Coming full circle: Service member works on doctoral degree to teach

Miranda Buckheit
June 25, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Robert Newton, an industrial engineering doctoral candidate and a current United States Air Force officer, has known the military his entire life: growing up in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, he was surrounded by military personnel.

“I didn’t know what I really wanted to do for my career,” Newton said. “People told me to be an engineer because I was good at math, and one of my best friends wanted to go to West Point, the United States Military Academy. I was also interested in the United States Air Force Academy, so I applied to both. Ultimately, I thought that the Air Force Academy made the most sense for me.”

An airforce service member smiles for his headshot photo.

Robert Newton began his studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2002. He is now pursuing a doctorate at Penn State to become a faculty member at the academy. 

IMAGE: Robert Newton

Newton received a bachelor of science in systems engineering with an emphasis in astronautics from the academy in 2006, which was the first class to have the major offered in systems engineering. Some of his notable experiences included building a rocket, learning to snowboard in Colorado, jumping out of planes and going overseas. 

After graduating, Newton served as an instructor electronic warfare officer for Air Force Special Operations Command, an experimental test combat systems officer for Air Force Material Command and as more recently as a staff officer for the U.S. Special Operations Command Central. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in March this year. 

Since earning his undergraduate degree, Newton also received a master of science in flight test engineering from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and a master of science in operations management and supervision from the University of Arkansas. Additionally, he holds certificates in global security from Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and joint and combined warfighting from National Defense University. 

Throughout his postgraduate career, Newton felt a pull to return to his undergraduate institution, he said. The faculty made a profound impact on him during his time there, and he wanted to mentor students in the same way. In order to teach at the academy, he had to earn his doctorate degree.

Newton was accepted into the academy’s faculty pipeline program, meaning that the Air Force will fund Newton time away to receive his doctorate; however, he must complete his studies in three years. 

Newton looked to Penn State and the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME) for its operations, services and analytics research program. 

“I chose Penn State because when I came to the open house in 2020, I felt that there was a community here that would support me to get my work done in the constraints that I have,” Newton said. “Even as the world shut down, I still have people in my corner, and I love how welcome I feel here.” 

He said that the support from the department, college and University are critical in his studies. Notably, he explained that he is appreciative of how Penn State and Robert Voigt, professor of industrial engineering and graduate program coordinator, were willing to work with his constraints.

Starting remote 

Newton began his industrial engineering studies at the beginning of fall 2020, in which he and his family moved from their home in Tampa, Florida.

“My three-year-old was telling someone that my school was upstairs,” Newton said, explaining his son William’s confusion over remote learning and attending class from their house. 

Due to the pandemic, his Penn State experience isn’t what he expected, but he likes that he is able to get his three children to sleep and have both his meetings and working hours after they are tucked in bed.

Attending school from home hasn’t diminished the experience of his industrial engineering education, according to Newton.

“I am blown away by how the faculty have both pivoted and innovated,” Newton said. “They are making a challenging situation successful.”

In particular, Newton observed that the faculty are still as available to students as they would be via in-person instruction. Similarly, Newton aspires to be present and welcoming for his potential future students.

While Newton hasn’t selected his particular research scope yet, he has found a community with IME faculty members and other graduate students.

Newton said that despite the limitations of in-person interactions, there is a group of 10 graduate students that he met in February of 2020 who still stay in touch online. 

“It’s been really hard to meet people, but we’re trying to make it work,” Newton said.

Looking ahead 

After completion of his program, Newton aims to teach in the academy’s operations research program in the math department.

“I want to give back to my alma mater and help educate the future Air Force officers,” Newton said. “Some of my strongest, most impactful relationships are with faculty members.”

Newton also aspires to serve as a cadet sponsor post-graduation. Sponsors serve as mentors to new Air Force members and provide a safe place for open conversations and help during what can be a difficult transition into service.

“If you are interested in learning more, you should learn more,” Newton said. “Make sure you have a purpose behind your decision because the degree itself can’t be the end-state, it has to be a tool for the end-state. Enrichment can be an end-state.”

Editor's note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

The student spotlight series by the Penn State Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME) aims to highlight innovators, makers and those who personify engineering excellence in their academic studies. The department currently has 90 doctoral students, 59 master’s students and 436 undergraduate students. In addition, the department hosts 42 full-time and courtesy faculty members. Established in 1908, the department is home to the first industrial engineering program in the world and has made a name for itself in the engineering industry through its storied tradition of unparalleled excellence and innovation in research, education and outreach. To learn more about IME and how you can get involved, visit ime.psu.edu

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Last Updated June 25, 2021