A dissertation on the intelligence community brings attention to a young scholar

Bridget Rose Nolan ’02 worked as an analyst for the CIA.
Bridget Rose Nolan ’02 worked as an analyst for the CIA.
Charles Fox / Philadelphia Inquirer

The opportunity to see behind the curtain of intelligence work brought Bridget Rose Nolan ’02 the kind of media attention few recently minted Ph.D.s encounter. “People love hearing about spy stuff,” she says. Her dissertation about the culture of the American intelligence community was covered by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Slate.com, and the snark hub Gawker.com

In her sociology dissertation research for the University of Pennsylvania, Nolan found that intelligence workers feel overwhelmed by the deluge of information they face and frustrated by the lack of communication among agencies. Several interviewees said, counterintuitively, that the intelligence community should be smaller. 

These conclusions drew some press interest, but the most popular chapter covered the intelligence community’s sense of humor, which she describes as gallows humor or satire of CIA norms. For example, Nolan includes a mock cable about field observations of a hot-dog machine in the basement of the old headquarters building — “Robot 1 then proceeded to agitate the wiener.” 

Nolan’s familiarity with the intelligence community came from working there. In the summers during graduate school, she worked for the CIA at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), analyzing data about the process of radicalization in sub-Saharan Africa. During her third summer, in 2009, she was talking at lunch about the idiosyncrasies of intelligence culture, saying somebody ought to study it. Epiphany: She was that somebody. 

The NCTC authorized her study, and Nolan began working for the CIA full time. But the CIA’s publications-review board pushed back when she submitted her dissertation proposal, citing security concerns. Eventually, she quit. Free from the review board, she was barred only from releasing classified information. 

Today she teaches at Penn. “It was a huge honor to work at the CIA, but I do think that academia is a better fit for me,” she says.