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Engineering ROTC and Joining the military with physics/engineering PhD

  1. Jul 30, 2010 #1
    Hey guys, I was recently considering the option of doing ROTC to pay for school and was wondering a few things. I don't know if this is the right place to be posting this so sorry if its in the wrong spot but here it goes:

    - This is the most important question: If you do ROTC in college and finish with a PhD in a science discipline like physics or a PhD in engineering what are you likely to be doing in your active duty afterwards? Are you likely to be do R&D or is there a decent chance you'll end up fighting directly (not that there's anything wrong with it and I have a lot of respect for the soldiers on the front lines, but it's not really what I want to do.).
    ----- sub question: which branch would you have the best chance of landing a r&d position? I was thinking air force.

    - I'm done with my associates degree now. I know ROTC scholarships pay for 4 years of undergrad so could I do a double major and have them pay for all of it since I've already got the first 2 years out of the way?

    - Will the military pay for grad school (is there additional years of service required or anything?), or at least allow you to defer commission until after grad school?

    - (assuming you are doing R&D in the military, otherwise ignore this question) How does it look to future employers? If you eventually wanted to go into research would the four years you spent there be seen as valuable experience or would your time have been better spent doing post-docs?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 30, 2010 #2
    I guess it ties into the last question as well. I know getting security clearance is important if you want to do work in certain fields. How can being in the military make it easier for you to get clearance?
  4. Jul 31, 2010 #3
    There is a notion of educational deferals... take a look at http://www.afrotc.com/help-center/faqs/careers/#q_5 [Broken]

    I've also seen references to deferals being given for law school.

    Whether they would accept a delay for a Ph.D. is another question entirely, especially since a Ph.D. is such an open-ended degree.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  5. Jul 31, 2010 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    First thing to keep in mind. In the military, "the needs of the service" are paramount. If there is any conflict between what they want and what you want, you will lose.

    Second, the military's mission includes combat. You should not join the military with the expectation that you will never see combat.

    Third, the number of researchers that are employed by the military is a tiny fraction of the officer corps. Many positions are tours of one to a few years, after which the researcher is back in the "real military". These often are less fundamental research and more in the line of development. The military tends to want to fill these positions with people who have field experience and thus can adapt whatever it is to the mission of the service. (e.g. if you want to study underwater acoustics, someone with submarine or P-3 experience will look better than someone who has only done research). One implication of this is that even if you want to spend most of your career doing research, it behooves you to rotate into the "real" military.

    The military will pay for 4 years in ROTC. Getting a one-year deferment for a MS is possible, albeit competitive. After this point, they will be very eager to put you to work: they will have waited 5 years, and they want to see some results. (There are also commissioning age limits, and they don't want to run up against these) As far as a PhD, their position is that universities aren't going anywhere, so after they have gotten their time out of you, then they'll talk.

    If you are an officer in the military, you will hold at least a Secret clearance. They will put you up (a NACLC) for this in your freshman year. If you don't get it, they will likely show you the door. Note that clearances are not normally "transferable"; a DoD "Secret" doesn't mean that the DoE automatically issues their equivalent, an L. (Although the fact you have gone through this already makes it very unlikely that you will be turned down)

    What looks "looks better" to a potential employer depends on the employer. If you spent several years understanding underwater acoustics at NRL, you'll probably look better to Alliant than to a university.
  6. Jul 31, 2010 #5
    I do know one PhD student at Berkley who was in the Navy for something like 4 years, I think. He had an undergrad degree in physics, went to the Navy as a nuclear engineer, then went to grad school.

    I don't know how common this is in America, but in other countries doing a stint in the military before grad school or undergrad is not uncommon, and may be required. For example, I know one guy who was a munitions expert in the Israeli army.

    I'd imagine that most people would view your military experience favorably, especially if you went back to get a job in the Government. I looked into a lot of jobs around D.C., and there are a fair number of think tanks and government companies which would probably love to have a phd with military experience. In the private sector, consulting companies that do work for the military, like Booz Allen Hamilton (though I think they've split now) would probably love to have you. Moreover, there's laws protecting veterans from discriminatory hiring practices, so you don't have to worry about your military experience negatively impacting your job search.

    All in all, I'd say if you're up for it, then do it---from what I can see, I think you have a positive expectation (i.e. you stand to gain more than you stand to lose). You won't have to worry about paying for grad school if you do a PhD in physics, but you may have some difficulty getting in---just remember to study up for your physics GREs.
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2010
  7. Jul 31, 2010 #6

    I'll have to agree with everything what Vanadium said. You have to think this through before doing anything. I spent my first 2 years in the Army ROTC and still know those who went through the whole thing. My brother spent 2 years in the AF ROTC.

