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A Faculty Perspective: Preparing to Study Cyber at SIPA

Guest Post by Professor Jason Healey

Admissions note: Jason Healey is a Senior Research Scholar at SIPA specializing in cyber conflict, competition, and cooperation. He directs the Initiative on the Future of Cyber Risk and teaches two courses: Dynamics of Cyber Power and Conflict and Cybersecurity: Technology, Policy, and Law.

In my five years here, it’s been clear that SIPA’s Dean Merit Janow is committed to bringing all things cyber and digital to the school. We’ve developed a robust program of research, events, and coursework that have made SIPA a hub for the study of cybersecurity and technology policy and our students are not only the main recipients but our best partners.

I’m often asked how students can prepare to study cybersecurity policy at SIPA. In this post, I’ll provide some recommendations on resources students can use for self-study whether you want to get a head start before SIPA or help prepare yourself for one of the five main cyber career tracks for SIPA alumni.

Reading

There are different learning styles. For me, I prefer reading. Whenever I’ve re-directed my career (into cyber in 1998, working for the finance sector in 2001 and the White House in 2003, expanding into risk and business continuity in 2005, and so on) I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on starting with general topics then diving more deeply.

If you want to switch into a cyber career, or wondering if it’s for you, start your reading early. First, there’s the general cyber reading. Here, look at The Cuckoo’s Egg (Cliff Stoll), a very readable classic, and The Hacked World Order (Adam Segal) or The Darkening Web (Alexander Klimberg) on general cyber international relations. Both are good, but Adam Segal is adjunct faculty at SIPA and directs the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. David Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon is amazing, as is Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero Day and, more recently, Andy Greenberg’s Sandworm. Andy and Kim are some of the most-trusted journalists in the field, along with David Sanger and Ellen Nakashima.

Singer and Friedman’s Cybersecurity and Cyberwar is a bit out of date but very readable — as is my cyber military history, A Fierce Domain. There’s also a lot of academic works like Ben Buchanan’s The Cybersecurity Dilemma, which is excellent, but probably a better third or fourth book.

Second are reports from think tanks like the Atlantic Council, Center for a New American Security, Council on Foreign Relations, Center for Strategic and International Studies, New America, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the East-West Institute. These organizations are also holding a lot of virtual events during the quarantine that are open to the general public.

Third, the Internet threat reports from major cybersecurity companies will give you a unique and up-to-date perspective. FireEye’s APT1 report made history, a private sector company calling out espionage – with in-depth analysis backed by evidence – by another country. CrowdStrike’s Global Threat Report is quite readable and there are now dozens of such reports focusing on adversary groups, that is, criminal hacking groups or state-backed espionage teams. The Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report and reports from Ponemon are on cybersecurity more generally and the costs of cyber crime.

Last, there is the more technical literature, especially tied to hacking skills and certifications. I started with Hacking Exposed, now on its seventh edition, but study guides for Security+ and Certified Ethical Hacker are also useful. Only dive into these if you care about such things and can deal with sometimes daunting technical material right out of the gate. They’re important but you might start with the other material first.

Social Media

Many of the most influential and interesting practitioners and scholars in the field are on Twitter, and this is a great way to follow the most recent developments. Start with the authors I’ve mentioned here. Follow me then follow those I retweet. As you read Sandworm (especially, as it is new) be sure to follow those mentioned as well as all the authors and journalists I’ve mentioned above.

Getting a Basic Technical Background

If you want a job in cybersecurity, then you must have some understand of what happens on the other side of your screen. If it still seems like magic, then your analyses won’t have enough foundation. Fortunately, even a modicum of basic computer science or programming can be enough for you dispel the fog of magic and learn key concepts and terms. The deeper you can go, the more job options open up for you.

Any of the basic computer science classes available on the various MOOC platforms (EdX, Coursera, Udemy, etc.) will be a great start. CS50x is a particularly popular option. And get as much Python as you can, not just for cyber but to help you at SIPA and any job afterwards. If you can handle the quant, consider pairing cyber classes with the concentration in Data Analytics and Quantitative Analysis.

