Education and experience go together, and for some careers, an advanced degree is required. Many veterans decide they need a master's degree for their post-military career path, and some active-duty service members find having a postgraduate degree helps their career advancement. A master's degree can forge new connections in a professional network and add industry or career-specific knowledge.
Continuing your education beyond a bachelor's degree is a big decision, and the options for degree programs and academic institutions can be overwhelming. There are many resources available to help you figure out a plan that fits your current lifestyle, employment status and goals.
Here's some tips from James Meadows, a veteran and director of graduate programs at Webster University.
1. Backward planning
Start by thinking about your end goal. What would you like to do after you secure your advanced degree? Is there a specific job or career transition you are trying to make? How can a master's degree help you get there?
Also, consider the demands going back to school will place on your life. What does your current work-life balance look like? Can you take a full course load or one class at a time? Talk to your support system about your goals and determine a good path for you all.
2. Decide on a degree
When you have your goals and career path, you can narrow down the list of academic programs. Look at your strengths, interests and experiences to determine the skills and training you need to accomplish your goal. What knowledge or skill gaps do you have that an advanced degree can help you master? You may use a degree program to jump into a new field.
Consider looking at the career paths of people who have the desired job or degree already. For example, do you need an MBA for your targeted position or a more specific degree, such as a master of science in cybersecurity?
3. Evaluate your options
Continue to narrow down your options by looking at schools that have the degree program you're interested in. You want an institution that provides a good value. If you're looking to use your GI Bill, make sure you also consider any out-of-pocket costs. Schools may also offer additional military discounts on tuition.
Many schools have programs specifically for veterans, but they are not all the same. If you're on active duty, you may need a school that has multiple locations and flexible online courses. If you're paying out of pocket, the Yellow Ribbon program or additional scholarships will be a priority. A school with a veteran's support group or peer programs is helpful to those transitioning from active duty.
Another thing to look for is a vocational rehabilitation counselor (VRC) on campus. This VRC works for the VetSuccess on Campus program, helping veterans transition to college life. More than 100 schools have a VRC on campus.
4. Organize your paperwork
The next step is to gather your military training certificates and paperwork so that you can convert these into college credits. The American Council on Education (ACE) provides guidelines for the conversion of military training into college credits, but the final determination is made by the college or university. This is another reason that choosing a school that has experience with military-affiliated students is helpful, as some schools may be able to give more credit than what ACE recommends, according to Meadows.
5. Submit your application
When you've made the final decision on what degree to pursue at the institution you've selected, it's time to finalize and submit your application for admission. Meadows suggests reaching out to an admissions counselor for help with this process. He adds that a helpful admissions counselor who demonstrates an understanding of the specialized needs of military students and families is a sign that the institution takes this seriously and is willing to help veteran students achieve success in their studies beyond acceptance into a program.
Remember, application and acceptance into your chosen program are just the first of several steps toward your goal. Leveraging your military experience -- along with military networks and benefits -- can help guide you through this process.
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