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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.

Applying to SIPA as a Veteran or Active Duty Service Member

The transition from military service to graduate school can be intimidating, and veterans may have many concerns including how to express their experience in the application, funding opportunities, and whether they will fit in at Columbia. As a veteran and current SIPA student, I can confidently say that Columbia University is an extremely welcoming community for veterans. Columbia University has a long history of supporting veterans (Dwight Eisenhower was President of Columbia from 1948-1953!), and Columbia currently has the largest student veteran population in the Ivy Leagues. Except for funding opportunities, all of this applies equally to both U.S. and international veterans.

Patrick Dees, MIA ’20, speaks to a student about the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association (CSVA).

Tell your story!

If you’re a veteran or active duty service member applying to SIPA, the most important thing is to tell your unique story in your essays. As a school of international affairs, SIPA values your experience in the military greatly. You have spent considerable time executing national security policy, and you’ve likely had a front row seat to interesting events that you may even find yourself studying in the classroom. Your military service also demonstrates a commitment to public service, and you’ve certainly had valuable leadership experience. All of these things strengthen your application, so make sure to include them in your essays in plain language.

I recommend asking a friend with no military experience to read your essay to ensure that you’ve removed or explained any military jargon. I used Service to School, a free service that pairs you with a mentor that has gained admission to a program similar to the ones you are considering, and I found it to be extremely helpful.

Apply for all funding opportunities

Columbia has numerous resources to help veterans fund their education. Columbia’s Office of Military and Veterans Affairs has an extensive website full of detailed information on funding opportunities. I highly recommend you review it. Almost all of the veteran-related funding opportunities are unfortunately only available to U.S. veterans or active duty service members.

The first step is to ensure that you apply for all GI Bill benefits for which you are eligible. If you are eligible for 100% of benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, SIPA offers additional funding through the Yellow Ribbon program. You will receive an email when the Yellow Ribbon application opens, and SIPA makes every effort to fund every eligible candidate.

Second, you should apply for funding from Columbia University. If you submit your application by the fellowship deadline, SIPA will automatically consider you for scholarships. You will also have the opportunity to apply for assistantships at the end of your first year. Information on these and other internal funding opportunities can be found here.

Third, you should research outside funding opportunities. Columbia provides a list of the opportunities most applicable to veterans and service members here. One of the opportunities I applied for, and was honored to receive, is the Tillman Scholarship. Columbia University is a University Partner school, and there are several Tillman scholars currently at Columbia. The Tillman scholarship provides not only funding, but extensive professional development opportunities and access to an amazing community of veterans, spouses, and active duty service members.

Join veterans’ organizations at Columbia and SIPA

The most important thing at SIPA is to find your community. SIPA has a large and active veteran community led by the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association (CSVA). The CSVA is happy to assist prospective students, and they host several events to welcome new student veterans. Throughout the year, CSVA holds events and socials to build the veteran community. Last year, veterans had the opportunity to attend discussions with Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. CSVA also hosts one of SIPA’s most popular events, “Beer and War Stories,” in which student veterans and other guests share their experiences with fellow students and answer questions about the military in a casual, open discussion over beer and food.

Members of the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association meet with the Commander of U.S. Army Europe, Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli

Opportunities after SIPA

While many assume that all veterans choose the International Security Policy concentration and pursue defense-related careers, veterans at SIPA have found their niches in a wide variety of fields. SIPA’s Office of Career Services can connect students with an alumni who volunteers as SIPA’s career coach for transitioning veterans. The U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University (Milvets) is the undergraduate student veteran group, but their events are open to all veterans. They host numerous career panels and networking opportunities throughout the year. Whatever your interests are, SIPA will provide you with avenues to explore potential careers and take advantage of your valuable military experience.

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!

Start early! Four things applicants should do now

The 2020 application is open, and we encourage all applicants to get an early start! While the deadlines for regular consideration are not until January 5, 2020 (for fellowship consideration) and February 5, 2020 (no fellowship consideration), applicants who apply by November 1, 2019 will receive early action consideration. Spring applicants have until October 15, 2019.

Whichever deadline you’re shooting for, starting now will make the application process much smoother.

Here are the first four things you should do:

  1. Create a checklist

As you research your graduate school options, it’s important to consolidate all of the application requirements and deadlines into a checklist to keep you on track. I used a simple Excel spreadsheet to track my progress on each of SIPA’s application requirements and assigned myself a deadline to complete each of them. It can also be helpful to share your goals with a friend or family member who can help keep you accountable.

