After reading an opinion piece in The Washington Post in which the author, a former CIA intelligence officer, questioned the value of intelligence degree programs in training people for national security fields, three professors wrote a counterpoint. 

Stephen Coulthart and Damien Van Puyvelde are assistant professors of security studies at the National Security Studies Institute at the University of Texas at El Paso. Michael Landon-Murray is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Here, they use their own research to point out that graduates of such programs go on to work not only for the government but the private sector as well, using the analytical and other skills they have learned to launch their careers. — Susan Svrluga

The public debate on intelligence education suffers from a lack of evidence on the performance of intelligence studies programs. Recent insights, while thoughtful, rely heavily on anecdotes and overlook the diversity of the market for intelligence.

Our experience as intelligence educators and researchers points to a diversified job market where recent graduates can seize a growing number of opportunities both inside and outside government.

Critics have claimed that those programs offering degrees in intelligence studies do not systematically place students in the U.S. intelligence community. Nicholas Dujmovic, a former CIA historian turned professor, recently summarized this view when he wrote that intelligence studies programs “are well staffed, and they are expensive, but for all that, they fail to clearly deliver a demonstrable advantage while keeping the student from majoring in something that might actually get him or her hired.”

There is little systematic evidence on where students end up after graduating from intelligence programs offering degrees, let alone those that offer only a minor or certificate. We simply don’t know how many of them find employment in the intelligence community or elsewhere, in government and the private sector.

The secrecy that characterizes security careers complicates access to relevant data, and limits the public debate about intelligence and national security education.

Our forthcoming research shines some light on where intelligence graduates find employment: Most intelligence programs, including those that offer degrees, have been successful in placing students in the intelligence field.

Among the 18 intelligence program directors we surveyed, the average program placed over a third of its graduates in the intelligence sector, which includes positions inside the intelligence community and outside at other government agencies and in the private sector.

This estimate suggests that intelligence programs do serve some of the needs of the intelligence community, though they can’t provide most of the intelligence workforce.

Our research also shows that intelligence programs are diverse, helping meet different kinds of needs in the public and private sectors.

Many curriculums introduce students to specific intelligence processes and methods while requiring broad liberal arts foundations that span area studies, international relations and critical languages, to name a few. Their graduates develop a substantive liberal arts background and a range of disciplinary specializations, in addition to their understanding of the 101 of intelligence and national security.

While enrolling in an intelligence studies program can’t guarantee a job in the intelligence community, it can equip young professionals with analytical skills that are in high demand in a variety of sectors that are critical to national security.

This is why intelligence studies programs should not be judged solely on their capacity to produce employees for the intelligence community.

Graduates learn skills, such as geographic information systems and social media analysis, that are in high demand in our current information society. They can leverage these skills to find relevant employment in the intelligence community but also in law enforcement and homeland security, and in the private sector as risk and market analysts.

Data on student employment are essential to establish the value of intelligence programs.

For students pursuing employment in the intelligence community, this cannot be achieved without the help of the federal government. The chief human capital officer of the intelligence community is leading the effort to track whom the community hires, and is best placed to monitor the performance of various employees who have graduated from different programs.

But intelligence graduates find employment in many other sectors, and educators could generally do a better job at keeping track of their alumni.

The academy, government and industry have a crucial role to play in establishing an evidence base to orient and adapt intelligence education to the needs of the market. Intelligence education is too important to be guided by anecdotes.