career in National Security is an honourable and challenging pursuit. It offers a unique opportunity for individuals from diverse academic backgrounds to contribute to the safety and security of our country. Even though I left – I am proud of where I worked and would encourage others to explore that path if they are interested. But we all have different paths – so good luck on yours!

Check out this video on this subject on our YouTube channel

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