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Air Force Research – Challenges

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Skills Needed To Succeed

Communication skills are absolutely essential for the effective program manager. I regularly explain and defend my program to higher level scientific management and scientific review boards, and to a number of different nonscientific groups, in particular and most importantly to Air Force operational types, who have no time and just want to know the bottom line-what the research is good for and how it will help them. I also frequently have to explain program needs to the scientific communities that are involved, both in writing and verbally to individuals and to groups.

A wide range of personalities can do well in this setting. I'm an introvert and I do this job well and enjoy it very much. But I hardly think being an introvert is required. I suspect qualities such as independence, integrity, humor, patience, consistency, clarity of thought and communication, curiosity, and decisiveness are important. After thinking about this question for a while, I asked other program managers in my organization for their thoughts. The following is a sample of their responses:
  1. A strong interest and training in a scientific discipline.

  2. A willingness to sacrifice the satisfaction of pursuing your own special research interests and ideas in that discipline.

  3. The ability to tolerate and adapt to inconsistencies and frequent changes in administrative policies.

  4. The analytical ability to understand the bottom line of complex scientific issues.

  5. The ability to express the bottom line clearly in oral or written format to others who may not have your technical training.

  6. The ability to make decisions and execute actions based on those decisions.

  7. The curiosity to explore and understand scientific issues outside of one's specific discipline.

  8. The ability and inclination to interact with a broad range of scientists and administrators on issues of importance to them.
You must believe in your goals and take a position of strong advocacy to defend them.

The Pros and Cons

I most like being able to significantly influence the course of science-not simply through one discovery or one research project, but rather by directing a whole program of research in the direction I believe is most profitable. I least like the many and continuous bureaucratic requirements that are repetitive and boring, and that distract me from my scientific program.

The Department of Defense is a huge bureaucracy, and all of the niggling red tape common to any organization is certainly present here.

In coming to the military in the 1970s as I did, I never expected to find so many of the military officers to be highly intelligent, creative, well-read, cultured, sophisticated, and fun. Academics, at least when I was still in school, were convinced that the best and the brightest stayed in academia. I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to find that this is not the case.

But the two cultures are very different. At first I did not enjoy having to dress for work-I wore jeans at the university, even when I taught. More seriously, academics are rewarded for questioning authority. In fact, a student has not really made it until he or she disproves the major finding of his mentor. Well, the military is not like that. Loyalty is probably the most valued quality in this environment. I thought I was showing that I cared by attacking all the weaknesses in the arguments of my government lab scientists. They were absolutely crushed and they thought I was a terrible person who was about to destroy their projects. This is a real cultural adjustment, which I have only partly managed to achieve. I still question all authority.

I love "hair on fire" days and I love stress; there are not enough of those days for me. I do not like frustration, and any government bureaucracy has plenty of frustration. There are too many of those days.

There is a world of difference between academia and this position. In graduate school and as a post-doc, I did hands-on research-I made electrodes, stayed up all night with sick cats and sick computers, wrote proposals, journal articles, and scientific presentations on a very esoteric topic for a small, informed audience of scientists in the same or in a very similar esoteric field. My time was my own, dependent only on the requirements of the on-going study.

Now, I stay up all night preparing briefings or participating in budget exercises. I also need to respond to and be responsible for other people. The types of people with whom I must interact are more diverse and the communications process is a much more creative and exciting challenge. I have to translate my world into language that they understand, and I have to get them to care about my issues.

How to Get This Job

The best job listings are found in Science, and usually in the major journal of the scientific discipline being requested. Commerce Business Daily is also a good source. The key is to begin networking right now, if you want to really learn what is out there.

The government is a maze, and it can be very difficult to navigate without insider help. I believe that most government jobs are advertised on the Web ( and There also are a number of fellowships available to get you in the door for a year or two so that you can learn about the structure and the culture, and decide if this is really for you.

The AAAS Defense Fellowship is a new option. This year, we awarded two of these fellowships, hiring a person for the Acquisition Office of the Secretary of Defense, and hiring another person to assist the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology, and Engineering.

The needed qualifications are a moving target. We seem to hire many more senior scientists now than we did when I was hired. I suspect that doing good science is the most important criterion. I would not be able to do my job (nor would I have been hired) without having had excellent scientific training. Most importantly, my training and experience doing science taught me how to recognize good science. It also taught me how to talk to scientists, what to look for, how to start researching a new area, and how to understand whole science culture.

Because communication with a diverse population is crucial to performing the job well, it is critical to be articulate and to have the ability to explain science to the layman during the interview process. We do still hire IPAs (academic contracts) for 1-year assignments. And it is possible that it would help to become known as an Air Force laboratory bench scientist. There are 1-year government fellowships, designed to give people a familiarity with government. One could also be trained in program management by taking a rotator position at the National Science Foundation.
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