Demystified: Submarine Officer at United States Navy

Written by Imran Yusuf | Demystified | Tuesday 30th July 2013 01:49:00 GMT

Brent Powers went from studying mechanical engineering to supervising a team operating a $2 billion dollar submarine with over 130 people on board while the captain slept.

The Navy helped Brent Powers become a 'well-rounded' engineer.

The Navy helped Brent Powers become a 'well-rounded' engineer.

You studied Mechanical Engineering at Duke University. How was that experience? And did you know even at college that you would join the Navy?
Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering emphasizes multidisciplinary approaches to engineering. I took a solid core of mechanical engineering classes, but I also had some exposure to electrical engineering and materials science which were both helpful for my time in the Navy. Duke prides itself on having an international focus, so I was able to study abroad for a semester in London while picking up rugby and traveling to eight countries in four months. All of this was paid for by the Navy as I was attending school on a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship. It funded my tuition and gave me some book money and a stipend, while also preparing me to begin a career as a naval officer. So yes, I knew that I was going to go into the Navy after graduating. I didn’t look at other career opportunities for engineers too much while I was in school, but I did focus on better preparing myself for my naval service. For example I took an elective in my senior year on the theory of rockets and turbines with Dr. Jon Protz which was great for someone interested in naval equipment. 
Please tell us about your career route from entering the navy till now - and the role being an engineer played in that.
After graduating from Duke, I spent my first 22 months in the Navy in training of one form or another. I began at the Navy’s Diving and Salvage Training Center and qualified as a Navy SCUBA diver, then spent a year in nuclear training and three months in submarine school. I moved to Guam in March of 2008 and served three years as a division officer aboard USS Houston, a fast-attack submarine. I then worked a staff job for 16 months in Bahrain before arriving in Washington, D.C. for my current assignment.
I found the submarine training pipeline for officers to be very challenging, but having a strong mechanical engineering background definitely prepared me well. The nuclear training is divided into two parts, “nuke school” and “prototype.” Nuke school takes place in a traditional classroom setting and is the academic half. I got a very fast paced course in the core subjects of naval nuclear propulsion. We started off with the basic subjects such as calculus, physics, and chemistry (which were essentially refreshers) before moving on to more specific engineering subjects such as thermodynamics, fluids, electrical engineering, and reactor theory, among others. After nuke school, I applied the theoretical knowledge I had just acquired in hands-on training with an actual prototype nuclear reactor. Instead of being in a classroom, I spent hours learning about the engineering plant by tracing piping systems hand-over-hand, standing training watches, and performing various engineering procedures. I had the chance to actually operate the reactor, but had a staff of instructors there to make sure everything was done correctly.
I served just over three years on USS Houston and worked as the electrical officer, damage control assistant, and communications officer, among other things. All of those jobs were very technical, but not necessarily related to my academic background. Thankfully, the Navy had given me enough training to understand and oversee areas I might not have been otherwise familiar with, such as the sub’s electrical distribution system, or the finer details of radios. I spent quite a few months at sea, which is what I was there to do, after all; spent five months in Hawaii while my submarine was in drydock for periodic maintenance; and got the chance to visit some great places in the Pacific such as Japan, Saipan, Malaysia, and Korea. 
How much time do you spend on (or is it in) submarines?
That’s a good question, and the answer, of course, is “It depends.” Sometimes we’d go out for a few days at a time to do local training or avoid a typhoon, and other times we’d be gone from home for a few months at a go. Usually those months would be broken up with one or more port visits, but I think the longest time I spent away from a port was just over 50 days, which isn’t all that long compared to what some of my peers have done.
What would you say are the great advantages to a naval (or generally army) career for an engineer?
The Navy definitely values people with strong technical backgrounds, and engineers would find their skills both in demand and useful. Naval service has allowed me to become a lot more well-rounded than I might have been otherwise as a traditional engineer. 
Gaining leadership experience by leading teams of sailors is just another part of the job for a naval officer, whether you’re leading sailors who are fixing a turbine generator or briefing the captain on how you’re going to get the ship out of port. It’s all a team effort, but you’re the one who has to make it happen. You also have a lot of responsibility early on in your career. Supervising the team operating a $2 billion dollar submarine with over 130 people on board while the captain is asleep is probably one of the most satisfying things I’ve done.
I’ve had the chance to do a lot of exciting things you just can’t get in the civilian world – not too many companies launch torpedoes or navigate across the ocean underwater, after all. I’ve been to over 30 countries during my time in the Navy, both for work and for play, which I don’t think I would have done if I’d gone into a more traditional engineering field. 
Are there any drawbacks?
Drawbacks are in the eye of the beholder. The tight quarters of a submerged submarine made for some interesting challenges, but I also made many close friendships because of those shared experiences. Not a lot of people enjoy public speaking and it seems like you’re always talking in front of groups as an officer. But you learn how to do it well and get very comfortable with it, too. Being away from friends and family for long stretches of time can be hard, but it’s worth it when you’re cruising the globe and doing important things for your country. 
Finally, any tips for young engineers thinking about their career options?
Probably the best advice I can give is to keep an open mind and explore everything you can – you never know what will appeal to you, or where you’ll find your calling. My classmates from Duke went into a wide range of career fields, some of which were not even related to engineering, but the way of thinking that engineering school teaches prepared them to succeed in anything they took on.


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