Military graduate students in civilian universities

In recent years, the Department of Defense has made the wise decision to allow mid-career officers increased opportunity to pursue advanced degrees at civilian universities. There have long been programs allowing officers to earn civilian graduate degrees as part of their official military duties, but these opportunities appear to be on the rise. I am a faculty member at a PhD granting institution in the social sciences, in a department with a history of enrolling uniformed students in our graduate program. I and my colleagues have several years (even decades for some) of experience educating military graduate students. As DoD considers recommendations from some circles to increase these “broadening opportunities” it is imperative that they fully consider how academic institutions work, and how graduate programs, especially PhD programs operate. It is also critical that military students seeking these broadening opportunities better understand how civilian graduate programs operate in their chosen field. Civilians are often charged with a failure to understand how the military operates. But in this case, the military also fails to account for how non-military institutions operate. If more military students want to attend civilian graduate programs, especially in the social sciences, all parties should understand what that might entail in practice. There are several challenges that face uniformed military students in civilian graduate programs, and I want to discuss three: timelines, culture, and post-degree career expectations. None of these challenges are insurmountable, but they must be understood by entering students and by graduate programs seeking to add military students to their ranks.

One of the primary challenges civilian graduate programs face when accepting military students into their ranks is the military timeline. In my own program, we have experience with military students from all branches of the armed forces and those at different stages of their career as officers. Our military students have primarily been those selected to teach at a service academy, who then attend graduate school in the area in which they will teach.  They are given either an MA or PhD “slot” based on the needs of the service, and the prior education level of the student.  These assignments dictate what degree is expected at the end as well as the time granted to earn it.  Students pursuing an MA degree have been given between 18-24 months to accomplish that task. Students expected to earn a PhD have typically been granted 3-4 years to do so. These timelines are fixed in advance by the military, and in fact, are sometimes sped up depending on the needs of the service. The military pays the full tuition and salary for these officers, and the formal “job” of the military member is to pursue their degree. This setup seems ideal, and one can imagine why a mid-career officer might see pursuing a graduate degree on these terms as highly desirable. By paying their students to attend, DoD allows them to avoid the need to be a teaching or research assistant, thereby freeing them to complete their degree faster.

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So what’s the problem? Most graduate degree programs have requirements, typically a series of sequenced courses and other scholarly activities. Even the admissions process can become problematic for students selected for military officer education programs. The military program acceptance timelines may not align with the civilian institution’s application deadlines, leaving military student hopefuls scrambling to put together applications in time for the deadlines or stuck applying to programs that allow Spring semester start dates or go by a rolling admissions process. This timeline crunch can be particularly challenging for Master’s degree programs that have specific course offerings based on a cohort system who are interested in having military students.

My own program’s PhD curriculum requires more than 2 years’ worth of coursework, assuming that students are taking 3 courses a semester. Some of these courses have prerequisites, which leads to a longer timeline for completion of course requirements. In addition, students write an independent research paper in their second year, take comprehensive examinations after courses are completed, and then propose and defend a novel piece of research through the dissertation. Taken together, this usually takes 5-7 years in total. Military students are often only given 3 years to complete the same work, 4 in some cases.

It is presumed that freeing time from the TA and RA responsibilities would seem to enable these well-paid, disciplined and smart military graduate students to work at a faster clip. Military students might take 4 rather than 3 courses in a semester to get ahead in their requirements, and they have 20 free hours a week that graduate assistants are supposed to spend doing the work that pays for their stipend. Yet in practice, required courses are usually sequenced and not offered every semester. So students can’t actually work faster than the norm unless requirements are waived or altered for military students.  This timeline issue is a bigger problem in programs that are highly structured, and less of a problem in programs that are less structured.  So, it might seem military students would be wise to choose the least structured programs to enable rapid completion.

However, unless military graduate students come with a strong foundation in the discipline they will study, or have prior research and training in that field, unstructured programs may not be ideal. Working under a significantly compressed timeline leaves little room for remedial or foundational training or even exploration of subfields of study, some of which may be needed to work under a compressed timeline. The typical civilian PhD student will have majored in the field, will have had a significant research experience in school or professionally, and is getting a PhD based on a driving interest in researching a specific research question. Uniformed military students do not always come with any prior experience in their new field of graduate study, nor do have years of advanced planning in preparation for going to graduate school. They may have been out of higher education for as many as 10 years. In this case, structured programs help orient and guide students through the discipline and provide a common foundation needed to produce original research. But these same structures that support students newer to a field present the logistical and timeline problems just described.

Another problem military students sometimes face relates to the difference in cultures between the military workplace and the civilian university setting. Cultural differences stem in part from political differences between military and civilian worlds.  Military members are supposed to remain apolitical, even if there is a bit of a right-leaning bent to the military officer corps. Civilian universities are anything but apolitical, and graduate students, especially in the social sciences and faculty lean left. There can be uncomfortable exchanges when these two worlds come together.  I have seen this first-hand in my time as a graduate student, and leading the classroom with military and civilian students.

Another cultural conflict that arises for military students is becoming accustomed to the ways of teaching and learning in graduate education.  There is a tendency for military officers to approach graduate study as “training”. The expectation to discuss, critique, deconstruct, and analyze rather than read, memorize, and repeat can be a major shock for military graduate students. When developing research projects, military students more often approach research as a means to solve an applied problem rather than as a process of building basic knowledge.  The applied-versus-basic science dilemma isn’t limited to military students to be sure, but it does shape how military students approach classes and requirements, and often takes some adjustment. Similarly, military students often need to adhere to a new expectations for writing, as writing in the military workplace is expected to be short and to the point. When political differences intersect with new norms of discussion, debate, and critique, and when military students enter graduate seminars unprepared for these critical discussions, they can feel personally challenged.  And to be fair, graduate seminars in my own discipline tend to be spaces to display one’s progressive bona fides. These are spaces where students will challenge the degrees of one’s progressiveness, rather than debating between progressive or conservative positions.  All of this can be a major culture shock for some military students.

