Infinite Careers is a collaboration between Career Services (CAPD) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.
- B.S. Biology (Course 7), 2002
- San Diego State University, M.S. Public Health, 2007
Kelly Shannon is currently a Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). She oversees domestic terrorism investigations and threat-reactive matters for the FBI Tampa Field Office, which are part of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. She previously served as a Unit Chief in the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate at FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC, where she coordinated global initiatives to foster relationships between law enforcement agencies and the scientific community.
As a field agent at the FBI Washington Field Office, she responded to and investigated domestic terrorism, WMD cases, and high profile incidents such as the Holocaust Museum shooting and the Washington Navy Yard mass shooting. Prior to her FBI career, SSA Shannon was a commissioned Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy serving on three warships and two deployments in the Persian Gulf. As an MIT undergraduate, she was a participant in the Naval ROTC Scholarship program and also conducted research at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
She holds a Bachelor of Science degree (Course 7) from MIT, a Master of Science in Public Health from San Diego State University, and is a graduate of National Defense University’s Program for Emerging Leaders. Kelly’s story was recently featured in the MITAA Slice of MIT blog here: https://alum.mit.edu/slice/test-tubes-tactical-ops
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
There have been many rewarding aspects, which is why I enjoy my job! I have been extremely blessed to work closely with amazing people from all walks of life, backgrounds, and experiences throughout my careers with the Navy and the FBI. I have learned so much from all of them and have lifelong bonds with many of them based on our shared experiences. Also, it has been incredibly rewarding to have the opportunity to investigate and respond to a variety of incidents where I had a direct role in identifying perpetrators or mitigating threats that potentially saved many lives. In my current role as a supervisor, I have truly enjoyed the mentorship aspects of my work, particularly in terms of being an advocate for women in law enforcement and providing support for new Special Agents who will ultimately be the next leaders in the Bureau.
Making decisions, especially important-feeling career decisions, can be challenging. What strategies have you used to make career decisions?
In both personal and professional decisions, I have always found that it has helped to make a “pros” and “cons” list. Like physically writing down all the positive and negative aspects of each choice at your disposal. It may sound like a very basic thing, and you may have all the factors in your head, but seeing it all laid out in one place can provide better clarity for your decision. While a sounding board is also helpful–friends, significant others, family–at the end of the day you have to be comfortable with your career decisions and own them. Additionally, as a general life rule I always recommend having a plan B, to the extent it’s feasible. In the context of career choices, it can be daunting if you feel like you have a single point of failure. Cultivating a skill set throughout your career that will ensure you have options can mitigate that. Too many options can of certainly complicate career decisions, but the positive side is having peace of mind that there is more than one good option to pursue should your first choice not work out the way you intended.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
There have been a few that have really resonated with me. The first is, don’t sweat the small stuff–and it’s all small stuff! Actually, the phrase was “If it won’t matter in five years, then don’t spend more than five minutes worrying about it.” While that may be a bit of an exaggeration in some cases, the overall message of moving on after a negative interaction and not beating yourself up about it has been relevant on many occasions in my professional life. The second piece of advice relates to work-life balance. One of my FBI mentors, who had an incredible storied career, told me upon his retirement that, while the work is important, always take the time to spend with family because you never get that time back. I have really tried to take his advice to heart and maintain a reasonable work-life balance. I love my work but I also highly value the time I get to spend with my husband and kids, and try to make every minute count!
What career advice do you have for current MIT students, or those interested in entering your industry?
First, some general advice for current students: You may know exactly what you want to do when you graduate, or your career path may be a winding one or a bit unconventional like mine. But either way, know that there are so many enduring skills you get from your time at MIT that will serve you well in whatever career you pursue regardless of your academic major: resilience; problem solving; intellectual curiosity; collaboration; perseverance; and an appreciation for different cultures, perspectives, and new ideas. As an MIT undergrad, I worked hard in my classes and had two part-time jobs in addition to Naval ROTC commitments. Being at the top of my class in high school, I truly wished I was a top academic performer at MIT, but I simply wasn’t. It was disheartening and I struggled. But over the years I learned that that was okay as long as I learned from my failures, and kept working hard and moving forward. So if you have had similar feelings during your time at MIT, don’t be discouraged. Such experiences made me more resilient, perseverant, and better equipped to bounce back from setbacks and challenges out in the “real world” — a really valuable skill!
Second, for those interested in law enforcement or intelligence community careers: I think it’s fair to say I have taken a bit of an unconventional career path compared to most of my MIT classmates! The FBI’s strength is in the diversity of its workforce, and our agents come from all sorts of backgrounds personally, professionally, and academically. When I was at MIT, I never thought the FBI would be interested in someone with such a background–that couldn’t have been further from the truth. My scientific background has been extremely value added for various aspects of the FBI’s mission. I highly recommend doing an internship and learning more about the various FBI careers before pursuing it, and more info can be found at http://www.fbijobs.gov.
Do you have any tips for networking or job searching for current students and recent graduates?
I would say that, in general, never be afraid to reach out to people you admire or aspire to be like in your career–even if you don’t know them personally–to see if they are open to speaking with you. Some of my most meaningful career decisions and opportunities were based on me mustering up the courage to send an email or make phone call to such individuals, which opened doors for me that might not have otherwise been an option professionally. I have found that in general, people who are successful and inspirational in their respective fields enjoy engaging with students and young professionals to provide guidance and talk about the road they have traveled to get to where they are professionally. A respectful but concise email or phone inquiry can go a long way toward making in-roads–don’t assume the person is “too important” or “too busy” to engage you–you may be pleasantly surprised!
What do you like to do outside of work for fun/relaxation/inspiration?
My current supervisory role in the FBI requires a lot of collaboration, talking, and in-person interaction. Back at home, throw two young kids in the mix, and you should conclude that I don’t get very much time by myself! So, being a natural introvert, when I do have downtime, I like to use it to be solo for a while–going for a long run, playing a video game (yes, I have a PS4), or simply getting a nap! Also, my family also enjoys traveling, so I find that organizing and planning such trips is fun as well.
What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?
As a kid I was always interested in knowing more about how living things work, grow, evolve. Biology seemed like a natural fit and, at the time, I was exploring an interest in becoming a doctor (that interest obviously waned over time!). But the opportunities I had as an MIT undergraduate to explore the vast specialties within biology gave me insight into what types of work and topics I enjoyed–and didn’t enjoy–to better inform my future career path. Certainly, having that experience within the academic community and understanding the rapid evolution of biotechnology over the past two decades has greatly benefited my current career in the FBI by enabling me to build mutual understanding and relationships amongst law enforcement, academic and research entities both domestically and internationally.
Last updated 2019