Best Degrees for Special Forces

Updated: January 10, 2021
In this Article

    While physical fitness, determination, and toughness are important traits, special forces members are ultimately problem solvers – albeit high-stress problems. As such, these troops need to understand how to think critically to solve problems. Formal education can help teach these skills, and we’ll use this article to cover the best degrees for special forces.

    Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:

    • Special Forces Overview
    • Degree Situation 1: Want to Join the Special Forces
    • Degree Situation 2: Currently an Operator
    • Degree Situation 3: Special Forces Veteran Transitioning to a Civilian Job
    • Final Thoughts

    Special Forces Overview

    Every country’s military has its own version of special forces. And, while specifics may vary, these troops all are trained and equipped to perform special operations. According to NATO, these operations include: “military activities conducted by specially designated, organized, trained and equipped forces using distinct techniques and modes of employment.”

    Put simply, special forces troops receive high levels of training to accomplish the missions that conventional military units cannot. They are expected to operate independently and solve problems, whatever those problems entail. And, as independent operators, critical thinking is absolutely paramount. When operating without any immediate support, special forces need to be able to quickly and calmly assess a problem, determine the best course of action, and execute that action.

    Within the US military, special forces fall under the umbrella of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Each branch of the military has its own SOCOM elements (e.g. Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, etc.). Specific pipelines differ among services, but these forces all must complete extremely grueling training programs to be able to successfully execute their assigned special operations missions. And, while this training directly prepares special forces to do their jobs, formal education can provide indirect training to more thoroughly prepare these operators.

    However, it’s important to note that, within the formal education world, no best degree exists for special forces. In other words, there’s not a single degree that, if completed, will make you a successful operator. Rather, these troops need to look at their specific situations to determine the best degree path. As a result, we’ll use the following sections to review three different formal education situations relevant to special forces – and the best degrees for each of those situations.

    Degree Situation 1: Want to Join the Special Forces

    This first scenario applies to high school and college students who want to become special forces operators. For these individuals, the question is, what’s the best degree for special forces?

    As stated above, this is somewhat of a trick question, as there isn’t a single best degree. Instead, these individuals need to take a step back and consider what makes an individual an intellectually successful operator. Answer: operators need to be able to be able to think critically, that is, analyze problems, develop solutions, and clearly communicate those solutions.

    In other words, the actual content of a degree isn’t particularly relevant to these individuals. Rather, how a particular degree teaches them to think is what truly matters here. Looking at the situation from this lens, any degree that requires the following academic approach will work:

    • Analyze information
    • Use that information to solve a problem
    • Effectively communicate that solution

    As an English major, you can apply this approach to analyzing a poem, determining its meaning, and writing an essay explaining that meaning. As an engineering major, you can take a problem set, analyze it to determine the most appropriate solution, and brief a team of engineers that solution. As a history major, you can read Abraham Lincoln’s personal writings, analyze how his personal thoughts paralleled his public speeches, and write a research paper explaining your findings.

    Bottom line, it’s not about the subject itself. With a college degree, future special forces operators need to focus on how that degree teaches them to think. They need to focus on learning the critical thinking skills of A) analyzing information, B) using that information to solve a problem, and C) clearly communicating that solution to others. While the context and stakes will certainly differ, these are the same steps you’ll need to take in analyzing and executing a mission.

    Degree Situation 2: Currently an Operator

    This next scenario pertains to current operators who have the opportunity to attend school. For these individuals, what degree makes the most sense? To answer this question, you need to ask another question. Namely, what degree most directly supports your current needs as an operator?

    While geopolitical realities can always change the status quo, many special forces units currently align their missions with a particular geographic area. For example, each of the Army’s Special Forces Groups has a specific regional focus. Additionally, each Geographic Combatant Command (e.g. CENTCOM, EUCOM, etc.) has its own theater-specific special operations command (e.g. SOCCENT, SOCEUR, etc.).

    Recognizing this regional focus, an operator may consider a degree focused on a particular area’s language and/or culture. For example, if transferring into a special forces unit focused on post-Soviet countries, you may consider degrees in Russian and Eurasian studies or Russian-language studies. Both of these degrees would augment your special forces training to provide additional tools for completing missions in a particular geographic area. In a related vein, many special forces focus on foreign internal defense, or FID, which entails a multidisciplinary approach to combating insurgencies. Economic development is a key pillar of successful FID. Accordingly, a development-focused degree could also assist an operator.

    No cookie-cutter solution exists to the problems you’ll face as a special forces operator. Similarly, no standard solution exists to what degree you should pursue while serving as an operator. You need to assess your unique situation, determine what degree best supports your operational needs, and complete that degree.

    Degree Situation 3: Special Forces Veteran Transitioning to a Civilian Job

    What does a special forces operator do after the military? Same thing every other veteran does – goes out and finds a job. While somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the point here is that special forces veterans also need to consider the best degrees to support their transition into civilian jobs.

    Once again, no “silver bullet” degree exists. There simply isn’t a best degree for finding a civilian job following your special forces service. Rather, veterans in this situation need to first ask themselves, what sort of civilian job am I seeking? The answer to this question will determine the best degree for your situation. For example, if you’d like to find a job as an accountant, completing a bachelor’s degree in English wouldn’t make much sense – you’d study accounting. Or, if you wanted to pursue a field in medicine, you’d choose a degree that provides all of the prerequisites for applying to medical school.

    In military planning, we begin with our desired “end state” and then work backwards to develop a course of action. In transitioning to the civilian world, special forces operators should take the same approach. First, ask what job or career you’d like to pursue – your “civilian end state.” Next, determine what degree will best combine with your military service to set you up for success in that civilian path.

    Final Thoughts

    At the end of the day, asking about the best degree for special forces oversimplifies the problem. Too many factors go into selecting a degree to concretely argue for a single, best one. Depending on where you are in your special forces career, you’ll need to assess the situation, make a decision, and execute that decision. You’ll need to solve a problem – no different from what you’ll do every day as an operator.

    About The AuthorMaurice “Chipp” Naylon spent nine years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He is currently a licensed CPA specializing in real estate development and accounting.

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