14 May 2012

What I learned at the defense industry career panel

This afternoon, I went to a panel about doing science in government, mostly defense work. It was the best career event I've ever been to. The three panelists were diverse, interesting, charismatic, down-to-earth, and genuinely helpful. All three had PhDs in science/engineering. I'm relating what I learned from memory, so the account below is not entirely accurate.

The first panelist was a man who works in a technology office. He said that nowadays he mostly signs checks. But back in the day, he did all sorts of cool defense research. He even slept on an aircraft carrier. He recommended that we cyberstalk as much as possible to get a job. He told us that he gets to work at 6 am and has an hour before everyone else shows up. That's the perfect time for an informational interview over the phone. He also cyberstalks, from the hiring end. When he Googles people, he likes to see that they have varied experiences, for example, doing charity work in a poor area. He believed that the PhD is a degree in perseverance. He got his PhD while working full-time, though towards the end when he was writing his thesis, he got a few days off a week. Also, it was interesting when he asked how many people in the room (mostly science grad students and postdocs) wanted to be rich. Almost no one raised their hand. He claimed that MIT, almost everyone raised their hand. He told us that the young should not go into policy, that was something for later in one's career if you still wanted to do it. I don't recall the exact reason. Overall, he was very matter-of-fact and blunt, with strong opinions.

The second panelist was a Eastern European woman who worked in the bioweapons office. She emphasized that her PhD had nothing to do with bioweapons. The most interesting thing was that she was also in the Army reserve and had officer rank. But because of her Eastern European background and accent, people didn't believe that she was in the Army. They asked "which army?" She remarked that she felt just as loyal to the US as anyone else, because she had to swear allegiance twice -- first to become a US citizen, then to join the Army. She also made a comment about Eastern Europe being very different than America. For example, the joke is that if an officer tells a US soldier to jump, the soldier say "how high?" An Eastern European soldier would ask "why?"

The last panelist was a guy who works with scientists from many fields. He gave the example of having a discussion about weapons with a biologist, chemist, and physicist. His job was to bring everyone together and synthesize the different ideas and perspectives. He had a very unusual background. He was half-Hispanic and half-German and grew up on the West Coast. His father was a rocket engineer so he grew up learning about rockets. But he never actually studied engineering in college. He stressed the importance of learning different subjects. He himself felt that his study of jazz in college really helped him become a good thinker, even though the subject seems to have nothing in common with science. (I emailed him a few days after the panel and he said it's important to have hobbies not just because they make you smarter, but also for the sake of your sanity.) He also said that a while back, he was on a job panel and when the panelists compared notes, they realized that they had never planned their job path. Stuff just happened. They had no idea what they were doing at the time; only looking back retroactively, could they construct a "logical" path. He recommended just doing whatever you find interesting instead of scheming some plan to work your way to the top.

To summarize, here are some of the most interesting (and subjective) things I learned:
  • Cyberstalk as much as possible to get a job.
  • For many people, phone calls are easiest very early in the morning.
  • Don't do policy when you're young.
  • If you enjoy studying peripheral seemingly useless subjects, don't worry. They'll be surprisingly useful in subtle ways.
  • There is no coherent job path. So just do whatever you find interesting. Life is too short.

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