Ashlee Godwin

DEPUTY EDITOR OF THE RUSI JOURNAL | BROADCAST HISTORIAN AND DEFENCE ANALYST

What do you do as deputy editor for the RUSI journal?

The RUSI Journal is the flagship periodical of the British defence and security think tank RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute). As Deputy Editor, I work closely with the Editor to commission articles and shape features across the full spectrum of security issues – the armed forces, national security, transnational security (such as organised crime, cyber and counter-terrorism), and geopolitical matters.

We’re always looking for new angles on important facets of security (focused in particular on those relevance to UK defence and security), conscious that our job is to lead the debate. Our readership is a mixture of policymakers, practitioners, armed forces personnel and academics worldwide. We see the Journal as a ‘forum’ where we can bring these different voices and perspectives together, facilitating interaction, and so our task is to make these topics accessible to all while adding value for the expert.

Once an article has been accepted for publication (after an anonymous peer review process), we work with the authors to fine-tune their arguments before starting production on a particular issue – the detailed copy-editing, image research and proofing. All this six times a year for, on average, ten articles an issue. I’m also the Book Reviews Editor and occasionally write pieces of my own for the Conflict, War and Culture section of the Journal, but that's another story...

What is a 'typical' day like?

I’d say there’s no such thing! On any given day you might find yourself reading through a submitted article and providing feedback, undertaking a detailed edit of an accepted article (‘testing’ the argument, assessing the article structure, checking the grammar and spelling and, of course, fact-checking), or with your head down in a quiet corner, making your way through a 60,000-word proof.

And, due to the nature of the RUSI Journal, the subject matter is as varied as the processes, which means you’re always learning new things and having to research a new subject in some detail (and often very quickly).

Such are our production timelines, however, that I would say that the only 'typical' aspect of our work is the intensity. There is always something to be done.

You’ve also been a freelance UK defence specialist for nearly five years. What does that entail?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve deepened my expertise in two areas of security affairs: the US-UK security relationship and the British contribution to security-sector reform in Sierra Leone following its civil war.

The US-UK security relationship is an area of interest I first explored during my Fulbright programme in US national security policy-making a few years ago and which I have continued to delve into ever since. On the basis of my research both in the US and at home in the UK, I have written articles and a book chapter, as well as lecturing and chairing panels on the subject of the ‘special relationship’ – a term I dislike because I am convinced it encourages lazy thinking! My pursuit of this subject has provided me with some wonderful experiences – lecturing alongside former Congress people as part of the British Library’s ‘Congress to Campus’ tours of UK schools and universities, attending the NATO Future Leaders Summit in Wales and, currently, as a member of the Atlantic Council’s inaugural class of Millennium Fellows.

My work on Sierra Leone has taken me in an equally fascinating direction. It began by chance when I was offered the opportunity to accompany another RUSI researcher on a field trip to Freetown, where we met the British security advisers to the Sierra Leonean government and the Sierra Leonean Chief of the Defence Staff (amongst others). There began my research interest in the area of security-sector reform, but it took an unexpected turn with the rapid spread of Ebola throughout West Africa last year, and my colleague (Cathy Haenlein) and I have since focused our analysis on how British-supported reform over the last decade or so enabled Sierra Leone’s security sector to respond.

Tell us about working as a TV historian specialising in conflict and diplomatic history.

Academically speaking, history (and especially military history) was my first love and I’m delighted to have found a way of channelling this into something both creative and useful!

I’ve recently filmed a few episodes of a history programme for local television in Nottingham (Nottingham Now and Then) looking at issues such as First World War hospitals in the city and the worst night of the Blitz during the Second World War. I also frequently film interviews for CentenaryNews.com, a website dedicated to the Great War.

I thoroughly enjoy the entire process – whether it’s the research required for an interview or writing and honing a script, talking with interviewees in advance of filming, or filming on location (at which point all the preparation hopefully pays off). Many of the interviewees are authors or local residents who have dedicated their time and energy to finding out more about something they care about – and it’s always great to meet people who care about this aspect of history as much as I do. I personally also relish creating that connection with the viewer with the aim of showing why the past is still of great significance to today. It’s a creative process rooted in factual accuracy and meticulous preparation – and I find it fascinating.

Right after university, you worked for Symbian Software Ltd./the Symbian Foundation. What did you do there?

