When I first came to IDA, I had no experience in the military. Just learning how the bureaucracy associated with a DOD-acquisition program worked, not to mention the volumes of acronyms associated with programs, took me several months. At the beginning, I sat through many meetings with no idea of what was being discussed because I wasn’t up to speed with DOD lingo. Another problem I had to overcome was being unfamiliar with the ranks and insignias of the various military officers and enlisted personnel. Nothing is more insulting to a colonel than being mistaken for a major! With time and patient mentoring from other IDA research staff members, I got comfortable with my role and responsibilities at IDA as well as military culture and language.
My work at IDA is extremely satisfying, because people with Ph.D.s in technical areas are held in special regard. If I offer an opinion or a point of view, people listen. While they may not always agree with what I have to say, they understand that I don’t have a dog in the fight and that I’m really just trying to help the program. My input also is valued highly by my DOD sponsor as well as my colleagues at IDA. I feel the work I do on a daily basis has an impact, most notably in ensuring that the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines get systems that work reliably and provide them with accurate information.
My advice to any scientist seeking an alternative career is to not be afraid to do something outside of your comfort zone. Joining an organization that worked with the military was probably the last thing I thought I would end up doing when I started graduate school. However, looking back now after seven years, I’m happy to say that in making my giant leap from the bench to the world of military acquisition, I landed on my feet and am now marching along happily.
Emily Heuring (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va.