Archive for SIPA

Studying International Security Policy at SIPA

Nabila recently provided some great advice on choosing your concentration at SIPA.  When I applied, there was no question that I was going to concentrate in International Security Policy (ISP). I was leaving the Army and was interested in continuing to work in the national security space, so it was a natural fit. But I suspect many of you have a wider range of interests or are interested in potentially pivoting to a new career path, and in those cases it’s so important to get a feel for the curriculum and culture of each concentration so that you can find your best fit.

I’m going to hopefully assist in that regard by giving you an overview of the ISP concentration and also dispel some pervasive myths and stereotypes.

Doesn’t everyone in ISP have military or government experience? Will I fit in?

The most common myth is that everyone in ISP is a veteran or someone who wants to follow a very defined path into the government. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As Leon Trotsky noted, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Whatever your career aspirations, security issues affect every sector and understanding issues of war and peace is essential to anyone that desires to one day lead in government, international non-profits, or even private sector companies. I have friends in ISP that have backgrounds as Army Special Forces Officers, private sector consultants, paralegals, diplomats, and human rights workers. And as far as coursework, the concentration requires no prior academic training in international security or any particular professional background. For more on the diverse backgrounds of ISP concentrators, read this great blog post by ISP graduate Samantha Taylor.

What career paths do ISP students pursue after SIPA?

ISP students are prepared for a wide range of career paths in U.S. and foreign government agencies, intelligence, think tanks, defense analysis, cybersecurity, consulting, journalism, legislative staffs, and international organizations. For U.S. students, the majority of these positions are in Washington, D.C., but there are increasingly opportunities in New York City as well, especially in cybersecurity.

What are the courses like?

Almost all of your ISP courses will be small seminars of 10-20 students. Columbia offers more courses in security studies than all but a few other universities, and SIPA and the Political Science department (you can take graduate level Political Science courses while at SIPA) have numerous full-time faculty members focused on security issues.  During your two-year program, there will be approximately 30-40 ISP courses to choose from. The courses cover a wide variety of areas including intelligence, cybersecurity, defense analysis, conflict resolution, peacekeeping, terrorism, and regional issues, among others. You can view the entire curriculum here, but the best way to see what ISP courses are like is to experience one for yourself. This semester, ISP courses available for class visits include War, Peace, and Strategy; Methods of Defense Analysis; Contemporary Russian Security Policy (taught by the former Deputy Assistant Director of CIA for Europe and Eurasia); Intelligence and War; and several others. Register for a class visit here!

What extracurricular opportunities does ISP offer?

The ISP concentration starts off the year with an annual fall retreat to a campground north of New York City. I went my first year, and it was a great way to meet classmates, second year students, and several professors. In the spring, the concentration usually takes one trip to DC or a military installation. Last year, the trip was a staff ride to Gettysburg and the U.S. Army War College led by Professor Stephen Biddle. There is also a spring crisis simulation held at SIPA and run by ISP students. Last year, students explored the conflict in Yemen in a realistic, one-day simulation.

There are also an unending amount of incredible guest speakers that come to Columbia, and many of those of interest to ISP students are hosted by the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. Just in the past year, students have attended events with former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.

Surviving (and thriving) the Video Essay

Photo Credit

Remember: The video essay is available after you submit your application and pay the application fee.

The Video Essay component of the application process can seem terrifying, but fear not because we are here to help! At this point, you might feel both relieved at having submitted your application and tired that there’s the final final step to complete the application. We’ve been there and totally get it. It’s 100% normal!

In writing this post, we found that each of us prepared for the video essay differently, which means there is no one ‘right’ way to prepare as everyone has their own process when it comes to it. We brainstormed on what we felt worked and also what we wish we had known when we were preparing.

Here are the main steps we took to prepare for the Video Essay:

Prepare like it’s an interview…or a first date – George-Ann MIA ’20

The video essay is a conversation between yourself and the Admissions team. There’s no judgement or pressure to be uber gregarious. Instead, prepare to chat about anything from pressing current affairs issues to your favorite flavor of ice cream. Read some news articles about current affairs, write and practise some talking points about yourself, relax, and, most importantly, be yourself.

