July 2nd, 2020

By Joe Thomas

Academia or industry? This is a question that every grad student is asked at some point regarding their career plans.  As tenured academic positions become incredibly difficult for the bulk of life science graduates to obtain, industry is an attractive alternative that provides a wealth of different opportunities. These jobs are an obvious choice to apply the skills accumulated over the course of a PhD, but there are even more opportunities available outside of the traditional academia/industry dichotomy for those looking for something a little different. PhD scientists are trained to be highly technical leaders, a skill set that is in high demand in many defense/military positions. The Department of Defense (DoD) is always looking to recruit highly specialized researchers to work on projects of national importance. These roles allow researchers to be involved in cutting edge work that has a direct, near-term impact while serving your country.

Since starting graduate school, I have had an interest in working for/with the military as a researcher but was never able to interact with anyone who had direct knowledge of how to break into the field. Scholarships such as the NDSEG are widely publicized and allow graduate students to work on topics of national importance, but I was looking for something more involved with day-to-day military operations. A chance Google search revealed that the Navy uses numerous internship programs as pipelines for new hires. I applied for an NREIP internship and was fortunate enough to be selected to spend the summer at a Navy lab. NREIP internships are available to undergraduates and graduate students alike and involve working alongside a Navy mentor for 10 weeks to get a glimpse of how the DoD does science. My internship has me working with the Naval Medical Research Unit garrisoned at Wright Patterson in Dayton, Ohio. I am working in their Environmental Health Effects Laboratory which is in charge of investigating the effects of chemical exposures on military personnel. I have been tasked with developing a high-throughput analytical chemistry workflow that will allow the Navy to rapidly screen many different environmental exposures to assess how service members may be at risk. This new procedure will directly support and inform the military during their operations to help keep soldiers, sailors, and airmen safe and effective. During my time here, I have interacted with many Navy officers as well as civilian employees who work together in a tightly coordinated team to achieve their mission. The unit has researchers from many diverse backgrounds including biochemistry, physiology, physics, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, and psychology. Since the team is incredibly multidisciplinary, scientists are able to step outside of their comfort zone and gain experience in different fields if they choose. In this way researchers can build their resumes to move up within the organization or to transition into other scientific specialties.

Joe blog

Opportunities exist for those looking to serve in and out of uniform. The Navy recruits life science PhD gradates as officers to act as biochemists, microbiologists, and aerospace physiologists. In these roles they use their scientific knowledge to complete a wide range of tasks such as conducting safety training, running drug testing labs, developing vaccines, teaching at the Naval Academy, performing humanitarian missions, and carrying out basic research. Aerospace physiologists for example leverage their knowledge of biology and the human body to act as aeromedical safety officers. In this role they are in charge of the safety and training of their aviation unit and even have the chance to become rated pilots. These officers typically spend little time conducting experiments at the lab bench, but the knowledge and scientific skills they have acquired during graduate school are still applied every day during operations where they have to identify and solve technical problems. When they do receive research assignments however, they can act as department heads responsible for writing grants and coordinating a large team that conducts relevant aerospace research. PhD’s are also hired as civilians to conduct and oversee research programs of interest to the DoD. In this role they act as PI’s who are responsible for writing grants and directing a research team, similar to a PI in academia. PhD level scientists can work in GS (government service) rated roles or as government contractors. Bachelor’s and master’s level scientists can also work as contractors to carry out the day-to-day lab work that supports their command.

 The career fields available in defense research are incredibly varied on both the civilian and military side. Scientists have control over their careers and still maintain plentiful opportunities to secure grant funding and journal publications. Work/life balance is also heavily emphasized which can be a huge benefit for anyone with commitments outside of the workplace. If you are shying away from a job in academia or industry but still want to conduct meaningful research, a DoD job might be a good fit for you!

If this sounds interesting to you, Tweet me @jthoma91 and will be more than happy to answer any questions about the internship process and doing science with the Navy!