The US Air Force Academy: Elite Undergraduate College?

By Jeff Dyche

Life at a service academy, at least at the US Air Force Academy (AFA), is in many ways similar to life at any other college. There are classrooms, instructors, lesson plans, a dean, department heads, and a registrar’s office. There are dorms, campus food, and students who covet beer. There are also several options in which a student can choose a major, be involved in a variety of clubs, and participate in varsity or intramural sports. On the academic side, instructors typically teach three or four courses each semester, unless they are assigned to extra administrative duty, in which case the load is usually two courses. That sounds pretty typical for a selective all undergraduate school. There are also service and research expectations, though overall, service is more important than research—at least, in my experience. The majority of the faculty are Air Force officers who rotate in and out of the academy on a three to four year tour. They come from a variety of Air Force specialties, from pilots and navigators to intelligence officers and ground support. Therefore, most faculty are not career academics but are on a single tour of duty that is often considered a boondoggle to rank and file military members. These officers typically do not have a terminal degree, yet they are the most common at the academy and are burdened with the heaviest teaching loads. But the fact that most faculty are military officers and relatively undereducated is just the beginning of some of the differences I’ve found between the AFA and regular academia.

I have a somewhat unique perspective on the US Air Force Academy and academia. When I finished my PhD in 2000, instead of taking a post-doc or tenure-track job, I joined the Navy as a “research psychologist.” My first assignment was in research and development in support of American warfighters, which in my case was performing sleep and fatigue research in Navy shore-based laboratories as well as onboard submarines. However, after less than four years of active service, I was offered the chance to teach at the AFA in an officer exchange program, a program that allows members of a “sister” service to work at one of the military academies. I was to be a Navy officer in a khaki uniform teaching among a sea of Air Force blue. I jumped at the chance. I thought that in this way I could be like a regular assistant professor in academia while still pursuing my career as a military officer. Since my background is from a family of academics, and I had taught numerous courses as an adjunct at several civilian colleges, I thought I knew what to expect.

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