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Building a Science Career in the Defense Industry

Victoria-Alice Porter (QinetiQ)

From the age of 12, Samantha Ridgway dreamed of becoming a pilot. "Then I got asthma," she says. The chronic disease grounded her flying ambitions but not her love of aircraft: "I thought, ... if I can't play with planes in the air, then I'll play with them on the ground." With sponsorship from the British Royal Air Force, she studied for a master's degree in manufacturing and mechanical engineering at the University of Warwick in central England. But other physical problems--migraines and weak eyesight that couldn't be completely corrected with glasses--meant she couldn't join the air force, even as an engineer.

"The breadth and variety of the different work you can get involved in is one of the best things about a career in defense." --Miranda Davies

So Ridgway swapped a career in the military for one in the defense industry. During her master's program, she worked on a project sponsored by the French defense and security company Thales designing an unoccupied lunar orbiter in collaboration with students across Europe. When the project was over, Thales offered her a job as a manufacturing engineer. She became one of 114 engineering, mathematics, and physics graduates the company hired in the United Kingdom last year to work in areas such as naval communications, vehicle systems integration, and military helicopters. Thales employs 22,500 research and development engineers worldwide.

Samantha Ridgway

Today, 6 months into the job, Ridgway works on radar systems. She can't say much more than that about her work because it is confidential--but it's clear that she enjoys the work at Thales and hopes to have a future there. "I never get bored. A typical day could involve design reviews or making prototype models," she says. "In the future, I'd like to move into a space division and maybe build something that will help humankind explore that a little bit further."

Defense is one of the largest employers of skilled engineers in the world. Industry experts estimate that in the European Union, more than 700,000 people work in aerospace and defense; in the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a defense labor force of more than 3 million people. Defense companies are jostling for attention in the job market because the industry is struggling to recruit enough qualified engineers, says Miranda Davies, head of graduate recruitment at Thales. That means that salaries can be as much as 40%  higher than in comparable sectors.

It also means opportunities to do many different kinds of work. "The breadth and variety of the different work you can get involved in is one of the best things about a career in defense," Davies says. This encompasses health care, transport, communications, and security, as well as the scope for leaving research and development to move into business or management.

Although private defense companies tend to hire engineers and physical scientists, in the public sector, there are more opportunities for scientists from other disciplines. The U.K. Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Defense, for example, both hire biologists, chemists, and medical professionals.

Not for everybody

High salaries and stimulating work aren't enough to convince some people who object to doing work that, in their view, exploits science in the name of death and destruction. One such scientist is Stuart Parkinson, executive director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a support network and lobbying group that has more than 1000 members in the United Kingdom. While studying for a degree in electronic engineering and physics at Lancaster University in North West England in the mid-1980s, he spent a year with an arms manufacturer developing image intensifiers to help guide weapons to targets in the dark. "The work I was being asked to do didn't meet my ethical beliefs. I had serious concerns about it," he says.

After leaving university, he opted instead for a career in environmental research, later becoming a climate-change expert. "Being a scientist or engineer in defense presents unique ethical problems. It's the only area in which you may be asked to develop machines that will kill people. At the same time, the relative amount of funding devoted to research into conflict prevention is only a fraction of a percent."

Choosing Industry

Also in Science Careers this week:

- Academia or Industry? Finding the Right Fit. There are restrictions and limitations on doing for-profit science, but there are also many advantages to joining industry.

- Pharma Offers Bench-to-Bedside Opportunities. Scientists working in pharma say the industry is among the most direct ways to improve human health.

Defense companies recruiting on campus are often a cause of controversy, says Peter Dunn, a spokesperson for the University of Warwick. "There are some students that don't support the industry and will protest outside careers fairs. But I can say that for every protester, there will be 10 more students at the defense stands, looking for jobs," he says. Miranda Davies adds, "It's very important to be open about what we do with potential employees because this isn't for everybody."

"There will always be people whose conscience will say that I cannot work for this company. It is very disappointing, but we accept it," agrees Timothy Janes, head of resourcing for Europe, the Middle East, and Australasia at the defense technology company QinetiQ, which employs more than 14,000 people globally. One argument he offers in favor of the industry is that its research often has civilian spinoffs. For example, the adoption of titanium as a strong, lightweight material used in golf clubs and eyeglasses was driven by the aerospace sector.

Not all defense work is about building offensive technologies. Victoria-Alice Porter (pictured at top), who joined QinetiQ in 2002 as a human physiologist, says her research has bolstered force protection and helped to save lives. Porter studied for a bachelor's degree in biomedical science at the University of the West of England. Between her 2nd and 3rd years, she spent a year with QinetiQ on an industrial placement, researching the effects of altitude on pilots flying in very fast jets.

"Aircraft are able to perform at higher and higher standards, so my work was to see how pilots cope with it. Specifically, I was looking at the Eurofighter aircraft and also the system that delivers pressure to the G-suit that pilots have to wear," she says. For her, stimulating work like this made the choice between academia and industry easy. "I wasn't particularly interested in laboratory-based work. It was so exciting to be able to work somewhere where I was able to use centrifuges and pressure chambers on real people." In 2005, after almost 3 years as a high-altitude scientist, Porter moved into a business role as an operations manager.

Engineering the future

(Selex Galileo)
Rhian Chapman

Big research budgets and the chance to work at the cutting edge of technology are among the reasons science-minded graduates are attracted to defense, says Rhian Chapman, a systems engineer working on remote networked sensors at the defense electronics company Selex Galileo in east England. With older defense technologies approaching the end of their life spans, young scientists and engineers have opportunities to create the military machinery of the future. "Selex puts a lot of money into research and development," Chapman says.

After leaving Cardiff University in Wales in 2005 with an undergraduate degree in astrophysics, Chapman was certain she wanted to work in industry. "I can understand how academia might have been a bit more scientifically rewarding, because these days I'm involved in development rather than pure research. But I wanted something more real, as opposed to a small university environment," she explains.

Many employers offer sponsorship schemes or bursaries to tempt students into the industry; in fact, all of the graduates described above, including Chapman, benefited from these kinds of incentives for part or all of their advanced educations. And after they signed up, they were encouraged to pursue further professional training. "Getting new people into research and development is our lifeblood," Janes explains. "We need fresh ideas all the time and skilled people to produce them." In the United Kingdom, 700 of QinetiQ's employees have Ph.D.s.

Resisting the recession

In April, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed a funding increase of more than $4 billion for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet. Amid the global downturn, the announcement provided a boost to some suppliers in the defense industry, including U.K.-based BAE Systems, the third largest global defense company, which produces around a fifth of the parts for the jet.

Because military budgets are often decided many years in advance and tend not to fluctuate wildly, much of the industry has been shielded from the recession. "We have the good fortune of long-term contracts with the government and the Royal Air Force," says Richard Hamer, education partnership director at BAE Systems. "Designing a military aircraft, after all, takes 15 to 20 years."

As finance giants and manufacturing outfits tighten their belts, more graduates are seeking defense careers. "Last year and the year before, we had unfilled vacancies for systems engineers and software engineers. This year, partly because of the crunch, we hope to be filling the gap," Hamer says. BAE Systems has attracted 34% more applications from students so far this year, compared with the same time last year, and it plans to recruit 56 extra graduates in 2009. For scientists focused on a research career, the company has an advanced-technology center that employs more than 400 people on projects such as image analysis and speech recognition.

QinetiQ is also increasing its U.K. graduate intake to 135 scientists and engineers in 2009, 45 more than in 2008. Thales, too, is hiring more graduates than it did the previous year. "It is a very good time to be working in defense," Hamer says.