Unlike an interview, there’s no expectation for you to be fully kitted out in a suit and tie — dressing comfortably is fine. Just remember that this is an externally facing video so wear something that you’d be comfortable wearing meeting new people.

Give yourself time – Stuart MIA ’20

Remember, you can only start the video essay after completing the rest of the application, so it’s important to give yourself plenty of time prior to the application deadline. As with anything, technical issues are certainly a possibility, and you don’t want you to be stressed about missing the deadline.

One thing that all of us did early in the process was test our microphone and camera. I personally used Skype to test everything prior to even accessing the video essay, but you will also do this in Testing Mode within the video essay application. I also made sure the lighting was good and the microphone could clearly capture my voice (try to complete the essay in an area with limited background noise or use a headset). Looking and sounding my best helped improve my confidence, and I’d certainly recommend starting early as one of the best ways to make your video essay experience go smoothly.

If you do encounter technical issues, don’t panic, you’re not the only one. First, follow the steps outlined here to try to troubleshoot the issue. If that doesn’t resolve your issue, contact the admissions office immediately and they can provide further assistance.

Take It Easy – Steven MIA ’20

So, I did the exact opposite of what George-Ann said and got decked out in a suit and tie (oops) and it was completely unnecessary (still looked good, though). I got way too amped for my question and almost stumbled out the gate. If I were to do it over again I would:

  • Breathe and take a couple of seconds to read the question.
  • If it is a policy question you know well, don’t try to jam all your knowledge into the video. Just answer the question and tag on anything extra after if there’s time.
  • If it is a policy question you don’t know much about, focus more on what you have heard and what you think about it, or possible future developments of the topic.
  • If it’s question about yourself, don’t overthink it, just speak calmly and slowly. Don’t be too concerned about providing the “right” answer.

Make those 60 seconds count – Nabila MPA ’20

Yay, you’re ready to do that Video Essay! Once you’re done with Testing Mode, click the green READY button. This will give you your official prompt question. You will have 60 seconds to prepare for your answer so use those 60 seconds wisely! But, no pressure. Really. No Pressure.

When I was preparing for the video essay, the general consensus on graduate school forums is that there is no one type of question. So I figured I should think about how I can best tackle any answer that comes my way, since the questions can really range from Brexit to the ideal SIPA student. My solution was to focus on structure, structure, structure. The general framework I used is a high-level essay structure. Effectively, a clear and concise 30-second elevator pitch that answers the question.

When answering my question (Sadly, I forgot the question the moment I was done with the video essay because, adrenaline), I listed 3 points/ideas as a starting point and built it up by including examples to support those points. While I was tempted to go into a lot of details, I felt that the more ideas I had, the less clear my answers would be since 60 seconds goes by so quickly. You’d be surprised how much you can get done in 60 seconds when you need to! After that I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, and to remind myself to speak slowly, as I watched the seconds countdown to deliver the answer.

Lastly, remember there’s more to the application than your Video Essay. The video essay is just one component of the application and it provides the Admissions Committee a sense of who you are given there is no opportunity for interviews. So just remember this is not the do-or-die factor for your application.

Good luck!

Want more resources?
Click here for a walkthrough of how to access the app and what it looks like, see this post.
Click here for a post on what to expect in the Video Essay.

Studying Cybersecurity at SIPA: A Course Guide

Photo: SIPA students and recent graduates traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with senior industry professionals and SIPA alumni working in the field of cybersecurity and threat intelligence.

Threats emanating from cyberspace impact governments, the private sector, non-profits, and individuals. The borderless nature of (most of) the internet as well as the fact that the private sector owns much of the infrastructure creates difficult policy challenges that governments and companies continue to confront. Thankfully, SIPA is helping train students to tackle these challenges through innovative coursework that allows students to explore the technical, legal, and policy aspects of cybersecurity.

As a current student, I’ve taken several courses focused on this area, and I’ve found SIPA to be a great place to study cybersecurity policy. While I concentrate in International Security Policy, there are courses applicable to students in all concentrations. An International Finance and Economic Policy student might explore cyber risk to financial stability, for example, while an International Security Policy student may be more interested in cyber conflict. As you apply to SIPA and prepare your personal statement, use this guide to assist in your research and allow you to explore the potential paths you can take in this exciting field.