My first job at Symbian Software Ltd. (a smartphone software company) was as an Editor for booklets and website content for app developers. It was a great place to start out: I learnt my trade there and was also given plenty of opportunities to develop professionally, take the lead in new projects, and represent the company abroad.

When Symbian Software Ltd. was bought by Nokia I was transferred into the new, open source company – the Symbian Foundation – where I worked in the PR and Communications team. I had never wanted to work in PR but I learnt so much so quickly and really enjoyed it, not least because we worked with colleagues in offices around the world, enabling me to experience different working cultures. I found a different use for my writing, research and problem-solving skills in the form of communications strategies and campaigns, crisis communications, promotional material, press releases and spokespeople Q&As; while I also developed my managerial skills, at one point managing colleagues and PR agencies across a 17-hour time zone difference.

You have a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in War Studies from King’s College. Would you recommend these degrees?

These were very different courses, not just in subject matter, but also in terms of how they were taught – and I’m glad to have experienced both.

Both involved self-study but the ‘contact time’ for the Arts at Oxford was more focused, with tutors dedicating their time to two or three students at any given time. At King’s, there was the benefit of working in classes of fifteen or so students, which created a different dynamic and a more open discussion based on a wider range of viewpoints.

How do you use your studies in your day-to-day career?

I’m really fortunate in that my studies do relate directly to my career now.

In terms of subject matter, there are obvious links between the military history I studied at both Oxford and King’s to my work as a TV historian and in commissioning and editing for the RUSI Journal; likewise with the contemporary security issues I covered at King’s. Security, and how we conceive of it, is changing, of course, but my studies provided a solid foundation.

In terms of skills, I could reel off an entire list! But to name just a few: using research to (quickly) get to grips with a broad subject in detail; ensuring factual accuracy; assessing the validity and viability of an argument; and presenting information clearly. My uni friends might suggest I add ‘making tea’ to that list – that’s been useful too.

Why the interest in foreign policy?

I originally came to the subject via military and diplomatic history. I was fascinated by all of the factors in play, say, in the way the British government reacted to the Russian surrender (under the Soviets) to Germany in the First World War: perceived national interests; culture; values; individual personalities; past experience; and so forth. Even though you can’t draw straight lines of inevitability between historical events, I was interested to see if these decision-makers’ hopes and fears ultimately proved well-founded.

The dynamics created by such factors continue to draw me to foreign policy today, although of course to these I have also now added an appreciation of, and interest in, the operational and policy side of defence, too.

What are the particular advantages and barriers a woman pursuing a career like yours might face?

Defence in particular has traditionally been the preserve of men but this is rapidly changing, with more and more women entering this sector. There are plenty of excellent female analysts already successfully challenging old stereotypes in this area.

What advice would you give to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?

I would give the same advice to anyone seeking a similar career, which is not to expect your career progression to be a straight line. Especially when starting out, it might not be possible to get the particular job you want but treat whatever job you do have as an opportunity to develop and learn skills that may well take you towards your end goal. Also, make the most of the specific opportunities that come your way, including those outside of your day job. They might not mean much now as discrete activities, but later they may end up the final piece in the jigsaw when applying for the job you want.

What was your first job? What did you learn doing it you still use today?

I did some tutoring work during the holidays when I was at university, teaching GCSE English and A-level History. Obviously, the teacher–pupil relationship is very, very different to that between editor and author (which is a collaborative effort), but the importance of clear communication and guidance when working with others was one lesson I learnt through this job. Another was how to evaluate a piece on the basis of the fundamentals (clarity of structure, logic, strength of argument, evidence and so on) rather than the style in which it is written. Everyone has their own style, their own voice, which brings colour and personality to a sound argument.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

This may sound slightly strange but I think being an analytical problem-solver has really helped. I see most writing (and editing) tasks as a puzzle – how do I best present this information so that it is clear, emphasises the key points and is convincing / of interest to the reader?

The technical skills of editing – including maintaining a close eye on the detail while simultaneously keeping the larger picture in view – can be taught, or at least developed. When I first joined Symbian I underwent basic training by a dedicated publishing organisation but I also benefited from regular feedback from my line manager and other members of the team. Although at first it was difficult to keep this feedback in mind when editing, eventually it became hardwired.

