Tell Me About Joining The Military As A Scientist

Looking at the job market–which always seems to be fluctuating and at time difficult to enter for someone in my field–I was wondering about technical jobs with the military. That’s partly because occasionally I run into an obvious member of the military. It’s not too often since the closest bases to here are Holloman AFB and Ft. Bliss (White Sands doesn’t count in this reckoning), meaning that anyone I run into is probably home on leave. And yes, I know I probably run across plenty of others where it’s not obvious since they’re not in uniform or they’re members of the National Guard or reserves or whatever. But those chance encounters often also get me thinking of people I know who joined up–my cousin, for instance, or people I know who either joined up right out of high school or who went to one of the service academies (mostly the Air Force Academy) and presumably are now in the service assuming they didn’t wash out.

I know I’d probably make a lousy soldier and would prefer to stay far, far away from combat. In fact, considering parts of my medical history, I’d probably be bounced from consideration for any combat or related spot anyway. I realize that by no means are all members of the military combat troops and that there are plenty of needed support as well as technical jobs.

More important, I’m a synthetic organic chemist who will soon (hopefully next year) be walking out the door with a MS. Honestly, I’d rather stay a civilian and manage to get a federal job at a place like Los Alamos or Sandia or one in private industry. But at times I feel like I should join up and serve the country. However, I don’t even know if such a thing would wind up more like being a civilian that happens to work for the DOD or as an actual member of the military (and in that case, how and where I would actually enter.) And I haven’t really thought about branches or how a synthetic organic chemist would be useful anyway.

I’m not like a lot the guys I knew who decided to join up straight out of high school instead of going to college–after all, I’m almost 25 with a BS and am working on that MS. I’ll probably be close to 26 before I get out of grad school. Everything I see on the various websites is physical chemistry, nuclear chemistry, or biochemistry. So, to me, it looks like I’m overqualified to simply enlist but that I also don’t have any experience in something that would actually be immediately useful.

So, could someone tell me about entering the military as a scientist? I still can’t figure out how or where one would enter the structure. More importantly, what’s it like? Pretty much like any job would be in a particular field in the private sector?

I had a short internship on USAF base.

I believe that since you have a degree you will enter the military as an officer. My old boss who joined the AirForce with a PHD entered as a captain. I imagine an MS would be a 1rst LT or something.

he used to complain that he wasn’t making near as much as if he were in industry. One day I looked up the pay chart

From this I surmised he was an O-3. From what I can tell he didn’t make anywhere near industry standard. When he started as an O-3 it looks like he was making 39500. However he did get things like housing supplements and other base privledges like shopping at the commissary tax free and what ever else the military provides.

He title was Chief of molecular virology. Sounds like a good title for someone who was at most in his early 30’s (although I dont know his exploits before or after. He may well have been a Star when he was a post doc). The lab was small, but it also had TONS of equipment. The small section of the lab I worked in was probably worth millions. I never even saw the other half the building.

There are no guarantees you will get the assignment you sign up for. You may end up as the most highly educated truck driver in Iraq.

True, and that’s why I started asking here rather than asking a recruiter. But, as I said earlier, we’re talking summer 2008 before I even get out of grad school and I’m sure we’ll be withdrawing from Iraq by then. That is, if the Republicans don’t want to get pasted in the 2008 elections.

As I said, it was just a thought. I’m not much of one for thinking way ahead when it comes to jobs and such but it hit me as a possibility while idly browsing C&EN Chemjobs.

Wow, I just reread my post. I need to seriously proofread.

This would likely disqualify you from the any position in the military from the start.

I have a friend (with a PhD in Aeronautics) who works as a civilian scientist for the Department of the Air Force, stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio.

He is actually serving out his obligation under the Palace Knight program - the Air Force paid for his graduate education, and in exchange he must work for them for some number of years. I want to say two or three times the number of years of schooling they paid for, but I’m not certain.

During my own graduate education I ran into or worked with quite a few civilian scientists who were employed by one of the branches of the military (Office of Naval Research, and several Air Force Research Laboratory areas). The impression I got, which could be mistaken, is that the vast bulk of the science work is done by civilian employees - but not all. At conferences I’d run into some uniformed service members, but they tended to be in the minority.

Part of this, I suspect, is done to attract scientific talent who may not want to crawl around in the mud with an M-16, or whatever; if somebody wants to be a scientist by profession, they’ll just go find work elsewhere if the Air Force (or whoever) won’t offer that.

I don’t know precisely how much he’s making, but it’s a fairly competitive salary for his qualifications and job.

Why not apply for a Civvy DOD job?

And, since you’re a chemist, why not Homeland Security?

A friend of mine with a fresh MS in Chemical Engineering signed on with Army the during those uncertain weeks shortly after 9/11. He was sure he was going to be doing something important. He was very disappointed with the job he wound up with: Testing gas masks in a technician-level capacity.

He is still pretty bitter about it.

I tend not to think about the other parts of the DOD. Blinders on my part since everyone I know is DOE. As for DHS, never thought about it either. As I said, I’ve always had this feeling (though I’m sure it’s not true) that it’s DOE or nothing. But hey, that’s what happens when all the people you know employed by the feds work at places like Sandia or Los Alamos or Oak Ridge. Again, same as I mentioned earlier, I’m a synthetic organic chemist. That’s great if you want a new organic molecule made, not so good if you want someone with lots of analytical or physical experience.

Actually, I’m not sure what 4-Fs (or whatever the proper term is) you these days. Does a slightly history of epilepsy as a child count? Because that’s pretty much it for what I was actually thinking of.

In any case, the biggest hurdle that always seems to appear while looking for a job (at least when I’m searching listings) is that pesky “prior experience” requirement. Why is the first job always the hardest to land, no matter where it is?

As I said, this thread was started mostly on a whim. I’ve always thought that if I got a government job it’d be as a civilian, it was just the site of a Marine in the laundromat earlier today that made me wonder about military possibilites.

My friend works a civilian job as an environmental engineer at Naval Station San Diego. Would you consider taking a civilian job at a military base?

No problem there for me. Heck, my dad works at Sandia, which is of course a national lab on an air force base. As I said, I was just wondering about my future job options and the idea just came up.

Reading the crystal ball, I see Fort Detrick in your future young man.

Epilepsy, you said? It depends on whether you still have seizures, are on meds, etc. There’s a lot of accurate information on the Epilepsy Foundation website about what the exact requirements are. Here are a couple of pertinent quotes:


So I agree with the suggestion to look at a civilian position. If nothing else, the working hours are better!

And you can quit without risking a prison sentence (or worse).

Ah, I always wondered. No problems here, it happened once when I was about three and again when I was about 11, so it’s been 13-14 years and I’ve been off all meds for just about a decade.

Both true. As I’ve said a couple times, I was more looking for basic info and not making a serious proposal. I figure, why completely rule a possibility without even looking at it first?

My brother is a Captain in the US Army, and he says that all his compensation (salary, allowances) totals to about 70K USD. Take that into account when comparing monies.

I’m curious. How many years of service does he have? Including enlisted if he was.