Brandon Kirk Williams (Ph.D. 2020)

August 13, 2020

Brandon Kirk Williams finished his dissertation on Cold War economic development, building partner capacity, and national security history under the direction of Daniel Sargent, with James Vernon and Mark Brilliant serving on his committee. His research included global fieldwork in Switzerland, India, and Indonesia on a Fulbright-Hays grant, and he was a research associate at the RAND Corporation and Illumio, a cybersecurity firm, in 2019.

Congratulations on finishing your degree! What are your plans beyond Berkeley? 

I’m starting a cybersecurity research postdoc at the Center for Global Security at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. My responsibilities include contributing to the Center’s seminars and visiting speakers programs, writing for official publications, and conducting independent research. One of my priorities will be to find avenues for the Center to engage with thought leaders across the world on matters of cybersecurity deterrence and national security.

 Could you tell us a bit about how you managed to develop professional experience outside the university while completing your Ph.D.?

I completed two internships that qualified me for the postdoc. Without them, I would not have had the requisite experience to even land the interview. Many of our skills and experiences do not easily translate to the eyes of those outside the academy, and an internship is one step that helped me bridge that gap.

At Illumio, my tasks started as conducting research for a podcast on humanity’s response to technological innovation. My supervisor encouraged me to broaden my knowledge of cybersecurity after I expressed interest in the subject. Through the crash course I discovered that I was intrigued by cybersecurity’s technological and policy angles. Even while writing my dissertation, I devoted small pockets of time most weeks to consuming cybersecurity news. I believe it kept me focused on building technological literacy and discovering how I could adapt my skills to cybersecurity research.

At RAND, I was instructed to write a series of reports on historical and contemporary national security-related topics. More so than at Illumio, I was introduced to working cross-functionally, meeting strict deadlines, and networking over the course of ten weeks. My experience was a professionalization exercise unlike any other.

What do you find to be the biggest challenges for a trained historian working outside of a formal academic context? And the biggest opportunities?

The biggest challenge is translating our skills convincingly for audiences outside the academy without first working in a professional position. A professional bridge is essential whereby students can put their training into practice and build their resume. Otherwise, many employers struggle to understand what value we add based solely on graduate training.

One of the biggest opportunities for trained historians working outside the academy is to employ a unique skill set that weaves a complex range of data inputs into a cohesive narrative, and few individuals have the research, analytical, and writing background that historians can boast of upon finishing their dissertation. Historians are not only historians who’re mired in the past. We’re qualitative data analysts who can bring a wide array of perspectives to bear on tough, often systemic, questions. Our ability to craft an argument-driven, clear narrative is, in my mind, an asset that many other graduate students don’t possess when leaving a program. Nor do many professionals have that level of training.

What advice would you offer current Ph.D. students interested in exploring different career pathways during the program? Or, to put the question another way, what might have you done differently as you explored different careers?

I would have taken greater advantage of the opportunities on campus and learned quantitative data analysis. The number of centers and institutes at Berkeley is astounding, and more opportunities for networking or volunteering exist than I realized until my final year. 

In spite of my insistence on our expertise in qualitative data analysis, I specifically would have enrolled in a class similar to Data 8 or sought out a data science boot camp. This helps one become a well-rounded candidate for a variety of occupations that incorporate data analysis.

One note of caution: your academic progress may be slowed by investigating different career pathways or, more likely, you may have to scale back your dissertation. I finished my dissertation quickly, and I am happy with the end product. Regardless, in my final year and a half I could not allocate the time I hoped to writing it or revising manuscripts for academic journals. I chose to sacrifice time with the dissertation to pursue internships and publishing outside standard academic outlets.

What do you think you'll miss most about your time at Cal?

I’ve had some of the best years of my life while at Cal. As I reflect moving on from Cal, I will miss campus’s bubbling energy. It’s difficult to put the sentiment into words. It’s almost as if fall’s first instructional weeks are magical, crackling with vitality. I will cherish that feeling.

My time at Berkeley included numerous avenues to grow intellectually by being exposed to a wealth of ideas and thinkers, and I will sorely feel its absence in my life. My experiences thus far outside academia reaffirm my belief that the public and private sectors are filled with people undertaking serious intellectual work. Regardless, Berkeley will remain different. The diversity of thought on campus guarantees that ideas are circulating for undergrads and graduate students to engage with on a regular basis. Even if I disagreed with others’ thoughts, I know that swimming in that current of ideas made me a stronger intellectual.