Finally, military students in civilian graduate programs are in a unique position compared to their civilian cohort mates in that they have a job to return to when they complete their degree. Their post-graduate career paths diverge from their peers in key ways. Civilian students are preparing for careers as researchers, and the entire graduate education system is designed to prepare them to be future faculty members. Given the collapse of the academic labor market and ensuing jobs crisis in academia, we would be well-served to broaden our sense of post-graduate careers. But for all kinds of reasons graduate education has yet to fundamentally change. Military students can challenge the assumptions built into the system because they do not need to play the game required to land a coveted tenure-track job at the end. Our programs are responsive to the academic job market in that we increasingly emphasize gaining early research experience, and publishing research early and often. Military students may not need to do these things, but that puts them in the position to buck the system. They may desire different kinds of experiences that will enhance their own military careers, but unfortunately few university faculty will be in a position to advance those kinds of interests.  And the reality is that faculty typically invest more time and energy into mentoring the kinds of students who will be successful in the same kinds of careers they have.  Taken together, military students often require accommodation or adjustment of requirements to meet a tight timeline, they lack interest in or time to engage in “non-essential” activities that are normative for scholars like publishing early, they want to conduct research projects that often differ from the typical research undertaken by civilian students, and they have no interest in becoming like their mentors.  It can be a recipe for disappointment and tension on both sides. And layer on the fact that military graduate students often are married with children, are older than their peers, and have interests and responsibilities outside of the relentless pursuit of knowledge idealized by graduate programs.

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As a scholar of the military and of civilian military relations, I desperately want to see more military officers with civilian MAs and PhDs. As a faculty member at a PhD granting institution, I value the contributions of military officers to the classroom and the research process.  They diversify thought in our spaces.  But just as DoD has its own practices and culture that should be respected by outsiders, military graduate students have to understand the practices and culture of civilian universities, to include the constraints of our curriculum and requirements, when choosing to attend. I tell every uniformed student upfront that their military institutional constraints do not dictate our program requirements. I let them know upfront that our program is designed under the assumption of no fixed timeline. If they have one, the responsibility is theirs to maximize their chances of success, but they also have to understand they simply may not be able to squeeze 5 or more years of work into 3. I see great promise and potential in the growing set of voices recommending increasing military officer education at civilian institutions. But do not expect that civilian universities will dramatically change to serve military officers. If we did, we would lose the very nature of the diverse experience intended to be gained there.

My advice to individuals seeking to attend civilian graduate schools?

  • Research programs earlier than you think. Understand their requirements, their deadlines, make contact with the department, and envision what it would actually look like on the ground if you were to attend.
  • Most schools, and the top schools especially, have one admissions period. This timing may not align with the timing of your notification from your service whether you’ve been authorized to attend. Consider applying anyway, before you know officially if you can attend.  This may incur out-of-pocket application costs, but it will mean you don’t miss deadlines.
  • Do all you can to learn about the culture of graduate school. Read books, blogs, and talk to military and civilian peers who have attended to set realistic expectations. My husband will tell you he envisioned taking only 3 courses a semester in one of the top public policy schools in the country would leave him A LOT of time for golf. Instead he spent many nights and weekends hashing through economics problem sets.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that your military salary will likely pay you around 4 times more than your fellow students will be earning with a stipend. Don’t expect your peers can afford your lifestyle.
  • understand you will not have a 9-5 work schedule, and plan to live close enough to be able to easily get to campus.  Digital technology has made it easier to work at home, but you should be looking to absorb knowledge from others.  Attend lectures from visitors on topics outside your interest.  Plan to be an active presence on campus and to interact with as many people as you can.
  • Recognize you will be a public face for the military even when the uniform isn’t on. You will be an ambassador for your service. You may confront students who understand little to nothing about what you do, and may express negative views about the military. Do not take it personally, and show with your actions something to change their mind, rather than reinforce stereotypes. They may or may not tell you, but they are impressed by what you are doing. Live up to it!
  • If you are pursuing a PhD in a short time, I always advise  students to consider how they can gain access to the data and materials needed for their research before coming.  You will likely need to do some groundwork before coming to the program to set yourself up for success. Draw on all networks, and start early. Come ready to hit the ground running.
  • Be open to doing research that IS NOT on the military.  If you review our FAQs you’ll see it is challenging to conduct research on the military, even from inside. You will always produce better research when you build on the expertise of the faculty in your program. If there are no or few military experts in your program, you’ll have less support for your work.
  • Finally, be open to “broadening”! Recognize that you will need to be open to new ideas and experiences, and grow from them, even if they chafe a little.
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4 comments

  1. I would add another cultural conflict: academics argue and critique one another in the public arena and then share a drink and meal in private; the military argues privately, and never or rarely question one another in the public arena. Officers in graduate school need to adapt to the situation and develop cultural competence to be successful in both.

    1. Nice point Morten and a good reminder to me to be sensitive to that!

  2. Excellent Advice! As a faculty member who has also taught active duty military in grad programs, I would second every bit of it.

    1. Thanks Matt-good to know this applies to other disciplines. I gather there may be differences in STEM fields, but my sense is these broadening opportunities will lead to increases in social science and humanities graduate enrollments as much or more than STEM.

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