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U.S. Naval Academy
Credit: U.S. Naval Academy

Science in the Military

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.

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.

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 in West Point, New York, and the Air Force Academy 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 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.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill

Any discussion of scientific training and the military would be incomplete without mention of the "new" GI Bill, under which those who have served in the U.S. armed forces since 11 September 2001, are eligible for educational assistance. The amount of assistance depends on the time of service. Those who have served for 3 years or more qualify for full tuition payment (up to the cost of in-state tuition at the most expensive school in their state), a book allowance, and a housing allowance. (See this article for more information, and this Web site for details.)

Postgraduate training

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 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.

Military Veterans in Science

What comes next for military scientists? To find out, read these short profiles:

Richard Moyers graduated from West Point, became an army platoon leader, and then joined the Army Research Laboratory, where he now works as a civilian.

Gurpartap Sandhoo was an enlisted Marine during the first Gulf War. After completing his service, he went on to earn several degrees, including a Ph.D. He is now science and technology liaison to the chief of naval operations at the Naval Research Lab.

Dale Crowner attended USNA and became a mission commander. He now teaches at the academy and coordinates aerial events.

What's next?

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 below).

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

Richard Moyers, Army Research Laboratory

<p>Richard Moyers</p>

Richard Moyers

Courtesy of Richard Moyers and the United States Army

Richard Moyers joined the infantry after graduating from West Point. He rose from platoon leader to company commander, then applied for a branch transfer and began working in the lethality/survivability department at ARL.

After managing numerous research projects while still in uniform, Moyers left active service and continued with his work at ARL as a civilian scientist in the U.S. Army Reserves. His past research projects include development of environmentally friendly ammunition, water purification technologies, robust power and energy solutions for responding to natural disasters, and the effects that fear/distress/anger have on the ability to make decisions. “That’s the great thing about our military laboratory system, we touch such a broad spectrum,” he says.

”My experiences in and out of uniform help me to be a significantly more dynamic, flexible, insightful, and capable researcher,” he says.

Gurpartap Sandhoo, Chief of Naval Research Science and Technology Liaison, Naval Research Laboratory

CREDIT: Naval Research Laboratory

Gurpartap Sandhoo joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1986 and served until the end of the first Gulf War. After leaving the Marine Corps, he earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering (partially funded by the GI Bill, a benefit available to all veterans). As a civilian scientist, he then pursued two M.S. degrees (in space systems and electrical engineering), and a doctorate in aeronautics, astronautics, and propulsion. With many years of experience in guidance navigation and control of missiles and satellites, Sandhoo joined NRL in 2005, where he is now the representative of the Navy's Science and Technology community to the chief of naval operations. “I get to identify scientific and technical solutions to deliver capability and capacity to meet warfighter needs,” he says.

Lieutenant Dale Crowner, Aerial Events Coordinator and Brigade Logistics Officer, U.S. Naval Academy

Courtesy of Dale Crowner

As a child growing up in Annapolis -- home of USNA -- Dale Crowner took part in a Big Brothers Big Sisters program and attended basketball summer camps at the academy. “Participating in camps was great, and it showed me what Midshipman life was like,” he says. He went on to attend the academy, and with the specialized scientific and technical training he gained there, began his career as a flight officer in the Navy, recently earning the rank of mission commander. He is now on “shore tour,” coordinating aerial events at the academy and teaching in the officer-training program. “I am responsible for the flyovers that occur before the Navy football games and the annual aerial show by the Blue Angels flight demonstration team,” he says.

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