  1. Schedule the GRE/GMAT

Schedule your exam date now! I scheduled my GRE as soon as I started studying and it really helped motivate me to stay on track with my study plan (especially with the prospect of the $205 test fee going to waste). I also recommend taking the exam as early as possible so that you have time to retake it if you are not satisfied with your score the first time. SIPA will consider your highest scores.

  1. Contact potential recommenders

Begin contacting potential recommenders now to give them plenty of time to write a strong letter of recommendation. SIPA requires two letters for the MIA/MPA application, but applicants can submit up to three letters. It is a good idea to have 3-4 recommenders in mind just in case something falls through with one.

  1. Start drafting your personal statement

The personal statement is a vital part of your application because it tells the Admissions Committee how your past experiences prepare you to succeed at SIPA and how you plan to have an impact after graduation. Starting this early allows you to carefully research the academic and extracurricular opportunities available at SIPA so that you can articulate specifically why you are a good fit for the program. You’ll also definitely want time to have a friend or mentor review your personal statement. They can help you spot grammatical errors, and they also may have a great suggestion for something you should include about yourself.

Taking these four steps now will give you a great head start on the application. We wish you the best of luck as you complete your application!

The Waiting Game

The people who all knowingly state patience is a virtue must have never felt the acute anxiety that accompanies waiting for graduate school application decisions. They must have never have known the paranoia that comes with the obsessive refreshing of your inbox in hopes (or deep fear) of seeing that subject line: There has Been an Update to Your Application Status. I remember this feeling vividly when I was applying to graduate school, and the anxiety consumed me so much that I actually had to turn off my email notifications because I found myself checking it even when I had not received a notification, just in case one “slipped” through.

Playing the waiting game is stressful, especially when your future hangs in the balance. But as you wait, remember, you’ve done all you could do. You put your best foot forward on your application, in your test scores, in your letters of reference, in your personal essays where you talked about that life changing study abroad experience. Having come out the other side of this dark tunnel, I wish I could have managed the anxiety better.

While nothing alleviated the nerves entirely, I did try and preoccupy my time with two simple distractions. First, I made sure I occupied my time with activities. Either with taking on more projects at work, sort of the more occupied my mind is the less I have time to worry about the decisions. Or hanging out with my friends, because when I was out having fun I wasn’t thinking about checking my email. It also helped that I have some pretty great friends and former coworkers who were my support group and “knew” that I was going to be ok no matter what the decisions ended up being.

Second, I took what I call the “Ignorance is Bliss” approach, and tried to be proactive by pretending I got in to all the schools I applied to. This led me on a quest to get as much information about the institutions I hoped to attend. I did a lot of online research, but I also tried to set up as many chats as I could with alumni and students and visit classes. This was easier for some than others, based on the fact I had applied to several schools abroad. However, meeting or talking to people from the schools is a great way to learn more about the programs while also getting a feel for the type of people these institutions attract. I found it really helpful, and depending on the person and their personalities, they either made me excited about the result I might receive ( in one case made me rethink my decision to apply in the first place!).

It seems when we as applicants finish applying and are waiting for the results, we have this fear that if we don’t get in to our dream schools our futures will be drastically altered by some sort of cosmic shift, however, that is simply not the case. I know this because I received rejections from really great schools, schools I wanted to go to. But I also got into to schools I never thought I would get into. For example: Columbia SIPA.

We as individuals put so much pressure on ourselves that the fear of not succeeding can consume us while we wait. If we don’t get in, we want to know why. Why was I not qualified enough?  Even I am guilty of this — after all I’m only human. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from talking to alumni from various graduate schools, it’s that there is no secret sauce for how to get in to specific schools. Every school has their own criteria, and honestly, that could vary from applicant to applicant. This knowledge made me realize I did all I could do. I created the best application I could muster, hit submit, and prayed that luck was on my side.

Of course, rejection of any kind can sting a bit. However, if there’s one thing I learned from the graduate school application process it’s que sera, sera — what will be will be. It sounds cliché, but I really do think applicants need to remember that life will go on after decisions are rendered. You may find yourselves in a place where you are accepted to all the schools you’ve applied to and you now have to choose between too many options. Pre-decision anxiety is real, but post-decision anxiety is a far greater beast.

My final piece of advice for those applicants currently in the thick of decision season is: No matter what happens this application cycle, you will be okay. You cannot make a wrong choice. You will end up where you are meant to be, and soon this will be a distant memory.

"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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