Basic Technical Background (a great place to start!)

  • Computing in Context – This course teaches the Python programming language through a series of lectures and labs taught by a computer science professor. Then, a SIPA professor explores how these skills can be applied to solving public policy problems. This is an extremely popular class at SIPA that provides a very marketable skill set. While I haven’t personally taken the course, I’ve spoken to several fellow students who found the course challenging but highly practical.
  • Programming for Entrepreneurs – This hands-on short course, which requires no technical background, takes place over an intensive four days and covers the fundamentals of computer science, data structures, web development with HTML/CSS, as well as some basic SQL. While I had some basic web development experience from my undergraduate studies, this course still provided me with valuable skills and was a great first course to gain some additional technical background prior to taking other courses on this list.
  • Basics of Cybersecurity – This course equips students with the basic technical knowledge needed to succeed in other cybersecurity courses at SIPA. Students learn the basics of how computers and the internet work, networking concepts, and network defense and security. When I took this course, it was taught by an active-duty U.S. Army cyber officer, and it was fascinating to learn these concepts directly from an experienced practitioner.
  • Cyber Risks and Vulnerabilities – This course complements the Basics of Cybersecurity course by focusing on the risks and vulnerabilities of various devices and protocols. The course includes demonstrations of common hacking techniques or tools to illustrate how these vulnerabilities are exploited and the potential impact. You should aim to take this course after taking Basics of Cybersecurity.

General Problems in Cyber Policy and Cyber Conflict

  • Cybersecurity: Technology, Policy, and Law – This innovative seminar course brings together professors and students from SIPA, the Computer Science department, and the Law School to explore cybersecurity issues from the lenses of all three disciplines. The course culminates in an interdisciplinary research project. Students interested in any aspect of cybersecurity or the impact of technology on policy and law will benefit greatly from this course. Tip: if you’re interested in this course, demonstrate your interest in cybersecurity by taking other related courses and joining the student Digital and Cyber Group. The course always has a wait list and this will differentiate you.
  • Dynamics of Cyber Conflict – This course focuses on the national security aspects of cybersecurity, specifically how cyber conflict has developed and how it differs from other types of conflict. Through an interactive exercise, students will learn how to formulate practical policy recommendations to respond to a cyber incident. Taught by Professor Jason Healey, the editor of the first history of cyber conflict, this course is always popular and comes highly recommended.

Skills-Based Courses

  • Introduction to Cyber Threat Intelligence – This course introduces students to the skills required to work as a cyber threat intelligence analyst in government or in the private sector. While not required, students will benefit from having some prior technical knowledge, either from another SIPA course or from work experience. Taught by Professor JD Work, who has extensive government and private sector experience, the course has numerous hands-on intelligence analysis exercises that provide valuable experience (and are fun!).
  • Cybersecurity and Business Risk – This course examines cybersecurity from the perspective of the private sector. It explores the risks of conducting business connected to the Internet and how businesses understand and manage these risks. This course is especially beneficial to International Finance and Economic Policy students interested in cybersecurity. Taught by Professor Neal Pollard, the CISO of UBS, the course will help prepare you for cyber risk related roles in a wide variety of industries.

SIPA is a leader in training the next generation of leaders in cybersecurity policy. I encourage you to explore these courses as you craft your personal statement. A personal statement that clearly demonstrates how SIPA will advance your career goals is a great way to stand out in the application process, and cybersecurity courses from SIPA are a great way to stand out in your future job hunt.

Demystified: The Quantitative and Language Resume

One of the most challenging parts of the application process at SIPA is the Quantitative and Language Resume (judged by the amount of questions we get about how to craft it). Although there is a helpful template on our website, it won’t help you know exactly what do put in it, which is what this post is for.

What is the Quantitative and Language Resume for?

The Quantitative and Language Resume is basically a tally of, in your own words, the quantitative experience (both academic and professional) and linguistic exposure you posses. Your content should show you can keep up with the required courses for the degree program you are applying to.

