Best Defense

‘Best Defense’ advice: Should an Ivy League Ph.D. join the military?

‘Best Defense’ advice: Should an Ivy League Ph.D. join the military?

Here is an interesting question, posed by a reader who asks to remain anonymous.

My situation is this: I’m 29 years old and about to finish a PhD in a humanities/social sciences field at a well-known Ivy League school. Having decided not to pursue an academic career, I’m exploring opportunities to work in government, and long-term would like to work in the field of foreign policy. (Similar to Matt Pottinger, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve had enough of writing about other people doing things, and would like to do some doing myself.) I’ve taken the Foreign Service exam and applied for research jobs at various think tanks, but I’ve also been thinking more and more about joining the armed forces. The more familiar I become with the foreign policy field generally, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that if one wants to actually influence policy that means either working in the military, or having some military experience. I don’t mean to sound crassly opportunist, however. The prospect of volunteering to serve my country is also a genuine motivating factor.

Having thought about it that far, though, I realize that I know remarkably little about what it might mean to join the military. Though both of my grandfathers served in WWII, I don’t come from what might be called a “military family.” And the elite colleges I’ve been ensconced in for the last 10 years offer virtually no contact with the military world. The only sign of ever seen of military recruiters on campus is the annual controversy that erupts when the JAG corps recruits at the law school, and everyone protests DADT. Literally no one — from professors to advisors to career services folks — has ever raised the subject of my pursuing a career in the military; I’m fairly sure most would be flabbergasted to hear I’m considering it.

So my question is basically this: Would the military even want someone like me? I don’t ask that disingenuously; I honestly don’t know. If I were to join up, what could I reasonably expect to be doing? I have a knack for languages (including some training in Arabic) and am well practiced in analytical thought, so I could imagine doing working in intelligence in some capacity, which is work I also think I’d both enjoy and be good at. Beyond that, though, I would not even know where to start. Is it possibly to even think of charting a course for one’s career like that? What branch should I consider? Army? Navy? I’m not sure that the Marines would be the best fit, but I don’t really know.

Any thoughts or suggestions, from you or your readers, would be greatly appreciated.

Tom’s thought: Sure, join up, but only if you want to. Don’t expect to be the smartest guy in the room, do expect to work for morons sometime — but find a way to learn from everyone.

What’s your answer, Best Defenders? Which service should he join, if any? And if so, how should he go about it?