An Interview with James Forest
“One of the biggest hurdles facing students who enter a homeland security degree program is realizing that terrorism encompasses more than just what they know of Al-Qaeda. Students are often surprised by the content of the curriculum because terrorism incorporates a wide scope of activity that is carried out by many groups.”
James Forest is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he teaches courses about terrorism, security studies and weapons of mass destruction. He has been an instructor for 10 years.
James received his graduate degrees from Stanford University and Boston College and undergraduate degrees from Georgetown University and De Anza College. In addition to his position at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, James is a Senior Fellow with the Joint Special Operations University, where he holds top secret security clearance and conducts research projects for the special forces community. He is the former Director of Terrorism Studies at West Point.
In your own words, what is homeland security?
Homeland security is the study of domestic and foreign security threats. Students of homeland security examine effective ways to respond to those threats. Within homeland security, my specialization is terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
What classes do you teach in homeland security?
I currently teach courses on terrorism and counterterrorism, security studies and weapons of mass destruction.
The terrorism and counterterrorism course examines the significant terrorist groups of the past 100 years, including groups like Hezbollah and the IRA. The course covers topics like ideology, radicalization, financial backing and the ways that these groups use the Internet. After discussing terrorist groups, the course moves on to discuss how countries combat terrorism by capitalizing on the vulnerabilities of terrorist groups.
Security studies is a broad course that begins with a study of the various military threats that the United States has faced in the past. The course examines how the United States developed the strongest military in the world. Then it switches to a study of the biggest threats to this country, including weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, cyber attacks and biological weapons.
Finally, the course on weapons of mass destruction details how chemical, biological and radiological weapons are made. And the course looks at the United States’ strategy for responding to attacks. The curriculum includes a group project for which the students design an attack and response scenario.
How long have you been a professor of homeland security?
I have been teaching in the area of security studies since 2001, when I had a teaching position at West Point. I became the director of terrorism studies at that institution in 2004, and I became an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell in 2011.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying homeland security,” what would your response be?
I would tell students that both homeland security and security studies in general can prepare them for a broader set of careers than they might realize at first. Besides helping the U.S. government neutralize terrorist threats, students can focus on working in the private sector as well, including maritime, port, aviation and transportation security.
I would also tell students that they do not have to study homeland security to find a job in this field. In fact, it is actually very helpful to have a liberal arts background. For example, my degree is in higher education administration. My research in the subject of learning transferred to the homeland security issue of how terrorist groups teach skills to new members.
Another reason why students do not need to study homeland security to work in this field is because there are not many quality degree programs that specialize in this subject, especially at the undergraduate level. The most common undergraduate majors for students interested in studying security are political science and criminal justice.
After they earn a bachelors degree, students can then look for a graduate program in security studies, but there are not many quality security programs at the graduate level either. I would tell students to look into security studies programs at Georgetown University, John Hopkins University, Columbia University and Stanford University.
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering a homeland security program have?
One of the biggest hurdles facing students who enter a homeland security degree program is realizing that terrorism encompasses more than just what they know of Al-Qaeda. Students are often surprised by the content of the curriculum because terrorism incorporates a wide scope of activity that is carried out by many groups.
Another hurdle for students in this field is understanding why people commit acts of political violence. If a student studies criminal justice, for example, they might learn about investigating terrorism, but they probably will not explore why people become terrorists in the first place. That knowledge is necessary for an in-depth study of security.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a homeland security professional and what traits would hinder success?
Personality traits that would help someone succeed as a homeland security professional include intellectual curiosity and a strong work ethic. Intellectual curiosity is important because security involves investigating problems and researching answers, which requires the capacity and desire to keep learning and exploring. Professionals in this field also need to be willing to work hard. Homeland security professionals may have to work very long hours and come to work on short notice if an emergency occurs.
A personality trait that would hinder success is a willingness to accept a single person’s opinion as the truth. Homeland security professionals need to be naturally critical of information and only form their own judgments after thoroughly researching an event. A person who is satisfied by reading only 1 newspaper or listening to 1 news radio station, for example, would not likely be as successful in homeland security as someone who obtains news from multiple sources and then forms an independent opinion of current events.
What courses in homeland security are most important for a student to take?
The introductory course on security studies is the most important class for students just starting out in this field. It teaches about topics such as state-based security, the use of force, the rules of war and the types of threats that all countries face. The course has a mix of theoretical and practical training that helps students focus their education.
I also recommend a course on international security, which covers international allegiance, diplomatic history and the history of major international wars and insurgencies.
Finally, cybersecurity is another option for students who are curious about the technological side of security. There are specific courses within cybersecurity on topics such as information security and hacking.
Outside of homeland security, what courses would you recommend to a student?
Aside from security classes, I recommend taking courses in a variety of subjects that will help students develop critical thinking skills and maintain a sense of curiosity. Courses on sociology, psychology and even finance can help students learn to think critically and allow them to pursue individual interests that could contribute to their careers in homeland security.
What skills can students expect to gain while studying homeland security?
Students in homeland security programs can expect to gain skills in communication, computers and military strategy. Communication skills are fostered in homeland security degree programs through written papers that prepare students to clearly explain security threats and response tactics in their future careers. Computer skills are vital to all security programs because modern security methods and threats depend heavily on computer technology. Finally, homeland security programs include military strategy in the curriculum because students need to be prepared to plan responses to security threats and attacks.
Students will also gain specialized skills if they choose to concentrate on a particular area of homeland security. Intelligence students, for example, will gain extensive skills in computer research and interrogation.
Can you give a few study tips that would help a homeland security student succeed?
My biggest study tip for homeland security students is to study in a foreign country so that they can try to understand a vastly different cultural midset. Students who are able to speak a foreign language fluently will have more job opportunities in homeland security, particularly if they are interested in working abroad.
For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of homeland security?
A masters degree is the optimal level of education for students interested in working in homeland security. It is difficult to find entry-level jobs in this field that don’t require a masters degree, and few security jobs outside of academia require a PhD.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in homeland security?
The job outlook is good for students with degrees in homeland security, both in the public and private sectors. Federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department are the biggest government employers of homeland security graduates. Private sector jobs are primarily based in physical security, which consists of evaluating and strengthening the security of valuable property. Insurance companies also hire homeland security professionals to evaluate the risk of insuring assets like buildings or boats.
To increase their chance of finding a security job, students should try to get an internship in the field. They can intern at a large federal agency, like the Department of Homeland Security, or they can work at a police department and learn how the police handle local security threats.
How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying homeland security at the graduate level?
Undergraduate students who are interested in further study of homeland security need to earn excellent grades and seek security internships to get into the most reputable graduate program possible. There are not many good graduate programs in this field, so students should look to well-known universities with competitive admissions standards. Those schools will base admissions decisions on traditional factors like grades and extracurricular experience.
Students do not need to major in homeland security or a related field as undergraduates, however, to get into a graduate program. A liberal and diverse education will help students develop the critical thinking skills that they will need to study homeland security in graduate school.
Also, students need to develop excellent communication skills. They will need to write well and correctly cite sources to succeed in a graduate program in homeland security and to excel in their future careers.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying homeland security?
My advice to students who are interested in studying homeland security is to read as much as possible. Homeland security students and professionals need to be able to process large amounts of information quickly, and practice is the only way to improve that skill.
In particular, students should read about security issues so that they are familiar with the subject before they begin a degree program. An understanding of security will give them a head start when they start their degree programs, but more importantly, it will clear up any misconceptions they have about the field. Students often see movies or television shows about security that make the field seem more glamorous than it is, so reading about the subject will help them decide whether or not it is the right career path for them before they commit to a degree program.