Thursday, October 1, 2009

Blog XXVII (27): The History Ph.D. in the Military School System

The first guest entry in this blog to focus on non-traditional jobs for the history Ph.D. comes courtesy of Dr. S. Mike Pavelec, who now teaches full-time at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, which is part of the Air University complex at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Pavelec moved to Alabama after teaching for two years at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, which followed three years of teaching at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, Hawaii. He earned a BA and MA from the University of Calgary. He received his doctorate from Ohio State University in military history and is the author of The Jet Race and the Second World War (2007), as well as other works on military hardware and the military-industrial complex. His research focuses specifically on aviation and airpower. Prior to becoming a historian, he played professional football for the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League, and then the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. He also did some acting, playing the villain in the film Billy Lone Bear (1996). Here is his guest blog:

In this entry I hope to shed some light on teaching
opportunities outside the traditional civilian academies. Following my PhD work at Ohio State, I was invited to teach at Hawaii Pacific University (HPU), which has a thriving military history program and a Masters in Diplomacy and Military Studies. I taught undergrads and graduate students in a civilian setting as one of the three military history professors at HPU. In other blog entries, you will read about civilian institutions, and the benefits and drawbacks of those programs. I will attempt to shed some light on government teaching positions.

I was fortunate while at HPU to also teach a graduate-level class for the Naval War College (NWC) at Pearl Harbor Naval Station, as part of the military’s Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) program. The JPME system is an important aspect of the modern U.S. military, and offers amazing opportunities for extra work and supplemental income. As well, it is a fantastic networking tool to meet fellow academics, and academically-minded military officers, in the system. When I moved from Hawaii to Chicago, the head of the department at the NWC tapped me to fill a vacant position as a one-year visiting faculty at the NWC. I went to Newport, and ended up teaching there for two years. The faculty at Newport was wonderful, and I made new friends and professional colleagues. I have since moved to Maxwell AFB to teach for the Air Force, in the School for Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS).

As with any job, there are benefits and drawbacks to teaching in the government system. First, the benefits. Teaching military history, strategic studies, and international relations is wonderful, and I still enjoy teaching to my strengths. Further, the two institutions I have been a part of are full of other professors who also teach these topics, so there is a constant stream of intellectual discourse on military matters past and current. There is no lack of colleagues who are willing to debate, argue, and even read chapters of current research. There are differences of opinion, but for the most part it is wonderful to be able to go into work and discuss the latest issues and debate past military strategy with other academics. Another bonus is that there is an added layer of organization that makes department meetings less onerous and a structure that keeps minutia from becoming an issue. However, as shown below, this can also be a drawback. Other added bonuses include government contracts and money, ample conference and research funding (in most government positions), and – after security checks – access to information and people. As well, the students tend to be top-notch. I have had excellent students from all the services as well as foreign nationals, who are generally interested in the American military experience, and are eager to work and complete tasks set before them. There can be grumbling about reading loads and time constraints (the students are typically on set schedules for completion), but these issues are not uncommon to graduate students in any setting. Finally, I consider it a privilege to be able to educate officers who will actually go out into the world and use the critical analytical skills and information that I have taught them and apply them to real-world situations at the Pentagon or in Iraq or Afghanistan. To know that I am making an actual difference in the world is especially rewarding.

That said, there are also ways that government teaching can be seen as confining for an academic. The structure mentioned above means that there is less freedom of action within the department. The organizational structure may become more constraining. Some departments require more ‘face time’ from the academics; actually being in the office even when not teaching. So for summer research, you can’t simply walk away for months on end; you have to get permission, take official leave and/or travel time, and submit itineraries. It varies across the JPME world, but officially it is more like a regular 9-5 job. In my own experience, whenever I have been researching or writing it has not been an issue, but be forewarned that there is an added layer of structure and organization. Further, as with any government position, there is the burden of paperwork: constant training and updates, travel paperwork, and endless forms to fill out (especially when in- or out-processing). As long as you are aware of the ‘official’ side of the job, it should not come as any surprise. Most important, for a civilian academic, is that you may not teach as much of what you want, but instead teach what is required. At the NWC, I taught the standard Strategy and Policy course (with a military co-instructor), although there was opportunity to teach electives. Here at SAASS, I teach in the standardized curriculum. Fortunately it includes two classes I would have wanted to teach anyway: “The History of Airpower” and “Technology and Innovation.” I will expand my course load in the years to come with other favorites, but be forewarned that you will teach what is asked rather than ‘what do you want to offer’ as in a civilian setting. Of course, there will be no more “World Civ” or “Medieval Studies,” but I am happy with the curriculum in the first place. As with the rest of the military, the day begins early, but you get used to that pretty quickly. And there are lots of opportunities for activity; your military colleagues and students are expected to maintain fitness regimens. Personally I have found it wonderful to get out of the office for a run or a round of golf on a regular basis, although I am still getting used to the Alabama heat!

