Nick Pope was a career civil servant with the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MoD) when he got an odd assignment. It was 1991, two years before the premier episode of "The X-Files," but Pope was about to take on a job that would earn him the nickname "the real Fox Mulder." He was to investigate each and every UFO sighting reported to the British government.
More than 25 years later, Pope is one of the world's leading UFO experts and a fixture at UFO conferences like Contact in the Desert and the International UFO Congress, where he lectures on government-sponsored UFO investigations, conspiracy theories and the disclosure of classified government documents. But he wasn't always a UFO-head.
"I really started from a baseline of zero," says Pope, explaining that his four-year assignment to the "UFO desk" at MoD was one of many different posts at the agency, and was not based on any prior knowledge or personal interest in UFOs.
His office received between 200 and 300 sighting reports a year. His job was to call up witnesses, gather as much information as possible about the appearance of the mystery objects, as well as the precise locations and times of the sightings, and then get to work checking those facts against "the usual suspects."
In 95 percent of cases, there was a simple earthly explanation for what the witnesses had seen -- maybe aircraft lights or weather balloons. But even in those rare cases where a sighting couldn't be rationally explained, Pope's job was to downplay its significance to the public, the media and British lawmakers. The message: "Move along, folks. Nothing to see here."
Pope felt it was his duty to read everything he could get his hands on about the history of UFO sightings and leading theories about their origins, including fanciful conspiracies. After he left the UFO desk in 1994, but while still at the MoD, he co-authored a book with some of the key witnesses in the Rendelsham Forest incident, known as England's Roswell.
The success of the book led to calls from TV and movie producers looking for insight from a real UFO investigator. Pope retired from the MoD and moved to America in 2012 to become a full-time UFO expert. In addition to writing and lecturing at conferences, he's a popular talking head on TV shows like "Ancient Aliens."
Pope would not call himself a ufologist, rather a UFO investigator. He admits that he came about his UFO expertise in an unconventional way. Most of his fellow UFO panelists, authors and TV commentators were either inspired by their own life-altering UFO sighting or drawn to the topic as lifelong fans of the paranormal.
"I'm an awkward fit at some of these [UFO] events, I have to say," Pope admits. "Some people, I suspect, think that I'm the bad guy, and I've heard a lot of people in the conspiracy theory community say that I'm still secretly working for the government, that I'm part of some disinformation campaign or whatever the theory is."
Becoming a Ufologist
No accurate figures exist on how many ufologists there are in the world. Ufology (the study of UFOs or unidentified flying objects) is considered a pseudoscience, though national governments have been involved in investigating UFOs. (The MoD UFO project closed down in 2009. The U.S. government is apparently still tracking them, according to the New York Times.)
As such, no traditional colleges or universities offer degree programs in ufology, but there are some online options. International Metaphysical University offers six courses in Ufology Studies, including Introduction to Ufology taught by Richard Dolan, a well-known expert who also has a history degree from Alfred University. The 12-lecture online course covers topics such as "What are UFOs?," "Theories of Ancient Visitation," and "The Early Cover-Up." Courses cost between $200 and $400 each.
Under a "Career Options" tab, the university website notes ufologists can seek work as lecturers, writers, movie consultants or even political activists "working toward disclosure or working in the political and government arena on the area of UFOs in preparation for contact or landings." Furthermore, "You can also set up a career as a life coach or hypnotist working directly with contactees and abductees." Whether these careers turn out to lucrative will no doubt depend on the circles you move in.
Two other online universities -- the Centre of Excellence in the U.K. and the IMHS Metaphysical Institute -- offer full degree programs in ufology. It's hard to imagine a better conversation-starter than, "I recently got my Ph.D. in Ufology with a specialization in abduction research." Cost for that "advanced" degree is under $2,000.
Another approach is to get out there and do some Fox Mulder-ing of your own as a trained UFO investigator. In the U.S., the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) is actively recruiting field investigators to look into the dozen or more sightings reported to the organization every day. You must be 18 or older and pass a certification examination based on the field investigator manual. The British UFO Research Organization (BUFORA) offers a similar course for folks in the U.K.
Pope is a little skeptical of these training and certification programs, because he knows that most participants are true UFO believers who could let their biases get in the way of a clear-eyed investigation. Not that Pope himself wouldn't be psyched to find definitive proof that ETs exist.
"My view is the world would be more interesting with aliens in it than without, but that doesn't mean I'm going to try to prove that," says Pope. "I'm just going to go where the data take me."