Hi Sophie, tell us a little bit about your background.
I have just finished an MA in Applied Security Strategy from the University of Exeter in England, which spiked my interest in nuclear policy. I had previously completed a 3-year undergraduate degree from Exeter in History and Politics. My family are from Oxford in the UK. I grew up in a single-parent household and my mom had to work a lot growing up to take care of me. I went to a state-run school, which I believe you call public school in the U.S. My school was not stellar and many of my classmates didn’t end up attending top universities. Neither of my parents attended university and growing up I didn’t have exposure to many of the subjects or social conventions that I found I needed to be successful in the academic world.
You mentioned that your mom worked a lot when you were a kid. Did you have other people in your life who served as your academic mentors?
Absolutely. I had a teacher who really inspired me to pursue my interest in politics. Because my family didn’t go to university I found that it was especially important that I had that mentorship at school. This teacher was especially keen to engage me and answer my questions. He would recommend books to me and I would go home and read them in my spare time. It opened my eyes to new ways of thinking and to new ideas.
How would you encourage students to seek out teachers/mentors?
If you’re a student I really recommend you go on university websites, think tankwebsites, Google the stuff you’re interested in and reach out to people in the field. Don’t be shy about putting yourself out there or asking for help. Many people are willing to donate their time. If you’re in high school I would reach out to more junior-level people who are just starting out in their careers, but who can give you interesting insights. If you’re a young professional or graduate student you can start reaching out to more senior people.
If you’re asking smart questions and being thoughtful, a lot can come from these interactions. Recently I sent a paper I am writing to a very senior person in my field who I’d met at a conference and he sent me back incredibly detailed feedback that was so helpful. Don’t discount people’s willingness to help!
Do you identify with the first-gen label? Is this something that’s talked about in the UK?
To be quite frank, I didn’t identify with this label or even talk about my background. In my experience, there’s such a stigma against people who have come from a low-income, first-gen background that I tried to disassociate myself from it. I honestly didn’t feel like much good would’ve come from my being forthcoming about it in my academic or professional life.
Although sometimes organizations are more keen on broadening the field and making jobs less elitist and more accessible to a number of people I still didn’t feel comfortable disclosing that. I always want to make sure that I get a job based on my merits, but I also think it’s important that because it’s so hard to be open about the first-gen experience in professional settings, we create alternative spaces to talk about it. Now that I have a permanent job, I am much more vocal about instigating change.
What was your college experience like?
Going to university was a massive step up for me. Now that I’ve graduated from my master’s program, I feel like I’ve finally gotten used to the environment, but at the beginning it was very difficult. I remember when I was first interviewing for university, I had this interview at Oxford and I showed up in jeans and a hoodie. Of course everyone else was dressed in business attire, but I had no idea that this is how people do things. I had no preparation and was incredibly nervous. Obviously it didn’t go well—I was so anxious and although I started answering the questions well near the end it wasn’t enough.
Once I got to college I was surrounded by people who were raised in environments much different to my own and I began observing the way they interacted in different social situations—I learned a lot from that and eventually learned to mimic them. Unfortunately, I knew that even though my ideas were strong, if I didn’t learn to dress and present myself in a way that resonated with the environment around me, it was going to be more difficult to succeed.
How did you balance working and going to school?
It was unbelievably hard; it’s such a learning curve. It’s so difficult to manage your time effectively, but once you figure out how to do it, this is one of the number one skills employers look for.
I was also very committed to getting my degree and I couldn’t afford to do so without working a job. I strongly believe that if you want something you’re going to work hard and make it happen. I eventually struck a balance where I would lay off the waitressing shifts when I had big projects or exams and then when there weren’t massive deadlines I could waitress a lot more.
Working while studying was also difficult on a social level. Because many of my friends came from different backgrounds, many of them would go on holiday to Dubai or Australia and I would be at school working and revising (*‘revising’ is British for studying 😉*). I think it’s important to find friends who will understand your situation and support your decisions even if they don’t necessarily identify with the constraints you’re under. You should not feel embarrassed by your background; you’re at college to get your own life, don’t waste time focusing on that.
I know that working and studying is incredibly stressful. Did you do anything to take care of yourself?
I was not great about taking care of myself, initially. I had a bad sporting accident at the end of my first year of university which left me with bad fatigue. I really had to learn how to take care of myself after that. I started doing ten minutes of "mindfulness” every day and just focused on my breathing and quieting my thoughts. Doing yoga and exercising are so important as well. I am someone who still systematically burns out and I have to be very careful about it.
