Help a soon-to-graduate PhD find work in Iraq or Afghanistan
September 4, 2009 10:01 PM   Subscribe

Hi! I will soon graduate from a top computer science program with a PhD. I am interested to work in Iraq and Afghanistan for a year or two. Clearly, I prefer to work in the "green zone", but am willing to work alongside troops in the combat zone. I am quite versatile and can do alot of stuff, e.g., teaching, designing software, engineering work, testing, maintaining complex systems, etc. Does anyone know how I can go about this? I tried looking at KBR's and FLOUR's job postings for contractors. But they primarily list jobs that are in food service, transportation, warehousing, etc. I like to get a job that is intellectually fulfilling. Oh. One more thing. I am a foreign national from a country that is friendly to the US and the NATO countries. Thanks! :)
posted by jchaw to Work & Money (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I was deployed to Afghanistan for the duration of 2006 as a lowly enlisted Soldier, so my viewpoint is certainly not exhaustive. There could easily be opportunities I'm not aware of.


I don't see that there's a whole lot for a highly educated programmer to do actually in country. Most of the civilian professionals over there did (as you said,) food service and maintenance stuff. The biggest FOBs would get 1 or 2 sort of "handyman" guys that would fix the generators and stuff. I know there were some also some civilians on BAF (Bagram Airfield) helping to set up and run countrywide communications, largely via satcom, but again: those were the occupations where you need someone actually present to unpack the hardware, set it up, plug it in, and help troubleshoot. There does not exist the program that you need to be in-country to write, and even the super high-level sysadmin stuff can be done remotely. Paying a civilian to live in a combat zone (even on safe-as-houses BAF) is ruinously expensive, I talked with a KBR generator mechanic that was pulling down 100k every 6 months and then travelling Europe the next 6 months, and I'm pretty sure his skills aren't worth what yours are stateside.

All that said!

Try talking to a recruiter at L-3, I saw their logo on expensive commo crap all over the place. They'd be way more likely to need your skills than would KBR.
posted by kavasa at 10:19 PM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I haven't served or been to those places, but I have the same question that kavasa has: what would you do? If you were an American citizen, and had some interest in enlisting, I'd tell you to look into the Strategic Air Command and its cyberdefense initiative. But, I don't think you're eligible, and they certainly wouldn't send you in theater.

I'm lead to believe that there are some opportunities in the special forces for in-country security crackers. But I'm also lead to believe that they want you to be, you know, special forces material... combat experience, years of military service, a willingness to get shot at, and a willingness to shoot people.

Even volunteer organizations like Telecoms Without Borders want you to have experience setting up telecoms gear. They want technicians usually, not engineers. And they almost never want scientists.
posted by Netzapper at 11:09 PM on September 4, 2009

You get a PhD to do research. DARPA is your main point of contact at that level. Military generally does little paid research to do on the front lines; the innovations that happen are mainly impromptu, like setting up WiFi and Astrix for VOIP to replace radios that couldn't reach base from guard towers. This is stuff soldiers just do, and drives leadership nuts.

There's no reason to do programming in theater, with a military that can effectively remote control UAVs. There's no reason to teach programmers in theater as a consequence. Engineering is almost always outsourced to defense contractors, who are subject to secrecy and US citizenship requirements. Testing happens before delivery, and once it's there it's too late. And generally I won't trust a PhD in CS to fix broken electronics, in the rare event they can indeed be fixed.

The US is in Iraq and Afghanistan to stabilize these violent places, not to fulfill intellectual needs.
posted by pwnguin at 11:42 PM on September 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Well, for IT work I would look for NGOs and contractors working with the Iraqi government, although there seem to be some jobs of that type supporting the MNF over in Kuwait City. My sense (from looking into this myself a bit idly) is that the peak demand for these jobs was around 2005-2006 during the transition to Iraqi self-government.

Keep looking, but keep in mind that you may need to fit yourself to a job rather than finding a job that fits you. I'm sure it can be done -- the pay is attractive, but the risk issues as well as other restrictions mean fewer applicants. If you have good hands-on experience as well as a doctorate, you could perhaps as easily slip into a sysadmin position as some kind of higher-level consultant.
posted by dhartung at 1:12 AM on September 5, 2009

I've worked for both of the companies you mention, and have a few ideas about where you might fit. It will be tough right now, because of the job market, stock market, and general decline of the economy. But, if you'd like to chat in detail about what you have done and how it might fit within their organizations, the general corporate culture, and get an introduction to a few people, please drop me a MeFi mail.
posted by Houstonian at 6:12 AM on September 5, 2009

Best answer: So, I did pretty much exactly this in Baghdad in 2004. I worked for a DARPA contractor that was turning an advanced research project (that I had worked on) into a deployed system with 1CAV division and brigade commands. I worked at what was then called Camp Victory at Baghdad Airport, periodically travelling out to the brigade command posts. I was responsible for setup, training the soldiers in use of the system, studying its use in the field, writing white papers based on its use, and monkey patches / tech support when necessary.

The main problem with what you want to do is that sending employees to either Iraq or Afghanistan is LUDICROUSLY expensive; companies that do so generally only send experienced people with tenure at the firm. As a new hire without any time in the field or any skills with the specific technologies in use there, you are highly unlikely to find a skilled position.

That said, if you want to work with the military, you might try getting a job with a large defense contractor (such as Raytheon, General Dynamics or Lockheed Martin). A search on Raytheon's website turns up several sysadmin / tech support positions in Iraq. However they all require very specific skills; with a PhD and no certs you're likely to get red-flagged as a thrillseeker.

Your most likely route to success is to focus on what skills you DO have. Look for jobs where you would unquestionably be a strong asset to the organization. Then, within that scope, look for opportunities that will take you to Iraq or Afghanistan.
posted by xthlc at 6:30 AM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

My understanding of contracting for the U.S. military in these locations is that it will unquestionably require a security clearance. As a non-citizen, you definitely aren't eligible for one. But sme of the other posters are more familiar with this than me, so if they haven't ruled it out for these reasons, perhaps there's something I'm missing.
posted by gsteff at 5:34 PM on September 5, 2009

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