Science in the Military
About 200 officers are accepted each year to the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California, to study full time for a master���s or Ph.D. qualification in engineering or science.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, out of more than 1.4 million people on active duty in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, at least 200,000 perform science, engineering, and technical roles. Some of those people are building robots. Others are remotely piloting underwater vehicles. According to experts interviewed by Science Careers, all share one characteristic: They are military first, scientists second.
Science-minded soldiers and sailors must be comfortable with military life: conforming to strict rules, codes, and honor systems, and being ready to participate in combat missions if necessary. Serving in the military can be dangerous even in peacetime, so it���s important to understand the nature of the commitment. But as long as you know what to expect, the military can offer a wide range of opportunities for challenging and rewarding careers.
The entry level: enlist and train
To enlist in the U.S. military, the basic requirement is a high school diploma, or the equivalent, and good physical and mental health. After enlisting, personnel can specialize in a basic science, technical, or engineering role, depending on the needs of their branch. For example, intelligence analysts interpret complex field data, electronics specialists operate tracking equipment, and environmental health technicians monitor the air, ground, and water for bacteria and other health hazards.
Many choose to gain a bachelor���s degree before embarking on active service, which allows them to join as an officer. Every year, more than 1200 high school graduates enroll in each of the three main federal military academies -- the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis, Maryland, the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) in West Point, New York, and the Air Force Academy (AFA) in Colorado -- to become officers-in-training. Admission to the military academies is extremely competitive, says Commander William Marks, public affairs officer at USNA. ���Last year we received more than 19,000 applications for about 1240 spots.���
Over 4 years, military academy students absorb a core curriculum of engineering, natural sciences, mathematics, social sciences, and humanities. Particularly at Annapolis and West Point, students can choose from an array of scientific disciplines such as molecular biology, environmental chemistry, ecology, polar oceanography, climate change, remote sensing, and astronomy. ���We believe a well-rounded science and technology curriculum is based on a broad spectrum of study, including fields not traditionally linked with the military,��� Marks says. In return for Army, Navy, or Air Force funding, graduates from the military academies can expect a minimum requirement of 5 years of active service.
Didn't get admitted to a military academy? The on-the-job training received by enlisted personnel -- those not trained to the officer level -- can also lead to college credit. The American Council on Education (ACE) recognizes training in the Armed Forces by awarding academic credit toward a Bachelor of Science degree.
Exceptional active-duty personnel may be funded 100% to study for a bachelor���s degree at a civilian institution -- for example, through a Tuition Assistance program. By joining the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), high school students can embark on a regular college experience (which, however, includes 3 to 5 hours of military instruction per week) and join the military after they graduate. ROTC grads are expected to serve full-time for at least 4 years, or, in a few special cases, part time for a longer period.
With specialist scientific knowledge, a multitude of jobs become available within the military. ���You can be a Navy SEAL, a doctor, a diver, a jet pilot, a nuclear engineer, or an expert in computer systems and networks,��� Marks says.
About 200 officers are accepted each year to the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California, to study full time for a master���s or Ph.D. qualification in engineering or science. NPS programs include engineering, acoustics, nanomaterials, sensor development, robotics, power and propulsion studies, oceanography, meteorology, and space systems; there's even a program focused on free electron lasers.
Oceanography postgraduates, for example, might study how coastal dynamics affect amphibious warfare, or how decreasing polar sea ice might influence global climate patterns. ���Many of our students in meteorology and oceanography find it both challenging and satisfying to apply their interest in earth sciences to improve safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of military operations,��� says Professor Phil Durkee, interim dean of the Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at NPS.
���My thesis project focused on the Smart Gator concept,��� says Captain Cedric Pringle, who graduated from NPS with a master���s degree in National Security Strategy in 1998. ���I looked at the employment of technology, machinery controls, and systems automation that could effectively reduce manning aboard amphibious ships.��� Pringle was recently named commanding officer of the hybrid (part electric and part gas-powered) amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island, a position he will take up in February 2012.
The Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio runs an operation similar to the one at NPS, providing postgraduate academic training to officers of the U.S. Air Force. The Army doesn't have a graduate school, but Army soldiers can attend either of the other institutions.
Those interested in higher-level research can apply to transfer out of active service to work for a limited period (usually 2 years or so) in research and development at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL). ���I am leading a research protocol to assess the systematic impact of how electricity affects human beings ��� to answer questions about the health of the victim and their ability to function at varying times post-shock,��� says Richard Moyers, a researcher at ARL (see box) .
However, civilian scientists carry out the majority of advanced scientific research in the military, usually at ARL or the Navy's equivalent, the Naval Research Laboratory. NRL research staff members developed the concept of nuclear-powered submarines, the world's first satellite-tracking system, and the Deep Ocean Search System used to uncover the wreck of the Titanic, among other innovations.
Experienced military personnel interested in education as well as research can apply for a position as a lecturer at NPS or as an instructor at one of the military academies. Another option is to join the Office of Naval Research (ONR), which is the parent organization of NRL. The research funded by ONR is carried out mostly by civilians within universities, but several program officer positions are available for senior military personnel with technical expertise. Their job is to decide where scientific breakthroughs are likely to arise and where federal money should be invested. ���These folks are key to connecting fleet and force experience and Naval needs directly with the scientific and technical communities,��� says Captain Doug Marble, assistant chief of naval research at ONR.
Is a military career right for you?
Many senior military personnel say that a career as a military scientist can be more rewarding and offer better job security than a career as a civilian scientist. The key, they say, is to learn as much as possible about both options before making a decision. High school students can experience life as a USNA officer-in-training at one of the 6-day seminars held over summer. NRL runs a series of short-term employment, apprenticeship, and volunteering programs to help students decide if working as a civilian scientist for the Navy is the right choice. ARL also offers several internships, workshops, and events to give students hands-on experience at a military research laboratory, where they can help design, plan, and construct a robot, or build a solar car.
To learn more about daily life as enlisted or officer personnel in any branch of the armed forces visit the U.S. Department of Labor at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos249.htm.
Roz Pidcock is a freelance science writer in the United Kingdom.