Interview: Breaking into the Nuclear Field

Getting your first job in the nuclear field is hard work. Recent graduate Claudia Westwood tells Ana Alecsandru about some of the challenges and opportunities she has faced in her endeavour to find a role in the nuclear field.

Did you work on nuclear issues at university?

Claudia Westwood: I didn’t focus on nuclear-related issues in my university degrees, but I do think that my areas of study did lead me in this direction. I did my undergraduate degree in International Relations at King’s College London. Being in their War Studies Department, I gained a solid grounding in security issues, so I think a lot of my interest in nuclear issues is really thanks to that environment. I wrote my thesis on NATO expansion and its effect on Russia-West relations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I didn’t focus on nuclear issues but, looking into West-Russia relations, topics like the New START, the ABM, and the INF treaties come up naturally and form a really important part of interaction. So, although nuclear issues weren’t my focus, they were definitely in the picture. Having focused on Russia for my thesis, I decided I wanted to do my Master’s in Russian and East European Studies, which I finished last summer at the University of Oxford.

My exposure to nuclear issues since graduating university has shown me that it’s possible to move within a field you know well but also develop adjacent expertise to really strengthen your knowledge base. My Russia and International Relations backgrounds give me an interesting perspective on nuclear issues. For instance, understanding how Russia’s participation in post-Cold War nuclear treaties is intrinsically linked to its conceptions of its own great power status can offer important insights into why Russia acts as it does in multilateral arms control forums. But also, the more I learn about nuclear issues, the more that too informs my understanding of Russia-West relations and strengthens my analysis.

What was your first exposure to the nuclear field?

CW: I got into the field at first by chance but then I found it a really fascinating and important subject and decided I’d like to learn more. After graduating, I started an internship with the European Leadership Network (ELN). I worked, and continue to work, on Russia-West Track II Dialogue Initiatives, but the ELN do work on nuclear issues too and this was my first exposure to these in a policy setting.

As an intern in the Development, Concepts, and Doctrine Centre at the Ministry of Defence, I worked on historical Russia-Eastern European relations, looking at how they might inform future UK Defence policy. The disaster in Chernobyl and its implications for the future of nuclear energy in the region formed an important part of this story, so once again nuclear issues arose. I would say these two experiences, with the addition of the recent Integrated Review, really piqued my interest in how the UK develops its nuclear policies.

How did you go about entering the field?

CW: Outside of my work experiences, I sought to learn more about nuclear issues wherever I could. I think the field can seem quite daunting from the outside because in the study of international relations, there are very polarised opinions on nuclear weapons. Some argue that nuclear deterrence is the key to maintaining a stable and peaceful international system, while others argue nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to this peace, which is quite an intimidating debate to jump into. While this debate is definitely present within the field, in my experience most of the discussion happens in the areas in between these extremes: accepting nuclear-armed states as the current reality and theorising, analysing, and debating what the repercussions of this are, say for defence policy or nuclear energy projects, and where we might be headed.

Secondly, I think the field can seem quite technical, but this also shouldn’t stop anyone with an interest because there are so many resources available for new entrants to learn about nuclear issues. Even though I’m not coming from any sort of scientific or technical background, I still am able to gain a deeper understanding of nuclear policy. And through that, I am gaining a gradual exposure to some of the more technical elements of nuclear policy, such as emerging technologies or verification processes.

UK PONI has been really great in this respect; I attended the PONI policy workshop and have been attending nuclear cafes and other events. These have all helped me improve my literacy in what can be a very technical or acronym heavy field. I am also a member of BASIC Emerging Voices Network’s working group on NextGen Inclusion, where I have been able to contribute to a policy paper outlining how inclusion initiatives can promote diversity and NextGen retention in the nuclear field and to work with a variety of emerging voices in the international nuclear field.

What have been the challenges and opportunities you’ve faced?

CW: The first big challenge I faced was a mental one; feeling like I didn’t have the expertise or work experience to be able to contribute to the field. Talking to people really alleviated this imposter syndrome, and though, it didn’t disappear, I learned to just go for opportunities that arose. Generally, I’d say I’m still in this the stage; seeking to learn as much as I can about the field. To some extent, I think I always will be, there’s always more to learn.

The biggest challenge I am facing at the moment is landing an entry level role in the field. The pandemic has definitely made this quite tricky, with fewer job opportunities being posted and not being able to interview or network in person. I’m lucky to have had really great virtual internship experiences in lockdown, and I’ve tried to see it as an opportunity to attend virtual events all over the world and develop skills in the nuclear field. It can be difficult to stay motivated when it is challenging to find entry level jobs, but I generally cope with this by remaining realistic but optimistic, remembering not take rejection personally, seeing application processes as learning opportunities and trying to focus on how exciting it is to be beginning my career with all these paths and options ahead of me.

Outside the events I have attended, I would say the main opportunity or the highlight of entering the field is how supportive and genuinely excited people are to talk to me about nuclear issues and their career path. Everyone I’ve reached out to has been enthusiastic and encouraging, and so willing to help out and share knowledge. And although the interest was already there, that welcoming side has made entering the nuclear field a great experience.

Claudia Westwood is a recent graduate of the MSc in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Oxford and holds a BA in International Relations from King’s College London. She recently completed an internship with the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre at the UK Ministry of Defence and is currently interning as a Network Liaison Officer at the European Leadership Network (ELN). Her research interests focus on Russia-West relations, specifically in the fields of international security and nuclear policy.

Interview conducted by Dr Ana Alecsandru, Research Fellow in the Proliferation and Nuclear Programme and UK PONI project lead.

Image courtesy of Ian Schneider, Unsplash


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