Expanding Your Research Horizons: Summer Internships at START

By Rob Denaburg, M.A. Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs & David Hofmann, PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo. 

Canadian graduate students are often faced with the challenge of developing useful research and problem-solving skillsets in order to prepare themselves for the transition to the workplace. This year we found ourselves in the same boat as many of our colleagues who were seeking opportunities to engage in hands-on, meaningful research. In contrast to traditional research assistantships, summer internship positions give participants a chance to engage other aspects not available through typical RA’ships, such as travel opportunities and exposure to diverse methods and disciplinary approaches.

This summer we had a chance to participate in two programs offered by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. START is a federally funded American research consortium that engages in unclassified research projects on and related to terrorism and security-issues of interest to security policy-makers and practitioners. As a part of its overall mandate to engage and train the next generation of terrorism scholars, START runs internship programs year-round to provide hands-on experience to students interested in pursuing careers related to terrorism and security.

The internship program at START is traditionally a 10-week part time commitment, but accommodations can sometimes be made for those who need to fulfill particular requirements for school credit. We have seen first-hand how interns play a major role at START, tasked with research on special projects ranging from government responses to terrorism to propaganda analysis, and also make significant contributions to the process of updating and maintaining the Global Terrorism Database (GTD).

Our participation in the 2014 summer internship program has provided us with an opportunity to showcase our experiences to our fellow Canadian graduate students who may be interested in pursuing some practical research experience. By briefly outlining our individual and collective experiences below, we hope that it will encourage you to explore similar research opportunities.

Rob Denaburg: The Global Terrorism Database

The GTD is one of START’s most important products, and is a key resource for academics and policy-makers alike. It is by far the largest database of terrorist events, containing upwards of 113,000 terrorism incidents that have occurred since 1970. Based on open-source material, the GTD aims to capture information on both domestic and international terrorism – the former tends to be lacking from other databases on terrorist activity. The GTD has been a useful research tool for assessing trends in terrorist activity and assessing the impact of government anti-terrorism policies. Both the GTD as well as START’s numerous publications relating to terrorism, security and society can and have been used to inform many of TSAS’ working papers and research efforts.

As an intern on the GTD team, I coded information related to terrorist incidents – particularly the weapons and tactics used by perpetrators. This information is used to identify trends in the use of weapons and tactics by terrorists, and interns will ultimately select a particular issue or area of interest to analyze using GTD data and present their findings to their colleagues. My own presentation examined the possibility of a synergistic effect that multiple attack types (i.e. a bombing in concert with an armed assault) within a terrorist event could have on the lethality of that event.

As a student who has primarily done qualitative rather than quantitative research, an opportunity to explore the quantitative side of social sciences was extremely beneficial to my professional and academic development. Though tedious at times, experience with data entry will also be valuable. Ultimately, this experience will compliment my studies and help round out my resume, as well as provide me with an extensive network of former colleagues who will similarly soon be entering the workforce in the field of terrorism and security studies.

David Hofmann: The Failure Points Project

In addition to internship programs, START often hires graduate students for specific research projects. As part of the Failure Points project, I was one of eight program participants that conducted case studies of various illicit smuggling networks. The Failure Points project is funded by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), and the overarching research goal is to bolster efforts to counter the trafficking of Radiological and Nuclear (RN) materials. The findings from these case studies will be used to comparatively analyze organizational weaknesses in order to identify optimal points of interdiction for law enforcement agencies tasked with the disruption of illicit smuggling and trafficking networks.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the summer internship program was the push by the START project managers for interns to obtain something concrete from the experience: a publication, a speaking event, or data useful for dissertations/theses. I plan on using the data obtained from research on a pair of publications, while some of my colleagues used their experience and project to write op-eds, blog posts, and fuel their own graduate research. We each left the program with something tangible from the experience.

Networking and Enrichment

The chance to work at START has provided us an invaluable chance to network with other scholars and students interested in terrorism and security studies. Program participants come from many different disciplinary backgrounds, and from across the globe. This diversity gives interns a unique chance to share ideas, make contacts and form working relationships with both seasoned academics and other budding scholars.

START regularly holds enrichment talks, special presentations, guest speakers and simulation exercises throughout the summer on a variety of topics. We had the chance to hear from Iraq’s first pollster, a former right-wing extremist, an officer in the U.S. Navy, etc. Interns are encouraged and given time to attend these events, which provide participants with a chance to engage with and understand developing research, pressing concerns for practitioners, and the scholarly insight into contemporary world-events related to terrorism and security.

Conclusion

We have found the START summer internship program to be a valuable academic, networking and social experience. Not only did it provide us with hands-on, practical research experience, we had the opportunity to forge friendships and working relationships with like-minded individuals who are passionate about terrorism research.

If you have any questions about our experience at START, we encourage you to contact us by e-mail or post a comment below.

Photo with permission from START.

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