My service in the Air Force made me a better scientist

Pathways that lead to science are not straight forward: life usually doesn’t fit the patterns we draw. In this post, we can see that every experience can be taken as an opportunity for personal growth. The skills needed to achieve our purposes can come to us, very often, in unexpected shapes.

5 min read
My service in the Air Force made me a better scientist

We often ask ourselves how the skills gained in academia transfer to other sectors, while, on the other hand, we don’t ask ourselves so often how skills gained elsewhere transfer to the academic setting. Can these skills be “transferable” as well, and can they come in handy in the research environment? Can graduate and undergraduate researchers draw on previous and unrelated work experiences to boost their performance in the lab? In my opinion, the answer to both of these questions is a solid YES.

Upon high-school graduation, many young adults take one or more gap years before commencing their undergraduate education. However, for citizens of many countries in the world, including myself, conscription (the mandatory draft into the army) comes first. Receiving specialized training and taking part in defending one’s country is, in my opinion, unparalleled to any other experience. I was drafted into the Air Force and served both in a helicopter flight squadron and air traffic control unit, managing real-time events and human resources. Although the service pushed back my academic education, I chose to see it as an opportunity for personal growth.

Both the research lab and military service are work environments that serve as a melting pot, uniting colleagues from diverse communities to work towards a shared purpose. Nowadays, as an undergraduate research assistant, I begin to notice and draw more parallels between the two experiences. Here are some lessons and skills which I learned during my service, and found useful to implement in the research laboratory.

Methodical exchange of information

When communicating over the radio networks of the Air Force, it is mandatory to maintain a precise language, using the relevant jargon. In science, each field has its own lingo as well, and well-defined rules of communication of results and information are in place, such as the use of the International System of Units (SI) and peer-reviewed publications of research articles. Structured and trustworthy communication practices facilitate efficient collaborations and teamwork, especially in fast-paced and pressured environments. They unite all the users and contribute to a functioning organization that works like a well-oiled machine.

Debrief, refine, try again

After every training and operational mission, all individuals involved gather for a debrief. Every micro-decision is torn to pieces and feedback is not withheld from anyone - from the freshest rookie to the most senior officers. It was humbling to witness my commanders, often years senior, confronting their weak points and committing to improving the next time. In a scientific setting, we often discuss experimental results with our peers for the same purpose, looking for different perspectives and suggestions for refinement and interpretation. In addition, the discussion part of every published article serves the same purpose, inviting the readers to join the conversation. In both scenarios, we can clearly see the benefits of exchanging feedback with peers in order to implement the new lessons learned and move forward.

Importance of role models and mentorship

I had the honour to serve under a female officer, who shattered the glass ceiling by becoming the first to be appointed to certain positions. She showed me that even in a rigid and traditional enterprise such as the military, professional and hardworking individuals will be acknowledged for their achievements, and have the possibility to climb up the ladder of ranks, or academic appointments. Although academia isn’t a perfect meritocracy at all times, I do aspire to work hard and to be evaluated by the same standards as my male associates. On the other hand, during my service I taught groups of tens of trainees at a time and even had two soldiers under my direct command, gaining valuable experience in tutoring and team management. One of my new team members refused to tie her hair into a ponytail, despite my reminders of the uniform code. It turned out that she was ashamed of her hearing aid, and didn’t want her disability to be visible. Wanting her to feel comfortable in the base, we secured an exception for her to wear her hair loose, however, I am happy to share that she ended up tying her hair up after several weeks once she has made some friends and started feeling comfortable in the new environment. She taught me the valuable lesson of compassionate leadership and the utter need to strive to understand and accommodate our team members’ needs. This experience will surely be relevant once it is my time to mentor new trainees and help them acclimatize to the lab.

Defend your work

One of the most obvious parallels I drew was the practice to present the recent work to my seniors – be it the group leader or the squadron commander. In the army, we held weekly meetings where I presented the schedules and resource allocation for the following week. My commanders would then examine the details and question my decisions. At first, I was shy and insecure, but as my expertise matured, so did my confidence and presentation skills. Stepping into academic research, I roughly knew what to expect from such meetings since even though the topic at hand is different, the course of the meeting is quite alike. I was happy to discover that a similar preparation scheme serves me as well nowadays as it did before. By setting a clear agenda, outlining the latest output, bringing up unresolved issues and planning the next steps together, I can ensure that expectations are communicated and coordinated between everyone involved.

Remember the big picture

In my experience, working weekends and holidays on end is just as common as optimizing protocols and running replicates. Nevertheless, these tasks need to be done. During these monotonous moments we need to remind ourselves of the incredible potential outcomes that may arise from our work; from protecting one’s country to implications for sustainable living and human health, advancing space exploration or landing that dream job. Keeping the big picture in mind, it was easier to wake up at 3 AM or finalize the experiment well past midnight.

By reflecting on my professional journey, I try to hone my acquired workplace skills and make use of them in other sectors; from army service to academic research to industry internships and extracurricular activities. I am a strong believer that we can and should build up our confidence and toolkits from every episode of our careers, even – and especially – if it isn’t a linear one. I hope my experiences are relatable to yours, whether they are within the military, civil service, or any other workplace. Reflecting upon our own career paths can help us appreciate and embrace every period as a meaningful one for our personal growth, leading to the professionals we are today.

About the author: L is an undergraduate student studying life sciences. She aspires to obtain a PhD and a career revolving around research. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking and hiking.
L requested to publish their blog post anonymously. If you would like to get in touch with them, please contact the ecrLife editorial team at ecrlife [dot] editors [at] gmail [dot] com.

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