Within the cybersecurity fields, a certificate is a routine credential to demonstrate you have special knowledge or skills. The Security+ certificate by CompTIA is one of the most achievable for most SIPA students. Usually, you can study as much as you want for free and only have to pay to take the certification test, usually a few hundred dollars. The higher-end certifications, such as those from SANS, are often highly specialized and more expensive (often paid for by companies to train their staff).

This brief list of recommendations will get you off to a great start in studying cybersecurity policy, and you’ll be well prepared for cyber-related classes at SIPA. More importantly, you’ll be on your way to an exciting career in a field which has difficult and interesting challenges and is well paid and chronically understaffed. I look forward to your joining cybersecurity as a colleague!

3 Tips from a Student Researcher at SIPA

Working as a student researcher at SIPA is a great opportunity to gain practical experience in your field and learn firsthand from SIPA’s world-class faculty members. So how do you get the job and make the most of the experience? Here are 3 tips based on my experience working for Professor Jason Healey.

1. Network!

Since individual faculty members are the hiring managers for these positions, it’s certainly beneficial if they know who you are prior to seeing your application for a position. You should take their classes as early as possible, attend events that they organize, and utilize their office hours. You should also join any relevant student groups. For example, Professor Healey often prefers his student researchers to be active members of the student Digital and Cyber Group (DCG) because he works closely with DCG to organize cyber policy-related events. I was a DCG board member and had worked with Professor Healey in this capacity prior to being hired as a research associate. The key thing is to demonstrate your interest in the topic by being involved!

2. Look for both formal and ad-hoc opportunities.

There are two primary ways in which student researchers are hired.

First, a few research assistant positions are usually included in the formal assistantship application process for second-year students. SIPA students apply for these positions in the spring semester of their first year.

Second, faculty members hire student researchers on an as-needed basis. The majority of student researchers are hired this way, and both first and second-year students are usually eligible. Many of these positions are advertised via your concentration, in the Professor’s classes, or through the relevant student group. So again, it’s vital that you stay involved!

3. Understand your strengths.

When applying for a position, discuss the specific requirements for the position with the professor. Faculty members hire students to assist with a wide variety of tasks including archival research, online research, coding, quantitative analysis, writing, event planning, or helping manage various programs. Be honest with yourself about your strengths and what you want to do. In my role, I mainly focus on writing for publication because I’m able to write in a style consistent with Professor Healey, which makes the co-authoring process much smoother.

Working directly with a faculty member is one of the best things you can do at SIPA. If you keep an eye out for opportunities and follow these tips you’ll be well on your way to a great learning experience!

Why I Chose SIPA

I remember receiving the email on my decision like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my undergraduate institution’s computer lab, lazily scrolling through my email account, looking for a message a professor sent me earlier that week. Then I saw the subject line from SIPA Admissions; I froze for a second and then clicked on it. I had trouble remembering my account password and after a few anti-climatic minutes of picking my brain for my password, I eventually got into the system. I was greeted by streaming confetti down my screen and an audio clip of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York”. I had been accepted.

If I said that letter didn’t factor into my decision I would be lying! But in reality, Columbia was one of my top choices, if not my top. By the end of the admissions cycle, I was debating between two programs. One, an elite urban studies school located in the heart of one of America’s great cities. The other was SIPA. I went back and forth. I made charts and attempted to map my decision, listing pros and cons to every program and institution. I thought about how my degree would be perceived and the name recognition for both. I considered the reach of both programs alumni networks and looked over the biographies of dozens of professors I was interested in taking classes with.

