Making a career at the Department of Defense

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Elizabeth Phu

Alumna Elizabeth Phu ’00 shares how her openness to opportunities at the Pentagon took her to places she ‘never could have dreamt of’

When alumna Elizabeth Phu first joined the U.S. Department of Defense and began working in Washington, D.C., she thought she’d stay for five years and then return to California to be closer to her family. 

“But five years has turned into more than 23 years,” Phu said. “I just found that I loved my job, which has allowed me to do things I never could have dreamt of, including working at the White House on the National Security Council twice for two presidents.”

Phu now holds the role of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict — “one of the longest titles in the Pentagon,” she joked. 

In short, Phu is the senior career civilian with responsibilities for providing advice to the U.S. Secretary of Defense on issues ranging from information operations, special operations, counterterrorism, transnational organized crime and hostage rescue. She is also responsible for helping to provide oversight for U.S. special operations forces.

Phu said she loves being part of the mission of the Department of Defense, despite the fast-paced nature of the job and the long hours. 

“Before I got here as a 24 year old, I didn’t know what ‘mission; meant, but it gives me a great sense of purpose,” Phu said. “But don’t let anyone lead you to believe government employees just work 9 to 5 every day.”

Phu grew up in Oakland, California, and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1997 with a degree in political science. When she began investigating master’s programs, the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) was the perfect fit for her career goals. 

“I was very much interested in a focus on Southeast Asia, and there weren’t many programs that offered the same level of expertise in that part of the world,” Phu explained. 

Phu earned her master’s from GPS in 2000 and began working at the Department of Defense shortly afterward through the Presidential Management Fellowship program. 

“GPS made sure I had the basics in key things — from economics to statistics to political systems — and it also made sure I learned the value of working in teams,” Phu said. “In the U.S. government, as I would imagine is also the case in many other places, seldom do you get things done alone. You have to learn how to be part of a team, and we had plenty of team projects at GPS!”

Phu encouraged all GPS students to take advantage of their time as a master’s student by enrolling in a class on something you don’t think you’ll ever work on again. 

“You’d be surprised what comes up — the friendships you make there will help you personally and professionally for years to come,” Phu said. “I wish I could say I planned any part of my career, but I ended up where I am now because I was open to opportunities as they arose.”

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Virginia S. Watson is the Assistant Director of Communications for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism from Troy University.
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