Should I join the Air Force if I want to break into Diplomacy/Intel?
February 18, 2013 11:19 AM   Subscribe

I am 27 years old, and now considering whether I should join the Air Force on an intelligence track in order to improve my chances of getting a job at State, or just improving my career options in general. Is this a wise decision?

I was laid off from my job in a consultancy back in December, and have been applying for jobs without any luck so far; either my qualifications don't match up, or the details of the position don't interest me.

I have a MA in International Relations from the University of Washington, speak completely fluent Japanese, and am a beginner in Farsi. In the past, I have worked as a translator, and as a consultant where I was doing statistical analysis and report writing.

Recently, one of my friends that I met at a Stanford language program went into the air force, and I thought that he must have hit upon bad straits to have enlisted. I called him once he got out of basic, and what he described to me seemed to be a dream come true: free language training at Monterey DLI, college loan forgiveness, free living expenses, one month vacation, and $20k in hand (which is essentially the money that I would have in-pocket each year living in NYC). What he said at the end of it, though, was that he was nearly guaranteed a spot in the NSA, or in State once he got out. It sounded too good to be true.

I just took the Foreign Service Exam for the second time last week; even if I passed, I have a good chance of not passing the PNQ section again--just like last time. Would going into the Air Force give me better opportunities for a career in diplomacy or intelligence?

Thanks for your help.
posted by masterisosceles to Work & Money (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Would going into the Air Force give me better opportunities for a career in diplomacy or intelligence?

It could, yes. But I think you may find that Air Force has fewer intelligence activities going on than the Army, particularly if you're interested in the diplomatic side of things. Take a look at the list of Air Force Field Operating Agencies. The only dedicated intelligence FOA is the AFISRA, which seems mostly concerned with intelligence on foreign technical capabilities, reconnaissance, threat detection, etc. I think the only diplomatic-type stuff they do has to do with monitoring nuclear and non-proliferation treaty compliance. I could be wrong, of course, but I don't think I am.

The Army, by contrast, has a metric crapload of intelligence units, twelve of which are brigade-level. I'd bet you could put the entire Air Force intelligence operation in one or two of them. Which makes a certain amount of sense. The Army has more active-duty personnel than the Air Force does total, active and reserve, and that many more again in reserve. The Army is also far more likely to directly interact with foreign forces, friendly and hostile. You need a relationship with other people to work with them or hammer out a piece deal. You don't need a relationship with anyone to bomb the crap out of things.

So if what you really want is to do work that relates to diplomacy, I think you'll find that the Army may be a better fit. They certainly have more demand for intelligence officers in terms of sheer numbers.
posted by valkyryn at 11:38 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

What he said at the end of it, though, was that he was nearly guaranteed a spot in the NSA, or in State once he got out.

"Or" might be doing a lot of work in that sentence. The NSA is hiring LOTS of new people. So, just because he's guaranteed a spot at the NSA *OR* State might mean that he has a 90% chance of getting a spot at the NSA and a 10% chance of getting a job at State.
posted by deanc at 11:38 AM on February 18, 2013

Are you asking about officer track or enlisted track? Would you have a preference either way?

It sounds like your friend went is as an airman, which is fine, but going the OCS route might be better in the medium/long term.

Be aware that unless a recruiter gives it to you on paper, he's not giving it to you. TRUST NOTHING UNLESS IT IS ON PAPER. Your friend's experience has been great but you do not want to end up repairing bombers in Alaska or doing translations of coastal vessel radio traffic off Seattle or something, ... and that's the thing, unless it's guaranteed in writing, up front, before you get on the bus, it is NOT guaranteed.

Good luck, be smart, I'm sure someone will step in and expound with more detailed information regarding the ins/outs of what you're looking at because what I've said is really just common sense, CYA 101 when working with recruiters, even gold bar/star/whatever recruiters that are focusing on ROTC candidates.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:45 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

he was nearly guaranteed a spot in the NSA, or in State once he got out.