After many days of deliberation, I ultimately decided on SIPA because of something I touched on in an earlier post; that is, out of all my options, SIPA seemed like it would provide the most comprehensive and interdisciplinary education I could find. Both programs are comparable in terms of reputation and both have very strong urban studies programs. However, I felt like SIPA’s ‘global’ and international curriculum provided me with more opportunities to take classes outside of my comfort zone, and to find synergies between my own areas of interest and entirely new subjects. I appreciated that the majority of my peers would be international; I knew that their perspectives in the classroom and outside would be invaluable as a future diplomat. I also liked that SIPA offered numerous opportunities to take classes at many of Columbia’s prestigious graduate schools, including the Journalism School and Teachers College. On a personal level, I relished the opportunity to attend events at these elite institutions and to be able to interact with a range of professors, like Sunil Gulati, the ex head of the U.S. Soccer Federation, to former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Relative to other locations, I knew that access to NYC and its immense social and cultural offerings would also further my education, and my personal growth.

When I fully realized that by attending SIPA I was really gaining access to all that Columbia offers, from its world class libraries to its world class faculty, I came to a decision very quickly. Before I accepted it officially, I played “New York, New York” once more on the acceptance letter portal just for fun and then I made one of the best decisions ever; I clicked the button to begin the enrollment process!

SIPA Admitted Students’ Day 2019

Last week we held our annual open house for the newly admitted MIA, MPA and MPA-DP incoming Class, Admitted Students’ Day 2019. While it was fantastic for us to meet many of the names behind the emails and calls, it was especially great for the admitted students to meet each other and the larger SIPA community, including faculty, alumni and current students.

Admitted students get a lot of specialized content to better inform them of what SIPA offers as a policy graduate school. This includes Faculty Webinars like this one with Vice Dean Scott Barrett,  and additional ones with Professor Tamar Mitts and and upcoming webinar with Professor Dipali Mukhopadhyay. While we can only share the first webinar, you can learn more about Professor Mitts’s work in big data within counterrorism here,  and Professor Mukhopadyay’s work in rebuilding countries post-conflict here.

Admitted students have also been meeting up with alumni all over the world, most recently in Washington, D.C.

Overheard at this D.C. meetup? “I was on the fence but after tonight I’m sold. I can see how close the alum are and it’s great y’all came here to answer questions.”

I encourage every person interested in SIPA, admitted student or thinking of applying in a bit, to directly connect with SIPA as much as possible. This might be connecting with SIPA alumni and/or current students, but it can also include researching what courses are available, or visiting classes in the fall and spring semesters. Finding out if a graduate school is right for you can be time-consuming, so it’s never bad to start early.

It was great meeting all of the admitted students last week – we hope you had fun – and we look forward to seeing the Class of 2021 in the fall.

A quick April update

We assume you’re all as busy as we are this April, so here’s a few updates on what’s been going on at SIPA:

Tomorrow is our Admitted Students’ Day event for the incoming SIPA Class of 2021. We’re excited to welcome them to Columbia University’s campus to meet the SIPA community of faculty, alumni, current and other admitted students! The Office of Admissions and Financial Aid will be closed tomorrow for the event, so please be patient with us if it takes a little longer to get back to your calls or emails.

Are you following @columbia.sipa on Instagram yet? Current SIPA students Kier Joy and Daniel White led a virtual tour of the International Affairs Building and led an admitted student Q&A. We’ll add their answers to Instagram soon, so here’s a sample: One admitted student asked “How does the size of the student body impact your ability to find community?”

  • Kier: “The advantage of being in a larger policy school is that there’s bound to be someone who’s interested in what you’re interested in! For example, I’m interested in the intersection of policy, blackness and America – so I created a WhatsApp group with black students at Orientation and got very involved with SIPA Students of Color on campus.”
  • Dan: “Classes are big enough to have discussions, but small enough that you can’t hide.”

To give prospective students a sample of the rigorous academics at SIPA, faculty members have been leading condensed virtual lectures and Q&As with prospective students. Thanks to all of you who joined in – we hope you learned something new! Here’s the first Faculty Webinar from Vice Dean Scott Barrett on “International Cooperation to Limit Climate Change.” Let us know what you think!

To those of you who have given feedback on what blog content you’d like to see, know that we have some SIPA students working on answering your questions. Wishing everyone a great week, and looking forward to meeting you admitted students tomorrow!

"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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