    I dropped it before entering my last 2 years of it, (this is when they ask you to sign a contract for active service after commission and graduation) because I changed my major and did not have enough room and time to take ROTC classes. There was an option for reserves but it had a longer contract and the path wasn't appealing. They are not going to defer your service for some 6+ years while you work for a PhD. degree.

    Also, the ROTC wasn't willing to pay my 4 year degree until I met the standards and sign a binding contract with them to serve active duty after finishing college. The scholarship REQUIRES me to serve after finishing my 4-year. During that time, my commanding officer told me I was most likely going to serve a tour (Iraq or Afghanistan) before going to another place of my choice.

    The way I saw it, you only go to ROTC if you plan to go all the way in the military. You don't stop until you hit 40+ (or 20 years) and (I think) the rank of Lt. Colonel for that reasonable retirement payout. What you are looking for it probably something as a civilian working for the military, i.e. a defense contractor or a direct hire into one of the branches.
  8. Aug 1, 2010 #7
    Thank you everybody, for the information. I appreciate the responses.

    What do you think I would be doing during the tours in the "real" air force? I know that's a very general question, so a general answer is fine. Would I be more likely to be in combat or would I be more likely to be in a support position? It's not that I'm opposed to the combat, its more the fact that I would like to stay in the country and work on a base so I could live with my girlfriend. I had thought about joining the marines in the past but decided on school instead, I'm just too curious about things not to keep on learning.

    Anyhow, questions:

    - What would be the chances of living in the US while on active duty in the Air Force, then?

    - If I did go the ROTC route (and this is assuming I am somehow able to get it deferred until after a doctorate, in writing of course, which I understand is not likely), would it be better to choose the longer contract with the reserves and take a civilian job for a company contracted by the military, or would being in the reserves make it harder to find a job at such a place?
  9. Aug 1, 2010 #8

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    You should count on combat. That's what the military does.

    It's possible that you will not see combat in the military, but you absolutely cannot and should not count on it.

    Look at this from the military's point of view - you want to decide what you will do, when you will do it, and where you will do it. Why is it a good idea for the Air Force to underwrite your education, when instead they can underwrite someone who will go where the Air Force wants, when they want it, to do what they want?
  10. Aug 1, 2010 #9
    But how much of the air force is actually ground combat troops? I know they have paratroopers but I thought the army and marines mostly had the lockdown on ground fighting and the air force was for air combat so the air force would only deploy these more as special forces units when the situation called for it. Or am I just plain wrong and the air force has as many troops on the ground as the other branches?

    And what of the reserves?

    Thanks again.
  11. Aug 1, 2010 #10

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    Thus far, the USAF has deployed 151,000 people to Iraq or Afghanistan, about 40% of its troop strength. They certainly have been training airmen in combat - it's been in the news for years.

    Let me repeat myself-

    First thing to keep in mind. In the military, "the needs of the service" are paramount. If there is any conflict between what they want and what you want, you will lose. Right now, the military needs people to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the future, they will need people to fight somewhere else.

    Second, the military's mission includes combat. You should not join the military with the expectation that you will never see combat.
  12. Aug 1, 2010 #11
    Yeah, but he's not going to be on the front lines lobbing gernades. He'll probably be in some hardened bunker controlling a UAV.

    The Armed services aren't interested in wasting their brain trust fighting on the front lines.
  13. Aug 1, 2010 #12

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    I would not make that assumption. The Air Force has "boots on the ground" right now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now the needs of the service are to have a large peacekeeping force in those two countries, and many of these tasks cannot be done from a comfortable, air-conditioned bunker.

    The Army is having a hard time maintaining personnel levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the DoD solution is to deploy USN and USAF personnel to positions that would be traditionally filled by the Army.

    More to the point, we simply do not know what the needs of the service will be when the OP finishes his schooling. It would be profoundly unwise to make plans based on not seeing any combat.
  14. Aug 2, 2010 #13


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    I have to concur with Vanadium here.

    My experience is with the Canadian Armed Forces, but in general when you sign up to serve your country (and/or monarch as the case may be) you become a soldier first. Even if you never see combat, the training such as live fire exercises can be dangerous. Not to mention, many war casualties in modern theatres arise from IEDs which don't discriminate between front-line combat troops and engineering officers on their way to air-conditioned bunkers.

    There are many advantages to military service. It was a good personal decision for me. But it's not for everyone, and you have to make sure that you understand exactly what you're signing up for because you do give up certain privileges.
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