Working at a U.S. Military Lab: What You Can Expect

7. May 2013

Michael Duncan

Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to work at a military laboratory. Having worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) for my entire career, I can’t really compare it to other work environments—but my experience has been good overall. My job has allowed me to pursue a diverse array of projects and to expand my horizons, both in fundamental and applied optics.  It also gave me the opportunity to work for a few years at the Office of Naval Research, the Navy’s science and technology funding organization. Here’s what to expect if you go to work for a national lab like NRL.

You can expect to write proposals, since NRL is mostly funded by customers outside of the lab. (This is now probably a constant for any working scientist in industry, government, or academia!) Thus, you certainly need to write coherently and well.

You can also expect to work in a small group of 2 to 5 colleagues, so the ability to work and communicate well with other people is critical. At the Ph.D. level, you will be looked at as an expert in a certain area (a subject matter expert, or SME, in government-speak), but you will need to quickly use your training to expand your knowledge into related areas.

Publishing and presenting your work at conferences is important, but you might not be using the same venues that you did as a student. Classified research is a likely component of what you do, but probably not everything. You won’t be teaching, although government scientists often have adjunct professorships at local schools. To work in a U.S. military lab, you must be a citizen of the United States.

In a government or military lab, you are hired because of your research specialty and your ability to solve problems. You will be more constrained on your research topics than you would be in academia, but you can also contribute to solving a much broader range of problems, from basic science to applied technology. This is the aspect of my career that has been the most satisfying.

All of the armed services have a kind of “dual-track” for advancement as a scientific professional. There is the traditional approach of moving from research into management, and there is also a “science and technology” track that allows you to advance in stature and pay without having to become a manager.

Sometimes having a position in a military lab can isolate you from the broader technical field you work in, so it is extremely important to stay active in a professional organization such as OSA. The Optical Society has allowed me to remain connected to the larger field of optics and the people doing the most innovative research. This has not only benefitted me; it has also made me a more valuable employee to NRL.

In my view, the less favorable aspects of working for the military are the heavy amount of government paperwork, the training and security requirements, and some of the research limitations. Overall, though, I’ve found that a career in a military lab provides great opportunities to work with government and military organizations to advance science and technology. You will interact with many smart and motivated people, in and out of uniform, and you may work with world-class equipment and test platforms such as F/A-18 jets, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines. Your position can lead you to other careers in government as well. In short, investing in your country can be a great way to invest in yourself.

Michael D. Duncan (michael.duncan@nrl.navy.mil) is a research physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory.

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