Beware..... Bewaarrreeeee.!
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:47 AM on February 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Yeah, "nearly" is what the recruiter told him. Does military service and an active security clearance help in NSA/DoS hiring? Yes. More than most jobs. But it ain't a guarantee, and if you go into the military as a stepping stone to something else, you'll hate it. Just look at the time involved: to get all those great benefits and schools, you'll almost certainly have to enlist for at least four years, and you will be competing with people who have eight to twelve -- possibly twenty -- years of experience when you get out.

Also, the military is going to get smaller over the next few years, which means a lot more people with more experience are going to be looking to parlay that experience.

Get a job you'll enjoy and study for the Foreign Service Exam instead.
posted by Etrigan at 11:55 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Join the Air Force is you want to join the Air Force. I wouldn't recommend that you enlist in the military just with attending the DLI the promise of a future NSA/State job in mind. What if you don't get into the DLI? Then you are in the Air Force for a few years. If you get into the DLI, you will still be in the Air Force with all of your normal duties and physical training in addition to your class time and homework. DLI graduates say it's the toughest thing they've done. The attrition rate is rather high.

Also, the government/military is looking for people who already speak languages of interest. The reason is that it takes a lot of time and money to bring someone from 0 to field-proficiency in any language. The Japanese is great (although I have been speaking it daily since you were 8, I don't call myself "completely fluent" - the DLPT will tell the DLI what to think about you) but that is not a language of interest to the government. The languages they care about are Mandarin, Arabic, Korean, and Persian/Dari/Pashto. And, don't think that you are going to be able to choose the language you want. Maybe you want to improve your Persian but guess what? They decide you are going to learn Serbo-Croatian instead. Would you be happy to study any language assigned to you?

The best case scenario would be that you get to study your dream language (let's say it's Persian) and then you get stationed in the middle of tarantulas and tumbleweeds in remote Afghanistan. Is that something you would like?

It seems like a lot of risk for something that is "nearly" guaranteed by a recruiter. As a multilingualist, I used to dream of the DLI as if it were Disneyland, so I understand where you are coming from. Just bear in mind how things will pan out if things don't go according to plan.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:00 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you'd be better served applying with one of the intel agencies directly. Both your degree and your language expertise are distinct selling points, even without prior military service. Consider State's INR, the DIA, CIA, NSA, and whatever other constituent agencies of the USIC appeal. See about taking the DLPT, as recommended above. Check out the USAJobs website and see what's available.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:50 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I did this - I'm former Air Force, I went through language training in Monterey, and then I was assigned to the NSA for the rest of my initial enlistment.

A lot has no doubt changed since then, but in my experience, I'd say that with already having a master's degree and an interest in diplomacy, you need to be thinking officer, not enlisted. I don't know how it works in general with officers, but most of those I interacted with in classes were there to learn the language as an additional skill to help with their main job.

For enlisted, how it worked was that we took the DLAB as part of the enlistment process; that's the defense language aptitude battery. If you scored high enough to qualify, you were in. (And seriously in, the recruiters had a quota/bonus for getting enough linguists.) The higher your score, the harder your language. And you didn't get to choose your language, you were assigned. I was lucky (?) enough to qualify but not do well enough to get the languages that were in demand at the time (Korean, Arabic, Chinese, I doubt that that's changed.) Instead I got a pretty easy one and knew from the first couple of weeks of language school that I'd be assigned to Fort Meade and working at the NSA, which is exactly what happened.

The downside was that I was subject to involuntary retraining because while I was in a low demand language, the field would show up on paper as being over-staffed. If I hadn't chosen to retrain into another field, I could have been tossed into another language without any say about it.

And this may have changed as well, but when I was in, you had to be active duty in the Air Force by your 28th birthday or you were out of luck, so you might want to keep that in mind.
posted by lemniskate at 2:29 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for your input, you guys. These responses have all made me consider my position more carefully--although I wasn't on the verge of signing myself over right away. It's times like these that I'm glad to be part of this community.
posted by masterisosceles at 10:03 AM on February 19, 2013

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