Decoding research scientist careers in the U.S. Military

“Down and give me 20!”…pipetting maneuvers, perhaps. Research conducted by the United States Military ranges from detecting and dismantling weapons to understanding pathogens that could threaten our national security. Thus, scientists are key to achieving the goals of our military and protecting our nation as well.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a government/military research career panel at the 2015 Science Communication and Outreach Career Symposium at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio (UTHSCSA). For those of you that are unfamiliar with San Antonio, it boasts the most military bases in Texas and is the quintessential “military city”. Thus, San Antonio is a very fitting location to discuss military research scientist careers.

The four panelists were Major General Byron Hepburn, M.D. (Ret., Director of the Military Health Institute at UTHSCSA), Carmen Hinojosa-Laborde, Ph.D. (physiologist, U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research), Jose Salinas, Ph.D. (electrical engineer, U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research) and Billy Hudson, Ph.D. (cell biologist, Vanderbilt University, former active duty researcher, Ret. U.S. Army Colonel). Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Hepburn described the goals of and opportunities available in government/military research. All the panelists touched on different aspects of research in a military setting and how they are similar to or differ from academic research. The panelists focused mainly on life science research and its marriage with technology to advance healthcare provision for our soldiers. The major themes of our discussion were TEAMWORK and COMMUNICATION. Military research thrives on teamwork to achieve research goals. To do so, effective communication is relied upon for efficiency and success. To paraphrase Maj. Gen. Hepburn, military scientists are instructed to use the fewest words possible to get their point across fast. Thus, if seeking a military scientist career, one must possess excellent oral and written communication skills as well as the desire and ability to work well in teams.

Military science
Image sources from left to right: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_science, http://www.nationofchange.org/2015/03/27/military-strategy-who-needs-it/, http://www.army.mil/article/74579/Army_scientist_shields_Soldiers_from_chemical_agents/

What are the differences between academic and military research?

The following is what I gleaned from this discussion:

  1. Military research is directed toward a pre-defined, specific goal. Who determines these goals? The U.S. Military performs field research to empirically decipher what biological problems need to be addressed to protect soldiers in the field and/or to maintain our national security. Unlike academia, you cannot start studying something simply because you think it is interesting and got it funded by a grant.
  2. Research funding is more accessible for military research scientists, so more grants are funded. Of note, military researchers do still submit grant proposals for funding.
  3. The military provides their contractors and active duty researchers with outstanding compensation, excellent benefits, and a top notch work environment.
  4. Military research groups are small and specialized. Research specialty units that are commonly referred to as “departments” or “large laboratories” in academia are termed “task forces” in the military. These task forces epitomize teamwork. They typically consist of one task manager and 1-3 research scientists/postdoctoral fellows working toward a particular research goal.

How do you get a job as a military researcher?

First, one can enlist in the military to become an active duty researcher, which requires full military training. Second, to secure a contactor position in military research as a civilian, one must apply for available job openings through https://www.usajobs.gov. Panelists advised that applicants must include “buzzwords” from the job posting to clear the first round of a general screening process. Recent Ph.D. recipients were also encouraged to apply as postdoctoral fellows by contacting a laboratory of interest. To acquire more information regarding military research, panelists encouraged people to contact military scientists for informational interviews.

Overall, military research is an excellent prospect for scientists that prefer to work closely in teams. Considering that the research one does in a military laboratory can save the lives of soldiers fighting to protect our nation or prevent devastation from deadly mechanical or biological weapons, military research may appeal to scientists who prefer their research to have a more direct impact on technology and healthcare.

Editor: Jonathan Cooper

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