Many military officers decide to pursue a master’s degree during or after their service. However, no shortage of possible paths exists, so what’s the best degree choice? It depends on your unique situation and preferences, and we’ll use this article to provide considerations behind the best master’s degrees for military officers.
Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:
- How a Master’s Degree Benefits Military Officers
- Why Do You Need a Master’s Degree?
- Master’s Degree Situation 1: Need a Degree for a Promotion
- Master’s Degree Situation 2: Seeking a Civilian Job
- Master’s Degree Situation 3: Learning a Hard Skill
- Master’s Degree Situation 4: Stepping Stone to a Doctorate
- Master’s Degree Situation 5: Don’t Know What Else to Do
- Final Thoughts
How a Master’s Degree Benefits Military Officers
A master’s degree can benefit military officers in a variety of ways. For active duty officers, promotion requirements represent the primary advantage. While requirements vary by service, if you want to keep progressing as an officer, you’ll eventually need a master’s degree. In this context, the type of degree doesn’t always matter. Often, you just need any master’s degree to check the promotion box (though certain technical fields may require a specific degree).
Additionally, master’s degrees can open the door to job opportunities and increased pay outside the service for military officer veterans. As many military officers separate prior to full retirement, they view graduate degrees as a path to transition into successful civilian careers. For instance, veterans seeking jobs in the business world may consider a Master in Business Administration (MBA). On the other hand, a military officer interested in a post-service teaching career may pursue a Master of Education (MEd).
Why Do You Need a Master’s Degree?
As the above illustrates, military officers may pursue master’s degrees for a variety of reasons. Accordingly, no single best master’s degree for military officers exists. Rather, individual military officers need to look at their unique situation and preferences to determine the best master’s degree for themselves. In other words, what makes the most sense for one military officer may not be the best degree choice for another.
To determine the best master’s degree for you, you must first ask why you’re pursuing a degree. The answer to this question will largely dictate what master’s degree you should choose. In the following five sections, we’ve outlined the five broad situations for military officers seeking master’s degrees – and what degree makes the most sense for each situation.
Master’s Degree Situation 1: Need a Degree for a Promotion
This serves as the most common reason military officers seek a master’s degree. As an active duty officer, you eventually need a master’s degree to promote to the next rank. Each service approaches this requirement differently, but junior officers typically pursue master’s degrees after their first or second operational tours.
So, what’s the best master’s degree for a promotion?
It depends. In general, the military doesn’t care what master’s degree you receive – only that you have a degree. As a result, no universal best degree exists. Instead, many services make this decision for you during the orders process. While you may apply for a specific degree, the needs of the service prevail, meaning that whatever degree path you receive orders to complete, that’s the master’s degree for you.
However, in some situations, qualified military officers apply for and are accepted to graduate programs that actually let them select their degrees. For these individuals, three complementary factors should be considered:
- What degree will best support your military career?
- What degree will best support your post-military aspirations?
- What degree simply interests you the most?
By answering these questions, you’ll be able to decide the best master’s degree to support your promotion requirements.
Master’s Degree Situation 2: Seeking a Civilian Job
Next, many military officers decide to pursue a master’s degree to assist with finding a civilian job. These individuals may complete an online degree during their final tour, or they may attend graduate school full-time immediately after their service.
Once again, no “silver bullet” master’s degree exists. There simply isn’t a best degree for finding a civilian job following your service as a military officer. 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 master’s degree for your situation. For example, if you’d like to find a job as an accountant, completing a Master of Fine Arts wouldn’t make much sense – you’d pursue a Master of Accountancy.
However, an important caveat exists. For military officers seeking civilian jobs in the business world, not all MBAs are created equal. While the academics covered in business programs are important, the networking opportunities provided by MBA programs are extremely helpful in finding jobs after graduation. For this reason, attending an in-person business school (as opposed to online) will likely provide you far better job prospects, as you’ll have increased networking opportunities with classmates, professors, and alumni networks.
Master’s Degree Situation 3: Learning a Hard Skill
Some military officers need to attend graduate school to learn a hard skill. For example, engineering duty officers in the Navy require significant technical engineering knowledge, and an engineering-related masters would be the best choice. Similarly, many officers end up in extremely technical acquisitions careers. For them, a masters focused on military acquisitions would make sense.
Bottom line, for military officers attending graduate school to learn a hard skill, the skill itself will dictate the best master’s degree.
Master’s Degree Situation 4: Stepping Stone to a Doctorate
Related to the above, some military officers pursue a master’s degree as a stepping stone to a doctorate. For instance, most services offer some form of permanent military professor program. These programs allow active duty officers to become full professors for the remainder of their careers, either in a ROTC program or at a service academy.
However, to serve as a full professor, officers need to receive their doctorates (of note, most service academies allow mid-career officers with master’s degrees to serve as adjunct professors). For these individuals, the field in which they’d like to teach will dictate the master’s degree they should pursue. For example, if a Navy officer wanted to become a permanent military professor in the United State Naval Academy’s Economics Department, he or she would need a doctorate in an economics field. And, to successfully apply to this sort of doctoral program, candidates would need some sort of economics-related master’s degree.
Master’s Degree Situation 5: Don’t Know What Else to Do
While military officers may hesitate to admit it, many decide to pursue a master’s degree simply because they don’t know what else to do. As officers, we’re often guilty of this behavior: counseling enlisted troops on the importance of having a post-military plan before separating while having no such plan ourselves.
As a result, it’s not uncommon for military officers to leave the service, not have a plan for a civilian career, and decide to attend graduate school for lack of better options. And, with the incredible education benefits provided by the GI Bill, this isn’t the worst option, but it’s certainly not the best, either.
Rather than arbitrarily choosing a master’s degree, military officers in this situation should do some more research to narrow their focus. Networking with fellow veterans, working a year or two in an entry-level position in a new field, or completing an internship can all provide critical career information. And, once military officers decide what career they’d like to pursue, they can figure out what master’s degree will best support that career.
As this article should make abundantly clear, no best master’s degree for military officers exists. Rather, individuals need to look at their unique situation and preferences to decide what degree path best supports their goals.
Maurice “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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