Out of Command SA earns career broadening PhD

  • Published
  • By Wayne Amann
  • OSI Public Affairs

Since June 2018 Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Lt. Col. Joseph Schaefer has been channeling his passion for foreign languages towards a Doctor of Philosophy Degree.

On July 29, 2022, he successfully defended his Doctoral dissertation to a trio of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) examiners from Pittsburgh, Pa., to obtain his PhD.

His initial reaction to clearing the examiners final hurdle?

“Simultaneous exuberance and exhaustion,” Schaefer said. “I couldn’t have been happier, but any strong emotions were limited by the accrued fatigue of the last year…and night prior.”

Specifically, Schaefer’s dissertation studies focused on the juncture between Language Planning and Policy, Pedagogical (teaching) approaches, and colloquial (informal, conversational) variety integration into Arabic second language programs.

As an *Out of Command SA currently assigned to the United States Air Force Academy, Schaefer is the Chief of the Strategic Languages Division in the Department of Foreign Languages. According to his biography, he’s responsible for all Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Russian language and culture education, directing 16 military and civilian instructors for the language education of more than 500 cadets annually.

A 2004 USAFA graduate, Schaefer immediately entered OSI becoming a special agent in March 2005. He successfully executed, supported, and/or managed various felony-level criminal investigations, plus counterintelligence and counterthreat operations/investigations spanning three Major Command Areas of Responsibility.

The global footprint of OSI is made possible, in large measure, by the ability of its special Agents to communicate in a myriad of foreign languages and adapt to their cultural surroundings, a skillset not lost on Schaefer.

In 2014, he learned Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., before traveling extensively in the Middle East to work directly with OSI’s law enforcement and security partners in the region.

“For four-plus years I experienced firsthand the personal and professional impact of using Arabic with native speakers,” Schaefer recalled. “I was using Arabic to further the OSI and Air Force missions, however, I frequently thought about how to improve the language training specifically for military members who need to communicate with native Arabic speakers on a frequent basis.”  

The curriculum comprising Schaefer’s PhD in Philosophy at CMU was rigorous. It included three years of a combination of PhD courses; being an instructor of record for undergraduate language courses, (he taught undergraduate Arabic courses); and research. The fourth year was exclusively focused on completing and defending his dissertation.

“In addition to those requirements, my program included yearly benchmarks: Year one: Synthesis Paper; Year two: Research Study; Year three: Dissertation Proposal; Year four or later: Dissertation Defense,” Schaefer explained.

His commitment to earn the degree made it a most gratifying experience.

“[It’s] hard to put into words – not because it was a doctorate, but because it was such a challenge to overcome,” Schaefer said. “If you include the four years in the program and the year prior when I was going through the application process for USAFA, CMU, and the other colleges, I finally felt the time and effort were well worth it.”

His academic journey was possible thanks to the partnership between the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and USAFA. The Academy advertises for active duty instructor positions, some requiring advanced degrees at civilian universities or AFIT Civilian Institutions. As a selectee, AFIT paid three years of Schaefer’s in-residence education at CMU, followed by a five year active duty service commitment at USAFA as an instructor.

Schaefer is slated to end his Out of Command status at USAFA and return to OSI in June 2026. 

“He's in a very interesting position at the Air Force Academy now and already tapping into his PhD he just earned,” said Col. James Hudson, OSI Director of Force Development. “Since it's in languages, it absolutely has a direct, positive impact on the OSI mission once he returns to us. One thing we watch carefully is the return on investment. Clearly, it's a great deal for members professionally and personally, but we do calculate the benefit for OSI and the Air Force. In Lt. Col. Schaefer's situation, and considering his background, we can certainly see him returning to us and leveraging his in-depth studies and teaching experience in many OSI missions sets.”

*Editor’s Note: In this instance, Out of Command means SA Schaefer is filling a non-special agent officer billet, performing duties not directly related to the OSI mission. His main Air Force Specialty Code (71S) is on his record, but he’s temporarily in an (81T0) AFSC designating training or instructor duty. OSI still tracks his career based on his permanent 71S designation, but while he’s in his current position, he does not report through OSI’s chain of command.