DHS CIO Zangardi: The Doctoral Degree Was Challenging, But It Was Character That Earned It


The characteristics it takes to earn an PhD are the same it takes to assume a role of major responsibility in a company or organization, said John A. Zangardi.

He should know: He earned his PhD in Public Policy from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy—now the Schar School of Policy and Government—in 2005 and now, as Chief Information Officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he manages a department of more than 400 federal workers and an annual budget of $590 million.

“I have the responsibility for the department’s information technology and communications networks,” he said. “As the information technology authority for the department I have the responsibility for the security of the network and how we modernize it; I’m responsible for the maintenance and the innovation for our information technology and communications platforms.”

The DHS information technology department is a key and vital component to the nation’s security, to be sure, and Zangardi believes the work he put in for his advanced degree helped him understand more than the topic of his thesis (for the record, it was on the regulation of top-level internet domain names).

“The most important things to getting to a position of responsibility are having honor and integrity, working hard, and being persistent,” he said. “And those are traits you need to have in place to pursue a PhD. A PhD provides the analytic ways to look at things, but honor and integrity are crucial to succeeding.

“If you have the integrity and the work ethic and the persistence, everything comes together.”

Zangardi is not the only member of his public policy PhD cohort to find success after earning the degree. Among his classmates was Bruce Lindsey, now a Navy Vice Admiral and the Deputy Commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command and keynote speaker at the Schar School’s Degree Celebration on May 16; Kevin “Kip” Thomas, now the Principal Investigator for the Laboratory for Human Neurobiology at the Boston University School of Medicine; and Sarah Maxwell, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Texas-Dallas, who earlier this year was named Assistant Provost.

Zangardi said earning the PhD was important for him as an active duty Naval officer not necessarily to advance in rank but “to pursue knowledge. That was my primary motivating factor,” he said.

It also helped that the Schar School’s administration was flexible and accommodating to a busy part-time PhD student. “That was a big deal for me,” he said. “I valued my educational experience at Mason a tremendous amount.”