Homeland Security Professionals: What Do They Do?

Industry Advice Political Science & Security

What Does Homeland Security Do?

The responsibility of protecting our nation falls on homeland security professionals in numerous disciplines—from emergency response to counter-terrorism to cybersecurity. And while many people associate the term “homeland security” with terrorist attacks, the industry actually shoulders a much broader set of responsibilities.

“The majority of national security threats are not terrorist in nature,” says David Hagen, assistant teaching professor for Northeastern University. “They are natural disasters like hurricanes or infectious diseases. Working at the Centers for Disease Control is a great example of combating a [non-terroristic] national threat.”

Depending on their roles, people working in homeland security may:

  • help to prepare for and mitigate damage from various security threats,
  • gather and disseminate intelligence to prepare for such attacks, or
  • coordinate responses to hurricanes, floods, and other emergencies

While the specific roles in the homeland security field are highly varied, the one thing the industry professionals all have in common is that they are committed to helping to safeguard our country and the general public.

“Homeland security professionals are protecting all of us on a large scale,” says Jack McDevitt, faculty in Northeastern’s Master of Arts in Security and Intelligence Studies program and professor in Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “They are immersed in critical, life-saving work.”

Where Do Homeland Security Professionals Work?

Unsurprisingly, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—created to promote homeland security and coordinate efforts among other government agencies and private industry—is one of the largest employers of homeland security professionals. With multiple locations in and around Washington, D.C. and throughout the country, the DHS employs approximately 240,000 professionals, making it the third-largest department in the U.S. government. Yet earning a degree in homeland security can offer incredible leadership opportunities beyond the department.

“It may come as a surprise to hear, but for every one homeland security job within the government there are three in private industry,” explainsMcDevitt. “Most global companies have security and international investigation units working to protect against piracy, money laundering, and other crimes that could harm their business and/or their employees.”

In addition to the DHS,  common homeland security employers include:

Government Agencies

  • Transportation Security Administration
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Naval Criminal Investigative Service
  • U.S. Secret Service
  • U.S. Department of State

State and Local Governments

Many local cities and towns hire leaders in emergency management, and most states employ homeland security professionals in offices such as:

  • Bureau of Infectious Disease
  • Bureau of Public Health
  • Bureau of Public Safety
  • Hazardous Materials Division
  • Information Technology Division
  • Emergency Management Agency
  • Emergency Medical Services Office

Private Industry

There are many homeland security career opportunities in the private sector, particularly in industries such as:

  • Banking
  • Manufacturing
  • Transportation and shipping
  • Ports (maritime and aviation)

Common Homeland Security Careers

Leadership roles in the homeland security field are extremely varied, but some common areas of expertise include:

Emergency Management Specialist

Median pay: 57,000

Emergency management specialists work to predict the effects of various disasters and determine the optimal course of action when responding to them. For example, they may plan evacuation routes in hurricane-prone areas and ensure that citizens are informed of these routes. Taking a proactive approach to disaster management, they create emergency preparedness programs to mitigate threats ranging from terror attacks to natural disasters. This often includes the coordination of first responders on the ground.

Emergency Management Director

Median pay: $80,998

Emergency management directors prepare for and respond to catastrophic events. They develop and implement strategic programs and policies to continually advance an organization’s mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery capabilities. This role requires extensive collaboration with public safety officials, community emergency and law enforcement response agencies, and nonprofit organizations to promote coordinated crisis response and recovery plans.

Security/Intelligence Analyst

Median pay: $92,512

Intelligence analysts generally work for government agencies (and companies that work closely with the government) to gather, analyze, interpret, and disseminate actionable intelligence information to appropriate stakeholders.

Disaster Recovery Coordinator

Median pay: $75,245

A disaster recovery coordinator manages the administration, development, implementation, and maintenance of policies and procedures related to disaster recovery. They may operate data center production systems and equipment, report distribution, provide service level support, and facilitate backup disaster recovery planning functions.

Business Continuity Manager

Median pay: $95,712

Business continuity managers ensure that the critical functions of a government agency or private entity can be continued or resumed rapidly after a disruption. They are responsible for the development and management of a business process before, during, and after a disaster. This includes planning for essential functions, orders of succession, delegation of authority, continuity of communication, human capital, alternative work sites, protection and availability of vital records, overseeing training exercises, and more.

Skills for Success in Homeland Security Careers

According to Hagen, there are a number of skills that homeland security professionals should refine, including:

Critical thinking

Homeland security leaders must analyze major threats, plan out contingencies, and assess information coming from multiple sources. To do these tasks effectively means refining your problem-solving skills—and questioning your assumptions.

“In some roles, you may be receiving hundreds of tips and need to determine which are true threats—often in real-time,” explains Hagen.


Agencies and private entities, including the FBI, local and state police, and disaster relief organizations, work together closely in times of crisis. Thus, homeland security professionals must be skilled at working well on teams and with others.

Analytical and Flexible Thinking

“It is essential that you not just take in information at face value,” says Hagen. “In this field, you need to keep an open mind and apply different resources to solve problems. That’s especially true in national security.”

“Working in this field often means you need to understand the motivations of people who commit crimes,” he adds. “That involves thinking outside of your world and how you were brought up. You also need to understand the connection between technology and human behavior. If you’re the person in charge of evacuating a city, for example, you’ll need to think through questions such as: What is the best way to reach people in different demographics across the community? How do they typically receive information? How will they react to alerts from the police and other authorities? In these situations, understanding human behavior is very important.”

Communication Skills

In many homeland security roles, you’ll need to convey complex information in an easy-to-understand, non-technical manner. Often, you will need to brief superiors on time-sensitive issues, so you need the ability both to gauge your audience and to succinctly package the appropriate information for decision-makers.

Bringing Transferable Skills to a Homeland Security Role

The homeland security field relies heavily on expertise from people with law enforcement and military intelligence backgrounds. Individuals who have worked in these industries possess many of the coveted and necessary skills required to effectively develop and implement homeland security programs.

“Police officers and other law enforcement personnel come to homeland security with the knowledge of how government agencies operate as well as an understanding of what the limitations of these agencies are,” explains McDevitt. “They also have strong knowledge of how to conduct investigations, which plays a big role in homeland security. Likewise, many people from the military are drawn to work in homeland security. They are typically well equipped for this transition, having been accustomed to dealing with sensitive data as well as international events. They can leverage military intelligence skills and an understanding of the world stage to these critical roles.”

How Earning a Master’s in Homeland Security Can Accelerate Your Career

For those looking to advance their careers, earning a master’s degree in homeland security will prepare you for a leadership role in the field, in either the public or private sector. In an advanced degree program, students acquire critical skills in management, intelligence gathering and analysis, risk management, emergency planning, social psychology, legal matters, and technological issues, that set them on a path to success.

McDevitt suggests that when considering graduate studies, look for a program that provides hands-on experience to prepare you for the real-world challenges you’ll face as a homeland security professional. For example, Northeastern’s MA in Security and Intelligence Studies includes a unique experiential learning component that gives students the opportunity to work directly with an agency—such as the Boston Regional Intelligence Center or the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.—to conduct threat assessments and develop state-of-the-art protection methods.

Becoming a homeland security leader isn’t right for everyone; the stakes and challenges are high. But for those with an altruistic vision to protect our nation’s citizens, homeland security can be a tremendously fulfilling career.

Ready to learn more about advancing your career in homeland security? Take the first step by exploring our program page.