Public Interest Technology University Network Projects
Carnegie Mellon University
Krystal Alex Jackson, master’s student studying information security policy and management.
What You Should Know About Embarking on a PIT Career
The field of public interest technology (PIT) benefits from having people with experience in multiple domains. Applying your talent as a technologist to problems with a public-interest focus can involve learning more about government, nonprofits, public policy, and social justice. This naturally leads students to acquiring a mixed and often uncommon skill set. I have found that having multiple academic interests is both a gift and a curse. A gift because the breadth of my skills gives me a different perspective and often allows me to see gaps in current projects and research. And a curse because sometimes I am left feeling unqualified for some of the more competitive and exciting positions I want the most.
I graduated with a B.A. in ethics, history, and public policy, with a minor in physics. As an M.S. student, I study information security, policy, and management. My research interests include emerging technologies and the ethical, governance, and national security questions that arise from them. In particular, I’ve focused on the impacts of artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.
While I am thrilled with the way my education has played out and the variety of interesting questions I get to tackle every day using my perspective as a social scientist and technologist, it has not been easy finding ways to do the work I enjoy. If you are like me — a highly interdisciplinary student with a wide-ranging skill set — you might find yourself in a similar position: everyone telling you how your unique background will give you an “edge” in interviews and applications others do not have, while you are left scrolling through endless job postings feeling an increasing sense of self-doubt and impostor syndrome.
From my experiences so far, I can tell you that if you choose the path “that is for your steps alone,” you will walk it alone. It will be harder to find positions, it will be harder to describe what you bring to the table, and it will be harder to find help along the way. However, it is far from impossible, and accepting these facts should not prevent you from pursuing your goals but prepare you for the challenges you might face in doing so. To make that journey a little easier, I have outlined some tips I wish I would have known as I started my educational and professional career.
When Searching for a PIT Opportunity
Knowing what you want to do, how you want to do it, and what you want to learn along the way makes it a lot easier to start searching for opportunities. “But I have no idea what I want to do!”
- Examine what you naturally gravitate toward and what you stay away from. To start, think about past positions and coursework. Did you enjoy writing a paper for your philosophy class, or did you stay up all night to finish a coding assignment?
- Make sure you consider aspects of your work environment such as if you enjoy working on large or small teams, on short-term projects vs. long-term, and how much impact you like to have on a project. All these things can and probably will change along the way, but that is OK. It is important to take the time now to “fail big,” try new things, and find out what you like.
- Be upfront and tell people you are trying to do something different they may have never considered before, and don’t let people pigeonhole you. Maybe you spent all winter break learning how to code, and now you want to apply those skills. Write about it in your cover letter, tell the interviewer, or mention it to your boss once you get the position. If it isn’t something that can happen right away, a need for it may come up later, and it will increase the chances that they think of you.
- Always be honest about what skills you have and don’t purposely lead people into believing you can do something you can’t just to get a position. Chances are you would regret it, and in the end, be stuck in a role you are not good at and do not enjoy.
Don’t dismiss something outright just because it is not 100% perfect. To add to the point above, try to find a “best fit” and mold your experience as much as you can from there.
Look for positions that offer some professional development. Whether that’s networking events, mentoring, or skill-building workshops, people and positions that genuinely invest in you are worth 10 times more than ones that sound fancy on paper
Find people who want to help you grow in your career first and foremost and people who have the same interests as you second.
While you should try your best, you will not be able to make every situation, company, or position work for you and your interests. Finding spaces that reward your unique skillset is the most important thing you can do. It will save you time and hassle with the other steps mentioned above and lead you to well-aligned opportunities more often.
The good news is, if you are interested in public interest technology, you are already in that place.
I was drawn in part to PIT work so strongly for this very reason. The culture is one where being interdisciplinary is an advantage and, in some cases, is essential to the work you’ll do. As a PIT fellow from Carnegie Mellon University, I worked with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) as part of their CyberAI project this summer. I used my networking skills and followed up with a contact from the Stanford Existential Risks Conference, and after mentioning my research interests they linked me to leadership at CSET. A few Zoom conversations later, and I felt a great connection between the work I wanted to do and their research agenda. I talked about my background and what skills I wanted to develop this summer, which is how I ended up investigating how AI will affect phishing scams, vulnerability discovery, and patching vs. exploitation with a PIT lens.
My adviser and I created exploratory models of these future impacts, since exploratory mathematical modeling is a valuable method for investigating questions with large uncertainties. I then created an interactive web application that allowed users to explore what variables mattered most to these questions. I find interactive and visual projects to be useful tools in policy discussion and decision-making on abstract topics. I wrote about some of the new developments in AI, such as GPT-3 and automated cyberattacks. Finally, I investigated what decision-makers need to be aware of, and how we can develop and use AI to give cybersecurity defenders an advantage. Combining my skills as a technologist with an understanding of public policy was essential to building this platform and understanding what information was most pertinent to include.
I ultimately decided to pursue an internship at CSET as a PIT fellow because my advisers emphasized that they wanted me to grow as a researcher, that my work would be largely self-directed and independent, and that I could do this cool mishmash project (unique even among the work they do). Working at CSET was a great experience for me, and I encourage other PIT students to believe in themselves and their abilities because you will find opportunities that will help you grow and explore your passions!