Students studying together

For MITRE Interns, Real-World Projects Inspire Cyber Careers

By Molly Manchenton

In its second year, MITRE's Cyber Futures Internship Program put students to work on sponsor programs, driving impact and inspiring potential cyber professionals.

Few technology areas face as severe a worker shortage as cyber—a shortage with national security implications. MITRE is tackling this problem head-on, with an internship program that attracts students from underrepresented populations to cyber careers in national security. 

How deep is the shortfall? According to the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, the sector faced a shortage of 2.7 million cyber workers in 2021, with 87 percent of organizations actively seeking to meet diversity goals in hiring. 

The interns wanted to be challenged, and they got what they wanted.

Kyle Hair, Student Programs manager

MITRE’s Cyber Futures Internship program, now in its second year, addresses this critical need to expand and diversify the global cybersecurity workforce. Our partnerships with federal sponsors and academic institutions are key to making this program successful, says Wen Masters, vice president, Cyber Technologies. 

“Together we are growing a diverse, multi-disciplinary cybersecurity workforce that is the future of cyber and foundational to national and economic security,” she says. “It’s important that the next generation of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals understands the many ways cyber touches our world, and the scope of expertise that’s needed across government and industry.”

An Expanded Program with Direct Sponsor Impact

In 2021, our Student Programs team worked with MITRE Labs to design a Cyber Futures curriculum for early college students that blends education, skills building, and exposure to cybersecurity career paths. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 26 interns from eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) participating in the inaugural cohort worked remotely. The 2022 Cyber Futures cohort saw 51 interns working in person across three MITRE locations. Students represented 17 HBCUs and MSIs. 

They collaborated with our staff on real-world projects for MITRE sponsors, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Air Force, the Department of Homeland Security, the Navy, and internal MITRE programs working on national security challenges.

For the second year, the program partnered with Prelude, an organization that develops cybersecurity tools for small- to medium-size companies, helping users evaluate and protect their organizations against attacks. 

The Cyber Futures interns were a cohort within MITRE’s broader class of more than 650 interns in the summer of 2022, says Nicole Gilmore, director of the MITRE Institute and Student Programs. 

“Our emerging talent strategy leverages MITRE’s competitive edge in providing interesting work for college interns while at the same time, developing their skills,” she notes. “This program allowed us to attract top talent from across the country in a different way. Our focus on an area of national concern gave us the opportunity to widen our traditional approach to the internship as well.”

Cyber interns at a picnic table

2022 McLean-based Cyber Futures Interns worked with MITRE project teams taking on our sponsors’ toughest challenges. The program aims to build a diverse, multidisciplinary cyber workforce to protect our national and economic security.

Capturing STEM Majors’ Interest Early in College 

The Cyber Futures program targets early college students, she explains. “We spend a large portion of the summer exposing them to the domain and training them to be skilled in the work. MITRE cybersecurity professionals mentor and support their learning and growth throughout the summer.”

With pandemic restrictions eased, the 2022 curriculum adjusted accordingly, says Leslie Anderson, Cyber Futures Program leader. That meant less classroom presentation, fewer seminars, and more in-person lab instruction. 

“Our hands-on work, whether in a training seminar or in a lab, was by far the most successful, highest-ranked courses MITRE delivered,” Anderson says. She adds that students really enjoyed working with Prelude and participating in cyber competitions known as “capture the flag” events. Each student also contributed to a capstone project aligned to a MITRE sponsor mission. 

Kyle Hair, a Student Programs manager who coordinated the Cyber Futures program, says, “The interns wanted to be challenged, and they got what they wanted. We threw them in the deep end. Their project leads had high expectations.”

Some of the students had not targeted a career path within cyber, he says. “But a lot of them had computer science experience and were well-prepared. They wanted to be pushed, and fail, and try again, and fail in the course of finding solutions, which is what cyber work requires. They’re motivated students.”  

The 2022 cohort included several students who had already been in the workforce, either in the military or in other occupations, and were transitioning to cyber careers. That turned out to be an advantage.

“Participating interns with previous professional experience provided mentorship to some students who hadn’t worked before in an office environment like MITRE,” Anderson says.

Inspiring Tomorrow’s Cyber Professionals

She notes that a post-program survey showed that 90 percent now show interest in pursuing a cyber career or a similar profession in public service. We invited many of the interns to apply for summer positions, and several received offers to join our Cyber New Professionals program. 

Any of those outcomes would represent success for the program, Anderson says. 

Hair says the students forged strong networks, maintaining contact now that they’ve returned to campus. They soaked up as much experience as the program could provide, and MITRE lived up to its end of the deal.  

“They wanted to get in and kick the tires on the organization and see what MITRE was all about,” he adds. “I think the secret sauce with MITRE is its people—being able to connect the student with the experts we have here.”