For example, if you are applying to the Economic and Political Development concentration at SIPA as an MIA/MPA candidate, you might want to show proficiency in a second language. While it’s not needed to apply, you will need proficiency to graduate. Depending on your specialization, you might need to take upper-level quantitative analysis and economics courses at SIPA. Therefore, your Quantitative and Language Resume should include the relevant courses taken during prior study and details like the grade you received, textbooks and other materials used, and a brief summary of what was covered in the class.

If it’s been a few years, the Admissions Committee understands! If you want to be exact, information like what the course covered could be found in your university’s course catalog if you struggle with providing these details from memory. You can supplement your course experience, or lack thereof, with any quantitative experience you may have accrued at work such as visualizing data for presentations or doing preliminary analysis for a report.

What should I submit if I’m changing careers or don’t have a background in economics?

If time at SIPA is a vehicle for switching career direction from the more qualitative to quantitative, some applicants take a few courses in economics or statistics at a community college or university, or request more quantitative projects at work to beef up quantitative skills and application. Planning ahead will increase your probability of being able to show to the Admissions Committee that you will be able to keep up with the economics and quantitative core at SIPA. If you have plentiful quantitative coursework or experience, parse out what is useful. Courses in Chemical Engineering are applicable, but if you have statistics and programming experience in STATA and Python under your belt, prioritize that.

I don’t need a language to apply, so what do I put in this resume?

The language portion of the Quantitative Language Resume can strike fear in those of us who haven’t taken a Spanish class since High School. If you know that you are going to apply to a program without a language requirement ( e.g. an MPA in the Urban and Social Policy concentration), the language section can just be a elucidating footnote on your cultural competency. Even if you are applying for a course where language is a core component of the core, such as the MIA program or the Economic and Political Development concentration (regardless of degree), fluency is not a prerequisite.

What this section of the Quantitative and Language Resume is trying to suss out is how exposure and commitment to the language or culture you’d like to commit time to at SIPA. For programs that require it, in your two years at SIPA you should be able to test out or achieve a B or higher in the upper-intermediate language of your choice. You can come to SIPA with little or know background in a language and learn it here — it will just take time. In fact, Amanda Schmitt ’19 gave some tips on how to maneuver that in a blog post earlier this year.

If you have a rich background in foreign languages, either through self-study, life experience, or taking up to 300-level courses during your undergraduate study, please elaborate on it to show off your international experience or outlook. Remember, fluency doesn’t come from just listening to a few foreign language songs or watching movies, but from a concerted effort to learn or develop structured exposure. Put only what will show what foundation you have to build on through coursework.

The Quantitative and Language Resume is one of the ways in which SIPA practices holistic admissions and how all of your experiences make you into a competent candidate with the potential to thrive here. Use it as an opportunity to show the steps you’ve taken to ready yourself for graduate school, your ability to follow our curriculum, and, most importantly, your potential as a Seeple.

Struggling to plan for applications? Here’s my timeline.

Applying to graduate school can be daunting especially if you have work and personal commitments that make it hard to keep track of the what feels like an endless list of documents. Speaking from personal experience, it’s very normal to feel overwhelmed, especially when stress and anxiety start creeping in. To help you plan ahead, I wanted to share with you my personal timeline that helped keep me on track throughout the application process.

As an international applicant, I don’t think the process is too different from domestic applicants. For me, the biggest challenges were finding a GRE testing centre, managing the time differences for application/Q&As, and translating and notarizing documents where needed. For more tips on international applicants, check out Yiting’s post here.

My biggest challenge in meeting the deadline was for things beyond my control.  For example, recommenders must submit their Letters of Recommendation directly, so plan ahead to avoid added stress, especially if you have other commitments at the same time.

