In my work at Harvard and MIT, I get to meet and mentor some of today’s most impressive young people. Many are weighing a variety of career options. Regardless of their field, they invariably mention common elements that they want most from their future jobs: an opportunity to make the world a better place, do consequential work, grapple with cutting-edge technology, and help shape the course of global events.
Jobs in finance, consulting, technology, or law are appealing to many graduates, and many recent graduates find that they can apply their spirit of public service to these private-sector roles. But few, if any, of these roles satisfy the deep hunger for career purpose as well as working for government.
Many students balk at this idea, and understandably so. There are good reasons why young people today are disillusioned with our dysfunctional capital. I frequently share their disappointment. But after nearly four decades working for and in the Department of Defense (DoD), I can attest to this generation that government service, for all its frustrations, offers a deeply honorable and rewarding path to a life of consequence and meaning.
I’ve heard many a technology maven say that their stint in the Pentagon proved to be the most meaningful single assignment in their entire careers.
It’s important to distinguish between government service and politics. Most of America’s mission-critical work is practical and calls for leadership and character more than political acumen. And who shows up to do the work matters greatly. Take the DoD. All told, it employs nearly three million people. More than two million are uniformed members of the armed forces, which is one of the most common pathways to service. As I told the troops at every base and battlefront, the noblest thing a young person can do is to protect the American people and make a better world for our children. Choose this path, and you’ll have experiences you can be proud of for the rest of your life.
Wearing a uniform isn’t the only way to serve, however. Hundreds of thousands of civilians with backgrounds ranging from the natural sciences (like me, a PhD in physics) to history, management, sociology, and math are doing important work at the DoD, whether by guarding U.S. elections from Russian cyber-attacks, organizing responses to the challenge of climate change, doing research at the frontiers of artificial intelligence with an eye to China, or working with allies around the world to stymie the plans of terrorists.
In considering your first career stop, it’s smart to weigh how it will impact your future options. On that score, defense work ranks high. The DoD is not just a great place to work—it’s a great place to have worked. Over the past decade, there’s been a dramatic turnaround in the attitude of employers toward veterans. Back in 2009 when I rejoined the DoD, some employers hired vets out of a sense of obligation. By the time I was SecDef, they sought them out eagerly, having discovered that the average vet is more disciplined, mission-driven, and well-organized than many employees without service backgrounds.
In a world that faces huge social, economic, and technological problems, government is largely where the action is—the place where, if anywhere, the big problems are going to get solved.
And the cachet that comes from service doesn’t apply only to uniformed personnel. The DoD has been working to strengthen and deepen its connections to private sector industry. Today any young person seeking experience in fast-moving fields like cyber security, artificial intelligence, and the coming biotech revolution should consider a stint in the Pentagon.
Not only is the Defense Department doing leading-edge work in these fields and more, but it’s also forging links with the hottest tech firms in Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin. The Defense Digital Service, for example, enables techies to sign up for a tour of duty in the Pentagon, where they work—often in their hoodies and spiked haircuts—alongside whip-smart colonels, tackling complex challenges on behalf of the American people. And the Defense Innovation Board gives high-tech leaders like Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman a chance to talk management with the person who manages the world’s largest enterprise—the secretary of defense. I’ve heard many a technology maven say that their stint in the Pentagon proved to be the most meaningful single assignment in their entire careers.
It’s all too easy today to think of government as some abstract entity, as “them.” It’s not. It’s us; it’s who shows up. Government—whether in Washington D.C., your state capital, or local town hall—is nothing more than the way we organize to do things that need to be done but that otherwise could never get done, from building the nation’s infrastructure and educating its youth to enforcing its laws and, yes, defending its people.
In a world that faces huge social, economic, and technological problems, government is largely where the action is—the place where, if anywhere, the big problems are going to get solved. For today’s young people—a hearteningly idealistic, caring, and engaged cohort—there’s no better place to launch a career than serving in the DoD.