After beginning his career at the Royal Bank of Canada, Peter Sulick (’11) found himself wishing he had a career path that was more personally fulfilling. But what was his passion? He determined to figure it out.
In the meantime, he left the banking industry and started doing something completely different: he began working at a career counseling firm in New York that specialized in careers in clothing design, structural design, structural engineering, and architecture. “It was fulfilling,” remembers Peter. “You talk with people, and you later hear back that you were really able to open their eyes and see what is possible.” But this wasn’t what he wanted to do forever, and he continued to search for a career path that would really fulfill his interests.
Breaking into the world of national security
Peter had an epiphany after reading a book his father gave him about figuring out what career to choose. The book suggested focusing on the things that interest you in your free time. “I started thinking about that and paying attention to what I was truly interested in… and national security and politics were the sorts of things I was paying attention to,” said Peter.
Indeed, in his undergraduate career at Wake Forest University, he studied political science and archaeology. “From there, I always kept up with what was happening with the world,” said Peter. He used to read The Economist with a focus on what he needed to know for work, but, once he left banking, he began to read it with genuine interest in what was happening in the world.
“Having never had an inclination before to work in national security, I had no idea how to break into that world, or even where to begin,” said Peter. This is what led him to IWP.
In making his decision about graduate school, Peter decided that he preferred an experience where he was learning from people who were “more on the execution side of things” than the theoretical side. “The whole faculty at IWP was basically practitioners,” said Peter. “There weren’t any professors who spent their life in academia.”
Landing a job in background investigations
After moving to D.C., Peter looked for a job that could get him started in the national security field while giving him the flexibility he needed to attend graduate classes. He soon began working on Office of Personnel Management (OPM) background investigations. This work, which involves processing people for security clearances for government work, sometimes requires going through certain checklists quickly. However, there are times when a background investigator must stop and dig deeper if they sense a red flag. Peter found that his personality lined up well with that job.
He also soon realized that it was relatively easy (until recently) to get hired for this work, but that it is fairly difficult to succeed and make a career out of this field.
You sit down with people with their SF-86 papers, which have so much information on them, and you need to go through it quickly, efficiently, and correctly.
How do you succeed in background investigations? Peter notes that, “It’s a mentality thing. It either clicks or it doesn’t.” Background investigators work by themselves for the most part and need to be self-motivated. There is also an element in which your personality can help make you successful or not. Much of the job depends on making people comfortable enough to discuss extremely tricky topics. “You sit down with people with their SF-86 papers, which have so much information on them, and you need to go through it quickly, efficiently, and correctly,” said Peter. This conversation can include difficult topics like severe financial hardship, which Peter encountered often after the 2008 recession. These topics must be addressed in the conversation, and the personality of the background investigator can make a significant difference in how efficiently this information can be covered.
Studying with national security professionals
When Peter began his work in background investigations, he had an advantage over many others in his position: his knowledge gained in his IWP classes. “IWP gave me a general understanding of the national security apparatus,” said Peter. “Many people come to my profession from other fields, and they have no idea what agencies make up the Intelligence Community or how the Department of Defense works. I was exposed to that.” Before coming to IWP, Peter only had a general understanding of this world thanks to some family members in the Intelligence Community (IC), but it was an outsider’s view. “Having this general understanding from my classes was really helpful,” said Peter.
His studies at IWP also solidified Peter’s interest in the field of investigations. Reusing the principle he had used to discover his interest in national security in the first place, Peter asked himself what he kept reading about even after the relevant class was over. “For me, that was counterintelligence investigations,” said Peter. “I was spending my time reading about counterintelligence topics for my own interest. I wanted to get involved in national security, but once at IWP, I was able to drill down into that specific career field.”
I was spending my time reading about counterintelligence topics for my own interest. I wanted to get involved in national security, but once at IWP, I was able to drill down into that specific career field.
Managing contracts for Intelligence Community clients
Since then, Peter has moved into management. He has been in different roles on the same contract with CACI for about a decade. After doing field investigations himself, Peter began managing a group of investigators, and then began managing those managers. Now, he is managing contracts for the Defense and Counterintelligence Security Agency (DCSA). He manages the quality assurance division, where he and his team speak directly to his DCSA clients and ensure that the reports that they receive from CACI are of the highest possible quality. Peter is also a deputy manager on one of his company’s IC contracts.
Even now, Peter draws on his knowledge gained from IWP: “It gave me the 10,000-foot view of what was going on in the national security community. Now I know where to go after business and focus our efforts.”
Training and advising national security professionals
Peter spends a lot of his time day-to-day interviewing, hiring, training, and ensuring that people on his team advance in their careers. Peter had done some similar work at the architecture career counseling company. At CACI, he identifies high performers within the company’s 2,000-person contract and works to retain them for the company (ideally) or otherwise help them find their next steps for professional advancement.
He comments: “I find that very rewarding. I like to learn about people, train them, advise them, and watch them succeed. That sometimes involves accepting better jobs on our contract and sometimes it’s sending them out into the world to help someone else. I hate to lose people, but it’s positive loss.” Peter has seen his employees go to Quantico to become FBI agents, to the CIA, and to other IC members.
I like to learn about people, train them, advise them, and watch them succeed.
When training brand new investigators, Peter draws directly from the counterintelligence operations class that he took with the late Prof. Brian Kelley. “I give them a talk on their first day as an employee,” said Peter. “One of the things we talk about is just how important this job is.” He highlights the fact that five miles down the road from the CACI office lies the home of notorious spy Robert Hanssen. “As an investigator, if something seems wrong to you, that is what you report,” Peter advises.
As a class field trip with Prof. Kelley, Peter had personally visited the area where Robert Hanssen lived and the park bench where he received his drops and met with his handlers. Prof. Kelley was falsely accused of being this Russian spy before Hanssen was caught, and his class learned the inside story of the whole situation.
Graduate school at IWP: A good investment
Was the IWP education worth it? Peter spent significant time and money pursuing his IWP degree, and says, “For me, it definitely was.”
He advises prospective students: “You need to make sure that whatever you are doing is going to be worth your time and money. For me, it was worth both of those things. I was able to use it to get a job, but that’s not the only part. You can get a job, but how you proceed in that job and what job you will do matters. IWP gave me that direction. It pushed me into national security and made me interested in investigations.
“Graduate school is an individual decision. At IWP, you are given all the tools. Once you matriculate there, you are given the opportunities and the skill to get your foot in the door, push you, and give you direction. You will learn something that sparks interest in you.”