(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Dr. Bruce Fowler, a former scientist (now retired) at one of the research labs run by the Army.)
1) What is your non-academic job?
I am going to reply in the context of the position I held prior to retirement, which was Chief Scientist and Chief Information Officer of a Department of the Army laboratory. I also served as Deputy Activity Career Program manager for Scientists and Engineers (non construction) and a couple of other hats.
2) What is your science background?
Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry (ACS certificate program) with second major in Physics and third major in Maths, University of Alabama Tuscaloosa
Master’s of Science in Chemical Physics, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana
Doctor of Philosophy in Physics, University of Alabama in Huntsville
3) What led you to this job?
A career progression from an entry level (master’s) physics position in the laboratory. But to address your question about non-academic paths, I sought out this path because I came out of a master’s program when science graduates could not get jobs (early ’70’s) and disillusioned about the academic environment: professors more concerned with campus politics than teaching; research done based on what funding can be easily obtained ; a consistent pattern of the people I saw to be the best teachers and scientists denied tenure. So I went looking for a place to work where the work took precedence over politics and social correctness and was interesting to me; also where I would have the chance to work on projects of interest to myself without compromising my position.
4) What’s your work environment like?
The laboratory does research and development of systems for the Army. This entails everything from basic research (slightly more mature than academic science and engineering research) through the actual building and testing of prototypes.
5) What do you do in a typical day?
Much of my time was spent in the management of technical efforts by the thousands of scientists and engineers employed in the laboratory. The scope of this ranges from assessing progress, analyzing results of efforts, and planning future efforts. Some of my time is spent in executing administrivia.
6) How does your science background help you in your job?
The basic effort of the laboratory is science and engineering applied to the materiel specifically needed and used by the army. Except for administrative aspects such as budget, human resources, etc., this work is highly technical. The majority of the employees are graduate scientists and engineers, with the majority of those holding graduate degrees.
7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
Get a graduate degree in science, and a graduate degree – or equivalent – in management and work one’s way up the chain of organization. Promotions are competitive. I got the management experience and education on the job and from personal readings.
8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?
An understanding of what science, at least physical science, is. I recognize that is not a very good answer because people either always think they understand something or that they never do. But I have problems saying that any one thing – whatever we may mean by ‘thing’ – is the most important. But then, that statement is part of what science is about as well.
9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
Balance money and satisfaction. No amount of pay will make you happy. No amount of accomplishment will obviate poverty. Fun in the workplace is necessary to get ahead. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Make sure you are your own strongest critic. Work to understand yourself repeatedly and penetratingly. When given a choice either select the harder path or run away.
10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?
Pay for members of the Civil Service is a matter of public record. There is a lot of debate on whether civil service engineers and scientists are overpaid or underpaid. I found the pay to be sufficient to have a good life and raise a family. My understanding from reading salary studies is that the pay is better than pure teaching positions at junior colleges but less than comparable positions in industry.