Phase 1: Plan ahead and map out a game plan

  • Essay questions: Spend some time thinking about these essays and draft a skeleton of key points. It’s a helpful tool for you to understand why you want to go to graduate school and what you hope to get it out of it
  • Professional Resume/CV: Pull out that old, dusty resume! Reach out to friends and colleagues for samples if you want some inspiration
  • Quantitative & Language Resume/CV: Think about what skills and experiences you have that can go into this. Identify if you have gaps and think about how to plug those gaps.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Identify 2 (or 3 if you prefer) professional contacts who can help create the right narrative for you
  • Academic Transcripts: Unofficial transcripts are fine when applying, but you may still need to reach out to academic institutions and send those transcripts. This is a quick and easy win!
  • GRE/GMAT: Get those GRE/GMAT books and start studying! I personally ‘started’ (by started, I mean I bought the books…) 8 months before the deadline but only geared up 5 months before (I took the exam 3 months before the deadline). This is because I wanted to focus the last stretch on essays without the added stress of exams. As an international student, my home country had limited places and seats where I could take the test, so booking a spot early helped me plan my studying schedule accordingly. Need more tips? Check out Niara’s advice on preparing for the GRE here.
  • For TOEFL/IELTS/PTE: Even though I’m an international student, I didn’t have to fulfill this criteria as my undergraduate degree was taught in English. Based on other Seeples experiences, the timeline with TOEFL/IELTS/PTE, is similar to the GRE/GMAT. As I don’t have personal experience, I have omitted this from the timeline.

Phase 2: Execution and keeping yourself on track

  • Essay questions: Draft out those essay questions! I recommend getting feedback from 2/3 other people to help you fine tune your messaging (and to keep to the word limit!) but wouldn’t go more than that as it can get very  daunting. It took me many drafts before I was comfortable enough to get feedback. I also ended up re-writing one essay so that I could better capture my thoughts. Keep in mind this could be a long process of reiteration. It’s different for everyone!
  • Professional Resume/CV: Clean up your resume/CV, get feedback from trusted friends or colleagues, and submit! That’s two ticks down, which is a great way to keep you motivated.
  • Quantitative & Language Resume/CV: I personally struggled with this and spent a lot of time thinking about what I should include. I ended up including everything I did at school and work that had a quantitative element (even if it was minor). A sample of the resume can be found here. Write that resume and submit. (Three things done!)
  • Letters of Recommendation: Reach out to recommenders and prep them! Once recommenders accept, share this useful outline to help them plan their letters. I also shared some key points and achievements that they may want to include. This approach does differ as every recommender has their own style. But don’t assume that they don’t need a little coaching to tailor their narrative for you, prepping your recommenders is key!
  • GRE/GMAT: Book your test date and study, study, study! I took the test during this ‘phase’ and it was a huge weight off my shoulders. And don’t forget, when you complete the exam, you have five schools you can send your scores to for free! If you’re set on SIPA, send it to 2161. It costs $27 to send it later.

Phase 3: The last mile and submission! 

via GIPHY

  • Essay questions: Final round of edits and click that submit button! By this point, you might be so tired of those essays, you’re just making unnecessary (and possibly detrimental!) edits.
  • Video essay: While this may seem terrifying, it’s only 120 seconds of your life! The video essay is available only after you submit your application and pay the app fee. More details on accessing it can be found here. The questions really range and I prepped for it by thinking about how I would best structure my answers to sound more confident and coherent. My only advice is breathe, be yourself and use those 60 seconds wisely!
  • Letters of Recommendation: Help recommenders by reminding them of the deadline and offering to help them with key points or messages. When they’re ready to submit, they should check their inbox and spam folders so that they don’t miss the link SIPA sends them. They will use this link to log in to the application system and submit their letter on your behalf. If they have issues with the online submission, they can contact sipa_admission@columbia.edu. Please remember that all letters should be on letterhead, signed and in English (or accompanied by certified translations). An applicant does not need to wait for recommenders to submit their information prior to submitting the application. There is no problem with an application being submitted before all of the recommendations have been submitted. The opposite is true as well – there is no problem with a recommender submitting a letter before the application is submitted
  • GRE/GMAT: If you’re still crunching for the GRE, that’s okay! You only need to submit self-reported test scores with the application by the deadline, so that helps ease the burden. Scores must be verified after admission to the program, but before your scores expire.

Phew… that was a lot to digest but hopefully this helps. Everyone has their own journey and process when it comes to applying for graduate school so don’t be terrified if yours is different! Find your sweet spot but most importantly, plan ahead so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.

Good luck!

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

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