Perspectives Daily

From PhD to Policy

A Career Path Forged by Mentors, Preparation, and a Dash of Luck

Brandon Kirk Williams | Oct 6, 2021

“You finished your PhD and then began working on cybersecurity policy?” Perplexed, one of my dissertation committee members recently peppered me with questions on how I made the leap from earning a history doctorate to my current position as a cybersecurity postdoc at the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Although my trajectory is unique, the path I traveled is available to other historians interested in careers in think tanks, research institutions, or the federal government. My experience to date has convinced me that historians not only have much to offer, but that they finish graduate school with a sophisticated analytical and research toolkit that the larger policy ecosystem craves.

Black-rim eyeglasses in front of a laptop with a blurry screen. The laptop screen has windows open with various cybersecurity programs.

By using their time and resources strategically, history PhDs—regardless of their subdiscipline—can make the transition into policy careers. Kevin Ku/Unsplash.

My work at CGSR relies on the skills that I cultivated in graduate school. Similar to other postdocs, I have autonomy to research and write independently on Indo-Pacific cybersecurity affairs, the influence of technology on geopolitics, and public–private partnerships. I contribute to CGSR’s intellectual culture by inviting cybersecurity speakers in addition to facilitating workshops on cybersecurity, emerging technology, and national security. In this role, I engage with policy makers to find solutions for vexing national security dilemmas that will define 21st-century geopolitics.

Ending up on this career path was not a product of alchemy, but a blend of mentorship, preparation, and a dash of luck. Little about my dissertation topic prepared me for a career in cybersecurity policy. My research on Cold War development competition in India and Indonesia was not a golden ticket to my postdoc. I had the good fortune of working with an adviser, Daniel Sargent, who encouraged me to find internships during graduate school and who supported me in my final year as I thought creatively about career paths where I could apply my skills to national security policy. Backing from my adviser was essential—but I still needed more help.

Ending up on this career path was not a product of alchemy, but a blend of mentorship, preparation, and a dash of luck.

Leveraging my doctoral training while in graduate school to find internships, mentors, and publication opportunities was indispensable for starting a career in policy. Strategic use of time preparing for careers in policy can set up history PhDs—regardless of their subdiscipline—to build a competitive resume or learn a new field quickly. I made a quick study of cybersecurity by subscribing to cyber newsletters, studying think tank reports, reading national security blogs, tracking private sector threat intelligence, and, whenever possible, conducting informational interviews. All of this laid the groundwork for professional growth when combined with internships.

Internships at policy organizations provide one of the best first steps to populating a resume and translating the historian’s toolkit for the policy ecosystem. I completed two paid internships during graduate school, the first at Illumio, a cybersecurity firm, and the second in the RAND Corporation’s Summer Associate Program. These internships immersed me in professional worlds where I received an intense education in cybersecurity and national security policy.

Mentors at Illumio and RAND assigned me to research projects where I used my training in open-source data collection and analysis. I was tasked with applying questions raised in my dissertation, such as the meaning of influence, to contemporary geopolitics. For cybersecurity, my boss asked me to investigate how people responded to technological innovation in the past to shape policy. The experiences honed my capacity for translating history into a new policy-oriented subject matter expertise by drawing on my historical knowledge.

The internships were an indispensable clinic in networking, collaboration, completing deliverables on a deadline, and nurturing relationships with mentors. I learned during these internships from mentors outside of my departmental purview, who transformed how I valued my training and the range of opportunities awaiting me. In fact, I may not have earned my postdoc without such a mentor.

At Illumio, I worked for Jonathan Reiber as a researcher for his podcast. A cybersecurity thought leader, he became equal parts teacher and mentor when I expressed an interest in the field. Jonathan saw what professionals can appreciate about history PhDs: we internalize disparate strands of information quickly, write narratives, and fold nuance and complexity into our analyses. He promoted me to his much wider professional network as someone who could speak with others outside the discipline of history.

Internships were an indispensable clinic in networking, collaboration, completing deliverables on a deadline, and nurturing relationships with mentors.

In addition to my internships, I searched for avenues to communicate with audiences beyond the academy. Two publications in the Washington Post’s Made by History burnished my postdoc application and demonstrated my ability to shed the trappings of academic writing to write for the general public. It forced me to distill my ideas into their basic form and to privilege the economy of language over academic prose. Made by History is one among many publications—including Perspectives—that cater to historians who seek to engage with readers outside the academy. Policy wonks frequently publish in blogs, and writing for blogs is valuable preparation in learning how to converse in one of the field’s preferred mediums.

After my postdoc, I plan to pursue opportunities in government, think tanks, or the private sector. My professional development at CGSR has pushed me to refine my policy competencies by writing for and speaking to policy audiences. Many policy jobs require relocation to Washington, DC, but a move to the nation’s capital is not a mandatory next step. Exercising a degree of control over where I live was one of the reasons I chose to leave the academy. In switching to policy, I can better follow career directions in locations I prefer, rather than chasing a fleeting number of tenure-track positions wherever they might open.

Although it’s easy for me to describe a linear arc, my move out of the academy consisted of setbacks, dead ends, and rejections. I even sacrificed dissertation writing time for professional development. But the skills and knowledge I cultivated in my PhD program enabled me to make the leap from history to policy.

History departments should support PhD students who split time on dissertations and building careers where a doctorate is a key to a rewarding career. Job opportunities in the policy ecosystem are successful outcomes for history PhDs and should be included in departments’ tracking of alumni outcomes. (Readers can also find such data at the AHA’s Where Historians Work.) Aspiring historians can start careers in a sector that prizes our intellectual achievements while also realizing a goal of publishing and teaching: putting historical knowledge in action for the country’s future at a moment of world historical change.

Brandon Kirk Williams is a cybersecurity postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He tweets @bkwilliamscyb. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States government or Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC, and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes. LLNL-JRNL-826697

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