"One of the Most Generous Scholarships I've Ever Seen" - Victor Piotrowski of the NSF on the Scholarship for Service Program

It's a simple proposition for successful applicants to the Scholarship for Service (SFS) Program: Get your information security education paid for, and then come work for the U.S. government.

"It's one of the most generous scholarships I've ever seen," says Victor Piotrowski, Lead Program Director of SFS for the National Science Foundation.

In an exclusive interview, Piotrowski discusses:

The origins of SFS;
How students can apply;
Where graduates are finding jobs.

Before joining NSF, Piotrowski served as a Professor and Chair of the Computer Science Department at the University of Wisconsin. He previously held faculty positions at the North Dakota State University and at the Institute of Informatics in Poland. He has a 10-year experience in research, teaching and consulting in Information Assurance (IA) and holds several IA certifications including Certified Information Systems Security Professional and SANS Institute GIAC Incident Handler. He also serves on the SANS GIAC advisory board.

TOM FIELD: Hi, this is Tom Field, Editorial Director with Information Security Media Group. We are talking today about the National Science Foundation's Scholarship for Service program, and we're talking with Victor Piotrowski, the Lead Program Director of the program. Victor, thanks so much for joining me today.

VICTOR PIOTROWSKI: You're welcome.

FIELD: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role as Lead Director of this program?

PIOTROWSKI: I have been a professor of computer science at different universities, mostly in the Midwest of the United States for about 20 years, and I recently joined the National Science Foundation as a Lead Program Director of the Scholarship for Service program. I am originally from Poland, as you can probably tell, with my accent. That's probably the short statement.

FIELD: Okay. Well, Victor, let's talk about the Scholarship for Service program. Maybe you can describe its origins and its intent.

PIOTROWSKI: It started about 10 years ago, when we had the first serious attack on the United States, called Code Red. And then, Richard Clarke, under Clinton's administration, was leading the effort to contain the attack on the White House, and essentially, they realized that cybersecurity did not exist in this country. It was 1998, just 10 years ago. There were just a handful of university programs mentioning computer security, and right after the attack they started thinking how quickly they could enter this curriculum ... There was a couple of years' delay, there was legislation. This is one of those programs that are mandated by the Congress, and the legislation went through in 2000. It was signed, actually, by the next president, the second President Bush, and we awarded the first money, the first award, in 2001.

FIELD: Now, my understanding is this is a program both for undergraduates and graduates. Could you describe how the program works at those levels?

PIOTROWSKI: Well, we don't distinguish, really, between the levels. And we distribute money to the universities, and universities recruit students. The formal requirement is that the student will be supported in the last two years of their education, which might be the last two years of undergraduate education, or the last two years of master's degree, or the last two years of Ph.D. The most popular choice is the middle one. We have about close to 80% of students choosing the master's degree option. We have, probably 18% undergraduates, and 1% or 2% Ph.D. students.

FIELD: So, Victor, how does a prospective participant apply for this program? And, really, what can they end up getting toward their education? What type of a scholarship would they receive?

PIOTROWSKI: Well, I think it is one of the most generous scholarships I've ever seen. Let's start with the application process. The website I would recommend is maintained by OPM, the Office of Personal Management, and the URL is www.sfs.opm.gov. On that website, there are links for future potential students, for agencies that want to hire our students, and links for universities that want to get more information about the program. So, this is probably the best place to learn about the program. How a student becomes a target of our program? Well, we don't distribute money directly to students, we don't award scholarships to students. So, a student has to choose from the website one of currently, I think, 26 institutions, and apply directly to one of those universities. And, if the student is selected by the university, it will automatically receive SFS money that will cover, typically, the things might vary between institutions, but a typical award includes tuition waivers, so the student does not pay tuition, room and board, a monthly stipend that might range from $800 to $1,000, and other money for books, supplies ... everything is covered.

FIELD: That's very good. That's better than playing sports.


FIELD: Victor, where are the students being placed, once they have gone through these programs, and completed the scholarship for service?

