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Pros and cons of graduate school from a veteran's perspective

February 22, 2016 (Photo Credit: Ann Dean/University of Kansas)

There are days when Francis Genco doesn’t feel like hitting the books.

As an Air Force 1st Lt. at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, he spends a full day managing logistics for regional radar sites before hunkering down to his studies as an MBA student with Western Governors University. But he figures it will be worth the extra effort. “People have always taught me that if there is an opportunity to better yourself, you should do it,” he said.

While career enhancement may top the list of reasons to look at graduate-level education, it’s not the only reason. Nor is grad school the right choice for everyone. On the road to civilian success, there are pros and cons to any path.

PRO: Think bigger

Military people can think on their feet, but they don’t always think broadly, said James Whitworth, associate dean of the School of Education and Social Services at St. Leo University in Florida and also a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.

Service members “are used to dichotomous thinking: There is always a right way and always a wrong way," Whitworth said. "In reality, it is often about being comfortable about working in the gray, and they don’t always have that."

In graduate school, students are encouraged to look at problems from multiple points of view. “You get exposure to different opinions, people who have diverse viewpoints, and success means being willing to respect those opinions, to incorporate that other thinking before you make a decision,” he said.

CON: No career advancement?

The big sell on grad school is that it will advance your career, pushing you to new heights or launching you in a new direction. The opposite also is true.

“Don’t go to grad school if you are in a career or field that doesn’t require a graduate degree for advancement,” said Craig R. Smith, director of veteran affairs at Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, where about 16 percent of grad students have some military affiliation.

Likewise, if you are passionate about what you do, but will never need an advanced degree to do it, the time and effort required to succeed in grad school may not be well spent.

PRO: Realign your skills

When Charles Young left the Army after 22 years, he knew he was management material, but he needed a new way to spin his skills in order to make the leap to civilian life. “It’s not so much replacing a skill set as it is augmenting a skill you already have,” said Young, who is director of Military Recruitment at Post University.

He did this by pursuing an MBA in corporate innovation. “I needed a new and different way of thinking that would allow me to approach problems from a new and different angle,” he said. For troops and their future employers, “grad school is a way to prove that you can not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.”

CON: It takes a toll

While grad school need not be a full-time choice, it will certainly take up significant time and attention, especially for those trying to balance their studies with an ongoing career. Don’t try grad school if time with the books will be overwhelming. “You want to be able to dedicate as much of your attention, energy and time as possible toward earning your degree and enjoying and making the most of your grad school experience,” according to Idealist.com, a job site for those seeking social action careers.

Time is not the only consideration: Money also matters. Even if military benefits are picking up the cost of an education, a veteran still may come out behind on the financial curve if grad school requires dropping from full- to part-time work. For many trying to balance job, school and home obligations, this shift will be a necessity. Lost wages today may be offset by future earnings, but if you can’t spare the dough, grad school may be a no-go.

PRO: Intellectual interest

CWO2 Daryl Lynch left active duty in 1995 but continues to fly UH-60s for the New Jersey Army National Guard. By day he’s a state trooper. At home he’s working toward a doctorate in homeland security — including civil security, leadership, management and policy — from Thomas Edison State College.

He’s pursuing the degree partly in order to round out his credentials. “When I got out of active duty, I was a flight medic. I was pigeonholed to medical things, so I knew that without schooling, there was nothing else I would be able to do,” he said.

More importantly, though, Lynch is pursuing homeland security out of a genuine passion for the field. “I could have gone on to get a doctorate in liberal studies, but I was really interested in homeland security,” he said. “It piqued my interest. It’s a new field, there will be a lot of information coming out in the next 15 years, and being on the forefront of that is just exciting for me,” he said.

Academic studies are foremost an exercise in intellectual curiosity. Considering the effort it takes to pursue an advanced degree, genuine interest in the subject matter is required.

CON: Short-term thinking

Suppose you’re looking to grad school in order to gain a career boost. That’s all well and good: Very often a master’s degree will give today’s professional the boost needed to climb another rung. But that is just one rung. Will the same degree be valuable further down the line?

“Don’t just consider your current position in this scheme, unless that is where you envision staying,” Smith said. “Think about five or 10 years down the road. What do you see yourself doing?”

This takes some strategic thinking. It’s easy to look ahead at the next move, the next credential, but the long-term plan may call for something different. It makes sense to look at the long-term advantages, or lack thereof, before signing on for the rigors of grad school.

PRO: A peer group

Not everyone at work will share your depth of interest in a particular subject. Grad school offers a community of like-minded individuals, many of whom may be willing to share their ideas and even swap career tips.

“When you are put together online or in an actual room, you learn at least as much from one another as you do from the professors,” said Doug Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, where about a third of the students are veterans. “Those connections last. We have graduates who finished 10 years ago, and they still get together once a month.”

Often, the intellectual openness of academia makes it possible for these grad-school pals to talk more freely than they might around the water cooler. “There is a bond of safety, where they can talk openly about anything among themselves,” he said.

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