When I begin receiving multiple questions on a topic, it’s a signal that I should write a blog post.
Several of you have asked me about my experience as a PhD candidate in the King’s College London Department of War Studies. In this post I will try to answer your questions by explaining how I got to this point and my overall impressions about the program.
My Academic Background
I have bachelor’s of science degrees in history and political science from the US Air Force Academy, and a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. My last formal academic training ended in 1997 when I graduated from the Air Force Intelligence Officers Training Course.
Why a PhD?
I seriously began considering working on my PhD in 2006, when I was an independent consultant. I’ve guest lectured at dozens of schools over the years, and taught hundreds of students through my Black Hat courses. I thought the PhD experience would open more doors for future academic opportunities, and I welcomed the opportunity to make an original contribution to the literature. In more recent years I’ve testified to Congress and worked with think tanks, and in both environments PhDs are common.
My First PhD Choice
After reading Security Engineering (the first edition), I was a fan of Dr Ross Anderson at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory. I contacted him, as well as some of his PhD candidates. They invited me to guest lecture at the lab, which I did in May 2006. I considered the possibility of doing research on network security motioning. I liked the idea of the “British system,” which emphasized practical research, no coursework, and a high degree of independence. I would have to move my family to the UK.
In the spring of 2007, however, I made contact with my future boss at General Electric. I decided instead to join GE as director of incident response. It was too good an opportunity. That put my PhD plans on hold.
A New Direction
In the fall of 2012 I listened to a 24 lecture series titled Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers by Professor Andrew R. Wilson of the Naval War College. Dr. Wilson reintroduced me to the strategists I had learned about as a cadet twenty years earlier, and kindled a deep interest in strategic history, thought, and practice. I began looking for military history and strategy programs, starting with this list maintained by the Society for Military History.
In the summer of 2013, The Economist magazine asked if I would participate in an online debate with Dr Thomas Rid, author of Cyber War Will Not Take Place. After the debate I read Thomas’ book, and learned he was a professor in the KCL War Studies department. I enjoyed the debating process and Thomas’ book, so I decided to contact him and some of his PhD candidates to learn more about the PhD program.
During that process, FireEye acquired Mandiant in late December 2013, I decided to change roles and become a full-time strategist, inspired by my changing interests and Prof Wilson’s course. That decision definitively shifted my focus away from tools and tactics, and towards operations/campaigns and strategy.
My Final PhD Choice
In early 2014 I connected with Rob Lee, who had started his PhD with Thomas in the fall of 2013. Speaking with Thomas and Rob, I learned the KCL War Studies PhD was even more to my liking than the Cambridge program. KCL also emphasized practical research, no coursework, and a high degree of independence. I would not have to move my family to the UK, but I would have to be very disciplined and stay in contact with my advisor and colleagues.
I applied to the program to meet the spring 2014 deadline, with enrollment in fall 2014. I was accepted and started the program in the fall of 2014, while still maintaining my day job at Mandiant and FireEye.
The desired output for the KCL PhD is a thesis, a 80,000 to 100,000 word work with a goal of eventual publication as a book. Since I was already considering writing my fifth book, this seemed an excellent way to accomplish that goal. Others might find this a scary proposition, but I always enjoyed self-paced research, and the opportunity to devise and answer original research questions was appealing.
I will shift my focus slightly to those who might be interested in applying to the program. The PhD program offers three major milestones. First, one must be accepted to the program. I recommend perusing the list of people to find faculty and current students with interests similar to yours. Contact them via email to identify possible advisors and colleagues. If you aren’t able to attract any interest, it’s a sign you might not have a topic suitable for a PhD. That’s a personal judgement, of course.
I approached the application process very seriously. I took several months to complete it and submitted my Strategy, Not Speed piece as my writing sample. Thankfully I was accepted!
Once in the program, the second major milestone is called the “mini viva” or the “upgrade.” Prior to passing this milestone, as I understand it, one is not technically a PhD candidate yet. One must write a document of about 20,000 words that includes a thesis abstract, outline, introductory chapter, sample chapter, and completion work plan. The student must then defend that document, live, in front of a panel. I passed that stage of my PhD journey late last year.
The third and final major milestone is the “viva” or the defense of the completed thesis. I am several years away from this step, but I expect it to be an extended version of the upgrade process. Remember that one of the purposes of a PhD is to demonstrate the ability to produce high-level, independent research, so I expect my viva to reflect that philosophy.
My experience thus far has been excellent and I plan to continue. However, I would like to highlight a few aspects of my situation. First, I am doing research independently, not at the Strand campus in central London. Several of my colleagues are there now, and they have daily access to a whole world of academic experiences that are unavailable to remote students. If you want a campus experience, you should study in London.
Second, I am still working my day job and being a husband and father, which are my priorities. That means I have to be very careful about how I manage my time. I felt that I could handle the situation, based on my experience writing and publishing my last book. I started writing my last NSM book in January 2013 and had it ready for Black Hat in late July that year, during the time when Mandiant released the APT1 report.
Third, my thesis, the nature of counter-intrusion campaigns, dovetails well with my day job and professional interests. I would not be able to pursue a PhD in a field not related to my professional life — I simply wouldn’t have the time for research. Because my research matches the needs and interests of my employer, the work I do for Mandiant and FireEye frequently doubles as research for my PhD. Obviously I have a very flexible employer who supports my research, and for that I am grateful.
Fourth, although I am independent, thank to the initiative of colleagues in the DC area, I am not alone. Last month one of us started a group for War Studies students in the DC area, and we plan to have monthly meetings. I also try to meet with KCL personnel (students or faculty) if we happen to be in the same part of the world at the same time. I started a Slack channel but it hasn’t really yet taken off.
In addition to reading the KCL and War Studies Web sites, I suggest reading Authoring a PhD by Patrick Dunleavy. It is generally aimed at the British PhD process, focusing on the so-called “big book” thesis. If you find the sort of research and writing described in that book to be exciting, then a KCL PhD might be for you.
In brief, I recommend the KCL War Studies PhD if you meet the following requirements:
- You have a suitable undergraduate background, temperament, and social and financial situation, such that you are capable of independent research at the highest level.
- You have an interest that syncs with at least one possible advisor in the department.
- You are committed to researching for several years, and writing 80,000-100,000 words on your subject, answering research questions to make original academic and practical contributions to the field.
I may add updates to this post, or simply add them as comments or as answers to questions.