Hokies Helping Hokies: The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory
Author’s Note: The original version of this article was originally published two years ago in our February 2020 issue. Since its publication, I know of at least three of my fellow Hokies who have used it to obtain fruitful engineering internships at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Having interned at the NRL myself for the last three years, I am thrilled to announce I will be starting work there as a full-time engineer this summer once I am graduated. NRL is an exciting, cuttingedge, rewarding place for young engineers to start their careers, earn fully-funded undergraduate and graduate degrees, and serve their country. This version of my NRL article is updated to reflect my latest experiences with the NRL and provides the latest recruiting information.
For the last three years, I have had the opportunity to intern at The U.S. Naval Research
Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. It opened in 1923 at the request of Thomas Edison,
and it is the United States Navy’s premier research institution. The NRL is responsible
for the invention of Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR), the first American satellite
program (Project Vanguard), and Onion Routing, the anonymous, Deep Web communication technique behind Tor. Additionally, the NRL’s Plasma Physics Group holds the world record for “most energetic rail gun projectile” at 33 megajoules, or enough energy to launch a 23lb bullet at Mach 8. I saw this rail gun last summer; it’s a beast.
All accomplishments aside, the NRL is well-positioned to continue its nearly century-long
legacy of providing advanced scientific capabilities necessary to fortify our country’s Naval superiority. This is due in part to our world-class research facilities and state-of-the-art equipment. For example, our Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR) houses four unique high bay environments, including the 150’ x 75’ x 30’ high Prototyping High Bay, with its motion capture system capable of tracking up to 50 objects. LASR’s Littoral High Bay features a 45’ x 25’ x 5.5’ deep pool with its own 16-channel wave generator, capable of creating directional waves. Alan Schultz, Director of Autonomous Systems Research at NRL, explains to Donna McKinney’s 2012 News Release, “The Desert High Bay contains a 40’ by 14’ area of sand 2-foot deep, and contains 18-foot high rock walls that allow testing of robots and sensors in a desert-like environment.” This laboratory, and dozens of other cutting-edge facilities, are open to all the NRL engineers and scientists performing relevant research.
This article attempts to make a persuasive case for Virginia Tech students to make the
NRL their next summer internship, or post-graduation career. The NRL sits at a convenient working location for many of Virginia Tech’s students that hail from Northern
Virginia and Maryland. For the 7000+ Hokies who call NOVA home, the NRL is just a
30-minute drive from Tyson’s Corner Center in Fairfax County. As a Washington Nationals fan, I appreciate the NRL’s sub-5-mile vicinity to Nationals Park and many of DC’s other accompanying attractions like the White House, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the National Gallery of Art. Also, we sit on the banks of the historic Potomac River. When stuck on a challenging technical problem, walking down the riverside and watching planes land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is a peaceful way to clear one’s head.
...but it also gives them two paid days off of work each week during the semester to focus on their studies - Alex Petsopoulos
Beyond location and challenging research, the NRL provides interns with incredible opportunities through its unparalleled student benefits. Our pay is competitive with the already high average for DC area engineering interns, yet where the NRL really shines is its Undergraduate Tuition Assistance Program. While not a guaranteed benefit for all interns, section managers who intend to convert their interns to full-time employees after graduation have the ability to pay for their student employees’ college tuition and educational fees in full through higher-level division funds. I am in this program and have not paid any tuition or educational fees for my last five semesters at Virginia Tech. Since the NRL is a federal government facility, employees have access to Student Loan Repayment benefits upon conversion to a full-time hire, which enables an employee’s student loans to be paid off by the NRL (up to $60,000 in loans can be paid off over 6 years).
When pursuing one’s graduate degree as a full-time employee, the NRL encourages employees to competitively apply to its Edison Memorial Graduate Training Program. This unparalleled training program not only pays for an employee’s tuition and educational fees as they pursue their graduate degree part-time, but it also gives them two paid days off of work each week during the semester to focus on their studies. A 2017 Virginia Tech Aerospace Engineering graduate, my coworker Robert Scheible, explained in a recent interview, “You won’t find this level of emphasis on education in any private company, or any other government labs for that matter. At the NRL, co-workers listen to and respect you regardless of age; good ideas are listened to and acted upon.”
How to Get a Job at NRL
As a preface, I cannot guarantee this method will work for you. However, below are the exact steps I followed in September of my freshman year that landed me my current position. Additionally, I have sent this procedure to three of my peers here at Virginia Tech. After following it, they both received internship offers within the week. The steps are as follows:
1. Craft a Competitive Resumé
I’m not going to teach you how to write a resumé here, but this is much easier than many students think. A great starting place is Virginia Tech’s Career & Professional
Development’s (CPD) website, https://career.vt.edu/ . At their Smith Career Center next to McComas hall, CPD offers drop-in resumé reviews Monday through Friday, from 11 AM to 3 PM. Just walk in with a printed-out draft of your resumé, and have it reviewed
by a professional for free.
2. Read This Packet
Yes, it’s a long URL. If it’s that painful for you to type out, here’s a short-link from our website: www.vtengineersforum.com/nrl
3. Create a Shortlist of Divisions
Pick all of them if you’d like. For me, this was as simple as finding “Aerospace Engineering” on the chart below and contacting all of the accompanying divisions.
4. Go to a Career Fair (Optional)
In my case, this was meeting my current supervisor, Donald Kahl (Virginia Tech Class of 1986), at Engineering Expo. When I spoke to him during the December of my freshman year about what he’s looking for in students at career fairs, such as our upcoming CAMEO CareerFest (February 24 - 25), Don said, “Grades matter, but the whole person matters more. I’m looking for creative students with design team experience that have done their homework on NRL. Know what we do before you come to talk to us at a career fair or reach out digitally.”
Both of my Virginia Tech coworkers did all of their networking via email and had phone interviews scheduled within the week of sending their first emails. If the NRL won’t be at an upcoming career fair, you can still take action below!
4. Email the Divisions on Your List
If you went the career fair route, mention who you talked to at the career fair in your
email. Regardless, give some background into who you are (attach your resumé), why you’re interested in working at the NRL, and what you could bring to that specific division. Make sure to send tailored emails to each division, showing that you know what their division does. An easy way to do this is to reference something from their entry in HR Recruitment Folder I’ve linked to in bullet 2b, where you can also find each division’s email address.
That’s it! Good luck to all Hokies pursuing internships and full-time jobs at this spring’s career fairs, and I hope to see many of you this summer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory!
Writer / Alexander Petsopoulos joined Engineers’ Forum as a Staff Writer in 2018 and currently serves as the
magazine’s Managing Editor. He is a member of the International Association of Professional Writers & Editors and
enjoys reading, writing, and solving problems.