I also think it’s important to know the difference between doing fun things and actually resting. While going out with friends can be fun, it often doesn’t actually help your body recharge. Working out, checking things off a “wellness list” is still exhausting. This is how I like to think about it: imagine a bucket that you’re constantly putting stuff into. If you’re doing nothing on the other side of that bucket to empty it, it’s just going to get fuller and fuller and you will burn out.
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
During my childhood most of the challenges I faced came from my mom being a single parent and struggling to make ends meet. At school I never went on any school trips because we couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford books either so unless it was a book that was provided by the school I didn’t read. It was hard for my mom to help me out academically because of her background and so that always presented a challenge for me.
In university, I faced a different type of challenge when I suffered a head injury when I was participating in an eventing competition. My injury forced me to take a year off of school and left me with significant fatigue. This was incredibly challenging for me both physically and financially.
How did you become interested in a career in national security?
In university I didn’t really enjoy my classes. I was bored during my first and second years as the content was taught as a broad overview. I did not engage fully and so my marks were very average, denting my confidence in my ability. During the third year you got to choose your modules and they were taught in more detail. I happened to take a nuclear weapons module by sheer accident. It was so interesting to me and I began to think about national security as a possible career. The teacher was also very engaging and ended up also being my thesis supervisor that same year.
At that point, I wasn’t thinking about a master’s degree. I didn’t think about going into academia because my grades weren’t that great and I didn’t think it was the right space for me. It was also not really feasible to have a year of not having a full time job, due to money shortages.
I left school with no clue what I wanted to work in. I applied for so many random jobs and got barely any interviews. I wasn’t genuinely interested in the roles and that clearly shone through. After my final exams, I decided to make a list of the things I enjoyed and everything pointed to national security. I decided to take the risk and look into a Master’s. Doing a Master’s was a huge gamble for me because I was so broke.
I went to meet the academic head of the Master’s at Exeter and we chatted an hour about security issues. I didn’t know much about current affairs or recent conflicts but I realized I had the ability to talk about the deeper issues undermining contemporary problems. A friend helped me with my application essay and one month later I had my first day on the one-year program. I can say without any doubt taking the course was the best decision I have made.
Alongside writing my MA thesis this summer I managed to get a job with a nuclear think tank in London. It has been a struggle jugging it all but I now have a job and wage.
Think tanks are a good bridge between academics and politicians on policy side.
My thinktank right now focuses on engaging states on their nuclear policies and responsibilities, priding ourselves on innovative approaches to complex problems. I’m a research assistant which basically means I do whatever they want me to do. I research topics, write articles, help to organize events and develop projects.
If you want to do national security get Twitter—follow all the think tanks,
Apply for everything the worst they can say is no.
What do you hope to do in your career?
I definitely would like to stay within the nuclear security side of things. I’m working at a think tank at the moment, but I want to get experience working in as many different spaces as possible. I do want to go into politics in whatever capacity that might be, but for now I’m very excited to keep learning and working with my team at BASIC.
What’s your advice for high school students or young professionals who are coming from the same background you are?
My piece of advice is keep putting yourself out there. Reach out to people, do good work, stay focused, and take the pressure off yourself. I think if you consistently engage with the ideas you find interesting and build connections with people who care about the same things you do, things will work out.
Why do you think this is important to share your perspectives about education even though you work in national security? I think some people in either space might not necessarily see the connection between the two.
I think the connection is three-fold. On the one hand, it’s very personal. I think if starting where I did, I can get to this point, then other people can too and it’s so important for them to hear this. I also think there’s such there’s such a pitiful diversity within the national security and policy-making space. And when we do talk about diversity we miss the socio-economic status part of it which is critical.
Lastly, I think visibility is critical. Diversity of thought is so lacking because the space is dominated by people who have been raised in similar environments with a certain access and that leads to a lack of difference in the way we think about issues.
Rapid Fire Round:
Something you can’t stop talking about? Football (soccer). I’m a huge Liverpool fan and I spend a lot of my free time watching games.
Favorite food? Burgers and roasted potatoes.
Person who inspires you? My mom because she’s one of the hardest working people with an incredible sense of optimism.
Most rewarding thing you’ve done? After my accident in college I realized that my family basically bankrupted themselves paying for my healthcare and I lobbied them to change their policy to offer more support. I went campaigned to the media and eventually was successful in making them change the policy to offer support to athletes who suffer injuries and are unable to afford the medical bills associated with it.
 A think tank is an institute or group comprised of experts that research a number of specific areas. In the U.S. some notable think tanks include The Council on Foreign Relations, The Brookings Institution, and the Aspen Institute.