PIOTROWSKI: Well, in the early stages of the program, around 2003 and 2004, we ran into a very difficult problem. We had students that had completed the program, and we started graduating different scholars in 2003, and very few federal agencies realized that the program is ... also, very few of them had ready positions for computer security, or cybersecurity employees. So, we had students that were willing to work for the government, but we had very, very few openings. So, around this time, there was an effort to streamline the process. And what we did was we created a job fair. So, every January, we have a job fair, where we invite a lot of federal agencies. This year, we had 58 agencies. So, we had to send some away. And we had 160 students that attended the job fair. So, we had 58 agencies competing for 160 students. So, I think this is an excellent ratio, from the students' point of view.

FIELD: Sure. And now, it would seem that cybersecurity is going to be a big part of the Obama administration. Where do you see career opportunities going forward for students that might be a part of the SFS program?

PIOTROWSKI: I think that it is the right time, that we see enormous activity in cybersecurity. Just two days ago, the legislation was introduced in the US Senate, and that legislation proposes to create high level office under the White House, the Cybersecurity Office. Essentially, more or less, as important a position as high as the National Security Council, under the President. There is also, currently right in the middle of the so-called 60-day review that President Obama asked the Director of National Intelligence to conduct, and as far as I know, that review also will be recommending the office under the White House. The openings are enormous. During the January - the number of openings for students - during the January job fair, one of our, our key speaker was a former student, a former SFS student, Michelle Kwan, who is currently leading US Cert. US Cert is the unit that protects the Internet within the United States. And when she gave her keynote address, at the end, she said, "By the way, I would like to hire today 12 of you." So, she started collecting resumes. So, it's just, there are enormous openings. Her unit expanded from forty people last year, I think, to about 250 this year. So, it is multiplying in orders of magnitude.

FIELD: That's very good. Now, for prospective students that might be interested in this, is there any one or two things you really would like them to know about the Scholarship for Service program?

PIOTROWSKI: Yes. The first thing is that it is a very competitive program. I know some universities - if you look at the list of universities that participate, we have a huge diversity. We have state universities, for example, Mississippi State, and we have famous private universities like Johns Hopkins, so there is a variety. But, regardless of what the student tries to apply, there will be a huge competition. So, we really look for students, some students, with a high GPA. So, we look for students that are generally, good, interested, committed to the mission of the program. That's one aspect. The other aspect is that the students have to remember that there is a commitment at the end of the program, and we expect them to work for the government. The minimal commitment is two years, but we certainly hope that most of them will enjoy this work and will stay beyond those two years. So, this is the kind of characteristics of the students that I would be looking for if selecting for the program.

FIELD: Well, given the state of the economy right now, I've got to think that the Scholarship for Service Program is a very attractive option for people who are looking either to start a career in information security, or transition into one. It sounds like a wonderful program.

PIOTROWSKI: It is. I've received several phone calls this spring. We haven't disbursed this year's money, but we expect to do this within the next 60 days, however, I receive unusual phone calls from some places, saying that they've received an unusual volume of highly qualified students, from really top level universities. So, yeah, I think that confirms what you are saying.

FIELD: That's excellent. So, do you think at some point you might be working with people within the workforce, as well, that might want to transition out of a current career and into information security?

PIOTROWSKI: Well, if our capacities increase, and there's a lot of signs that it will be, then definitely we will be reaching further. Right now, we have very limited capacity, with the amount of funding that we have, we are probably using the entire money for new students. There are recommendations from different bodies to increase our program between four and eight times. I'm not sure if it's going to happen, but this kind of increase will definitely allow us to reach to those folks who want to requalify, change their career towards computer security.

FIELD: Very good. One more time, Victor, where can people go to get more details about the Scholarship for Service program?

PIOTROWSKI: The best, the best place is the website, www.sfs.opm.gov.

FIELD: Very good. Victor, thank you so much for your time and your insight this morning.

PIOTROWSKI: Thank you very much.

FIELD: We've been talking with Victor PIOTROWSKI, Lead Program Director for the National Science Foundation's Scholarship for Service program. For Information Security Media Group, I'm Tom Field. Thank you very much.

About the Author

Tom Field

Tom Field

Senior Vice President, Editorial, ISMG

Field is responsible for all of ISMG's 28 global media properties and its team of journalists. He also helped to develop and lead ISMG's award-winning summit series that has brought together security practitioners and industry influencers from around the world, as well as ISMG's series of exclusive executive roundtables.

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