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building, analysts, professional development, Proficiency1

Starting Shouldn’t Be So Hard

National security and intelligence analysts face a steep learning curve, but it doesn’t have to be like this.

Words: Chris Savos
Pictures: Mike Kononov

National security and intelligence analysts help decisionmakers craft sound policies and strategies by providing context to events, assessing threats, and delivering timely, value-added insights. How well these analysts perform their jobs matters to everyone. However, even the smartest new analysts face significant hurdles to doing their jobs well. Senior customers of analysis, whether the Secretary of Defense, a CEO, or a CSO, are busy and hard to persuade. Unfortunately, most analysts leave school without the preparation necessary to overcome these hurdles.

We launched Proficiency1, a new online training community for professionals in national security and risk intelligence, to help aspiring analysts or people new to their careers upgrade their skills. Our instructors are current or former practitioners who have worked to develop generations of new analysts and who understand what specific skills and knowledge are required for success.

I can sum up the idea behind the creation of Proficiency1 in one vignette from my 22-year career at the CIA. While I was interviewing candidates for analyst positions, one applicant — a recent grad student — asked me which model of international relations the Agency used to analyze foreign actors. I stifled a laugh and noted we didn’t use a specific academic theory and dealt instead on a much more practical level with complicated individuals and groups with unclear motives revealed through their actions and incomplete snippets of relevant reporting. The experience was a reminder that even the best academic programs tend to focus on theories rather than the practical tools that graduates need to succeed as analysts.


In fairness to the grad student, the starkest example of this problem I can think of is myself. I started my career as a CIA military analyst fresh from earning a PhD in political science with a focus on national security and military issues. Yet, I was surprised at how ill prepared I was to be an analyst. My shortcomings were particularly notable in three areas that I consistently see as problematic for most new analysts.

From technological innovation to shifting geopolitics, the world is changing faster than ever. For analysts, keeping up will always mean there is more to learn. Finding time to build new skills, however, can be a serious challenge.

The first problem area was my writing — something I thought I was pretty good at in college and graduate school. The last product I wrote before starting at the Agency was a 300-page dissertation, complete with the obligatory literature review section and packed with material to show my thesis committee how much I had learned. The dissertation process was a horrible way to prepare to be a professional analyst, where I often only had one page to present insights to my customers. Learning how to trim down and focus my writing required a lot of painful on-the-job training and imposed a steep learning curve in my first year as an analyst.

My second shortcoming was stylistic: I was reporting more than analyzing. My undergraduate and PhD coursework prepared me to explain the what of an event, which was somewhat helpful in my early days as an intelligence analyst. Unfortunately my job wasn’t to be a reporter, it was to provide value-added analysis by explaining why things were happening, along with their significance and what might happen next. In other words, I was supposed to actually analyze unfolding events, not just report on them, something I’d never been asked or trained to do before.

My third was my failure to realize my audience. When I started at the Agency, I didn’t quite understand my customers and their needs. During my entire academic career, I wrote papers for teachers who had to read them, and I chose topics that interested me, not them. Suddenly I was writing for busy decisionmakers with specific, time-sensitive interests who could — and often did — choose to skip reading my analysis. It didn’t help them when I wasn’t providing them with what they needed, which was concise — and precise — analysis.

The CIA eventually taught me how to function as a professional analyst, but it took a lot of my managers’ time and was frustrating for all involved. Imagine how much better it would have been if I had arrived with some sense of what an analyst must do to provide value to their customer. That’s where I and my friend from graduate school, Trevor Thrall, came up with and developed Proficiency1.


What skills do analysts need to succeed? I believe there are three:

  1. Professional and analytic skills: The same graduates who excel at writing well-researched papers with strong theoretical underpinnings often struggle to provide insightful analysis because they are not taught critical thinking, analytic writing, briefing, working in teams, or most of the strategies that most analysts rely on daily.
  2. Cutting-edge domain expertise: Though academic programs provide an invaluable foundation of historical knowledge, most spend far more time debating theory and famous historical case studies than on generating actionable knowledge about what’s happening today — and what could happen tomorrow.
  3. Leadership and management: Most academic programs in history, political science, intelligence, or regional studies (the most common for analysts) provide no preparation for leading or managing teams and other analysts.


None of this is to suggest that there’s anything wrong with graduate school. Graduate degrees are always going to be important credentials, and the formative learning experiences people have during school cannot be replicated easily anywhere else. Nevertheless, universities by nature cannot easily adapt to fill the gaps we have identified in analysts’ education. Even if graduate programs do update their curricula, going back to school to take semester-long courses is too slow, too expensive, and not flexible enough for working professionals.

An important part of the solution, we believe, is to create on-demand training that provides practical professional development for early and mid-career analysts. Unlike many other online training companies, we’re not looking to offer courses that pack a semester’s worth of material into twenty hours of content. Instead, we provide short, focused, self-paced courses roughly two or three hours long that provide useful and usable information and guidance for analysts to succeed in their jobs. Our goal was always that our students could learn something on their phone while riding the metro on their way to work. One recent student told us he even took one of our courses while doing late-night bottle feedings with his new baby.

A second part of the solution is to provide blending learning options to the organizations that employ such analysts. For all of the attention that online training received during the pandemic, we’ve found that a lot of people crave learning in person, which is why Proficiency1 is pivoting to scratch that itch. As we come out of a year of COVID-19-imposed restrictions, we’re offering a mix of live in-person and virtual training on perhaps the most critical skill for any analyst: Writing, as well as briefing, combined with the appropriate mix of our online, self-paced options.

The final part of the solution is to connect instructors with students. We’re working with current and former practitioners in a variety of national security fields who are looking to make the jump from in-person to online training but don’t know how. They have great material and want to reach a broader audience but lack the ability and time to do so on their own. In Proficiency1, we’ve built a course production process to help take potential instructors from an initial idea to an online launch and have built the infrastructure — from a video production studio to our website and integrated eCommerce solution — so that instructors can avoid the grunt work of getting online. I know I would have been much more likely to make the jump to online training earlier if there had been someone to walk me through the process like I now do with others.


From technological innovation to shifting geopolitics, the world is changing faster than ever. For analysts, keeping up will always mean there is more to learn. Finding time to build new skills, however, can be a serious challenge. This challenge gets ever more difficult as analysts move up the career ladder and begin taking on leadership roles and new responsibilities. Proficiency1 provides a platform that gives busy analysts an efficient and effective way to address gaps in their knowledge and toolkits. Streamlining the process of professional development, in turn, will help the national security and intelligence communities meet the demand for skilled analysts.

Chris Savos is Director of Proficiency1 and a former senior executive at the CIA who provides online and in-person leadership and professional skills training.

Chris Savos

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