Overall, my government teaching experiences have been amazing. In my opinion, I have found that the benefits far outweigh the detriments, but will still mention the subtle complexities for your consideration. The curricula tend to be broad; specialists have to really stretch to cover all of the bases within the concept of Strategic Studies. While I am a World War II specialist, I have had to expand my own thinking to include many eras of military history and strategic thinking, from ancient times (including the dreaded Landmark Thucidides) to the present and counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. However, it has made me a better academic. Finally, the structure issue can be a drawback, but excellent colleagues and government funds translate into a stimulating atmosphere for an academic.

Finally, there are a number of JPME institutions, which experience constant turnover and expanded programs (read: job opportunities). From the Army’s West Point (undergrads – Highland Falls, New York), War College (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) and CGSC (Command and General Staff College – Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas) to the Navy’s Annapolis (undergrads – Annapolis, Maryland), U.S. Naval War College, and NPS (Naval Post Graduate School – Monterrey, California) to the Air Force’s Academy (Colorado), Air University (Alabama), Marine Corps University (Quantico, Virginia), as well as the National Defense University (NDU – Washington, DC) and others. Watch the boards at for updates on postings.

A final consideration: Some may argue that once in the system it is difficult to return to ‘normal’ civilian institutions. I have heard this before from mentors as well as colleagues; I have not known enough who have tried to make the change to offer an opinion. As of now, I intend to stay, so it is a non-starter for me. However, if you are a military historian (strategic analyst, international relations, etc.) it is argued that it may be difficult to break back into civilian academics after more than a few years teaching for the government. That said, in a tough job market, it is still a great job, with fantastic colleagues and above-average students, with very good pay. I am convinced I made the correct decision, and am fortunate to have a wonderful teaching career with the U.S. government.


  1. This is very useful information for up-and-coming members of our profession. It is important for Grad students to see that there are many roads to a satisfying career. Thanks for posting this!
    Louis Kyriakoudes

  2. This blog has very useful information for anyone considering a career in PME. Let me just say a few words about moving from PME back to civilian academia as someone who has actually done this. I moved from the Air Command and Staff College (Maxwell AFB, Alabama) to the University of Texas at El Paso just over a year ago.

    I think there can be some heavy professional hurdles in terms of getting back into a civilian university environment after working in PME. This problem can be particularly acute if you start your academic career in PME. The primary challenge is maintaining an active research agenda in the sometimes frenetic pace of PME, especially if your aim is to move on to a research institution. The other is developing a broad teaching portfolio of your own individual courses that includes some research supervision, again with a research institution in mind. The team taught seminar-style courses in PME do not always translate well into a civilian environment when it comes to course development and lecture experience. PME course evaluations can also be problematic translating into the civilian world. These issues are critical in terms of the tenure process in which the civilian university will want to see some rough equivalency.

    Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, there can be a significant political bias against PME experience at some civilian universities, especially those with little appreciation or academic program experience in fields like military history and/or strategic and security studies. I think there is a very unfortunate, knee-jerk reaction at some civilian universities against what they consider “guns and bullet” types. Some civilian universities have no idea how broad intellectually PME can be. I think this attitude is generally a reflection of the larger schism between the military and our society today.

    My impression is that a civilian university will definitely hire a PME academician, if that individual has a professional background akin to a scholar in a civilian environment and a narrow academic specialization that the institution really desires or needs. Although it is not terribly common, it is still quite possible to move from PME back into civilian academics.

  3. Larry Valero offers some useful and thoughtful commentary. His observations take note of the fine details required to move from one of these worlds to the other and I would encourage people to keep these issues in mind if they consider a job at a PME school. It should be very possible for an individual to move from the Professional Military Educational system to a civilian academic insititution, if they so desire. As long as they stay productive, it should not be too difficult.