Another skill is knowing how to structure an argument that flows between points, using detail and evidence to substantiate them. Again, this feels almost instinctive now but I do remember my English GCSE teacher going over, again and again, how to structure an exam or coursework essay: a signpost sentence to make a point, guiding the reader through the argument; a quotation or citation of evidence to support or demonstrate the point; and an explanation of the ‘effect’ or impact this point has – what does it mean? What is its relevance? Plenty of things learnt at school don’t seem to apply in ‘real life’, but this for me certainly has.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

That ‘professional’ does not always equal ‘personal’. I was made redundant from the Symbian Foundation, along with all other members of staff, when the foundation closed in 2010, at a time when the UK was still in recession.

During those three months, I filled my time with, and learnt a great deal from, interesting internships with different news outlets but became increasingly disheartened as companies failed even to acknowledge my applications for permanent positions. Rather than be demoralised by this silence, however, I accepted that the behaviour of companies was beyond my control and was certainly not a personal sleight. Instead, I refocused my energies on undertaking training to improve my skill set and exploring new possibilities (InDesign was relatively new then and was on my target list, as was some basic broadcast training and learning Arabic).

What achievements are you most proud of?

There have been some milestones in the development of the RUSI Journal that I am particularly proud of, the first being the publication of a year-long series on transnational and organised crime, in collaboration with Cambridge University. It was the first time the Journal had presented a series, rather than a special feature, on a subject, and it was also the first time we had hosted lectures by the contributing authors. The impact of this series in deepening the debate on what was then a new security issue was underlined when the Editor received a phone call from the Home Secretary’s office asking for copies of all the relevant articles, as they were preparing her speech on the subject.

More recently, we dedicated the entire August/September 2014 issue to marking the centenary of the First World War – again, an unprecedented step for us but one that felt appropriate. Within a widely acclaimed edition, a key highlight was the RUSI Roll of Honour, listing the more than 500 RUSI members who died during the Great War, along with two of their stories in detail, exploring their lives and how they came to die in the first few days of the war. We have continued this series about our fallen members as a more personal way of marking all of the major events of the war – and it is something I take great pride in working on.

Beyond RUSI, and perhaps strangely for someone who works in publishing, the publication of my first book chapter was an important moment for me as a researcher and subject matter expert. In this regard, my successful Fulbright application really does stand out, representing a truly formative personal and professional experience that has shaped my interests since, and leading me along the path towards becoming one of twenty-one inaugural members of the Atlantic Council’s Millennium Fellowship programme.

Ashlee Godwin | Deputy Editor of the RUSI Journal | Broadcast historian and defence analyst

Eight years' experience

CV in brief

Studied MA in War Studies at King's College London (UK) | BA in Modern History at the University of Oxford (UK)

Previous worked as global comms and PR manager; UK communications manager at Symbian Foundation

Find her online @ashleegodwin | LinkedIn | Fulbright Commission Profile | RUSI profile

Publications and TV shows Contributor to Obama's Washington: Political Leadership in a Partisan Era | Ebola in Sierra Leone is not just a health crisis | Nottingham Now and Then | Huffington Post articles 

Career opportunities at RUSI journal

Exclusive interview 19 August 2015

  NATO Future Leaders Summit 2014, Introducing UK parliamentarian panel

NATO Future Leaders Summit 2014, Introducing UK parliamentarian panel

  Centenary news, 2014

Centenary news, 2014

  Filming for Notts TV, 2015

Filming for Notts TV, 2015

"I’ve recently filmed a few episodes of a history programme for local television in Nottingham (Nottingham Now and Then), looking at issues such as First World War hospitals in the city and the worst night of the Blitz during the Second World War."
  Fulbright, Washington DC, 2012

Fulbright, Washington DC, 2012

"The US-UK security relationship is an area of interest I first explored during my Fulbright programme in US national security policy-making a few years ago and which I have continued to delve into ever since."
  Fulbright 2012, White House

Fulbright 2012, White House

"My successful Fulbright application really does stand out, representing a truly formative personal and professional experience that has shaped my interests since, and leading me along the path towards becoming one of twenty-one inaugural members of the Atlantic Council’s Millennium Fellowship programme."
  Millennium Fellowship meeting, General Cartwright, April 2015

Millennium Fellowship meeting, General Cartwright, April 2015

  Global Strategy Forum, Atlantic Council, DC, April 2015

Global Strategy Forum, Atlantic Council, DC, April 2015

  Sierra Leone 2013, Single Leg Amputee football team

Sierra Leone 2013, Single Leg Amputee football team

  NATO Future Leaders Summit 2014

NATO Future Leaders Summit 2014