Veterans Guide to Graduate School

Updated: December 17, 2020
In this Article

    Following their military service, many veterans decide to pursue graduate degrees. However, multiple subject areas exist, so what graduate degree is best for your unique situation? In this article, we’ll provide a veterans guide to graduate school to help you decide on your best degree option.

    Specifically, we’ll cover the following:

    • Why Graduate School?
    • Graduate Degree: Military History
    • Graduate Degree: Various STEM Subjects
    • Graduate Degree: Leadership
    • Graduate Degree: Management
    • Graduate Degree: Public Policy
    • Graduate Degree: Education
    • Graduate Degree: Business Administration
    • Final Thoughts

    Why Graduate School?

    Broadly speaking, hiring managers look for two skill sets in potential employees: 1) the technical, or “hard,” skills to do the job; and 2) the “soft” skills necessary to successfully work within a team.

    While formal education can help with the former, real-world experience drives success in the latter. In other words, soft skills like leadership, team-based problem solving, organization, thriving in stressful environments, and effective communication are fine-tuned by experience. And, military service provides just this sort of experience, which is why hiring managers frequently look so favorably upon veteran candidates.

    But, to truly set themselves apart, veterans need more than the soft skills they’ve learned in the military. They need the hard skills provided by a formal education, as well, and graduate school can provide these skills.

    Put simply, when veterans combine the soft skills they’ve learned during military service with the technical background provided by a graduate degree, they make themselves extremely attractive to employers. As such, we’ll use the remainder of this article to review popular graduate degrees and what sort of military backgrounds most closely align with those degrees.

    Graduate Degree: Military History

    • Military background: Operational or strategic planning, high-level military knowledge
    • Related master’s degree: MS or MA in Military History


    While veterans may not consider their military service as translating to a history degree, this academic program actually correlates highly with military experience heavy in planning and high-level military knowledge.

    Academically, a military history degree focuses on military strategy, historical research and analysis, and cartography. Most programs include some form of capstone research project, as well. Furthermore, depending on the level of technical work veterans want to complete during their studies, they can pursue a master of arts (MA) or master of science (MS) in this field.

    Job Prospects

    • Defense contractor or other work in the defense-industrial world
    • Military-specific museum director
    • Research assistance
    • Teacher or professor

    Graduate Degree: Various STEM Subjects

    • Military background: Specialized technical work (e.g. nuclear tech, pilot, electronics tech, engineering officer, etc.)
    • Related master’s degree: MS in any STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)


    This section constitutes an umbrella rather than a specific degree. Within the broad STEM field, veterans have numerous graduate school options. The best choice will depend on a combination of a veteran’s A) military experience; and B) desired career following graduate school.

    Most STEM graduate school programs include a hands-on learning approach, meaning veterans will receive practical training to support the research, engineering, computer science, and other demands of the STEM-related careers they’ll begin following school.

    Job Prospects

    As more and more industries transition to automation and technology-based solutions, the demand for graduate degrees from the STEM topics will continue to rise. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for STEM graduates is projected to continue double-digit annual growth for the foreseeable future. For veterans with technical backgrounds, this means that augmenting military experience with a STEM graduate degree will lead to outstanding career prospects.

    Graduate Degree: Leadership

    • Military background: Unit leader; team-building responsibilities
    • Related master’s degree: MS in Leadership


    Whereas an MBA (discussed below) focuses more heavily on financial, quantitative, and core business topics, an MS in Leadership emphasizes the following subject areas:

    • Behavioral motivation techniques
    • Organizational change management
    • Coaching/mentoring
    • Cross-cultural communications and conflict management
    • Establishing positive organizational climates
    • Project leadership
    • Team-building strategies and associated exercises

    All of these topics go hand-in-hand with military soft skills, meaning veterans looking for a career in organizational leadership strategies would be well-suited in augmenting their military experience with this graduate school program.

    Job Prospects

    More and more large employers are beginning to recognize the role that a positive work climate plays in attracting and retaining top talent. As such, numerous opportunities and job titles exist for veterans with an MS in Leadership. Here are just a few options available:

    • C-level executive
    • Corporate trainer
    • Human resources manager
    • School principal
    • Sales manager

    Graduate Degree: Management

    • Military background: Management / leadership
    • Related master’s degree: Master in Management


    This graduate school program typically involves one year of coursework, and it’s designed for individuals who want to transition into a career in business. In other words, for people who want to pursue business careers but who lack real-world experience, this degree program can provide the technical foundations necessary to make such a switch. As such, a Master in Management can be a great option for veterans who’d like to enter the business world following military service.

    Common academic subject areas include:

    • Decision-making theory and practice
    • Micro- and macro-economics
    • Finance
    • Marketing
    • Negotiating strategies
    • Organizational design and behavior
    • Statistics
    • Leadership

    Additionally, most of these graduate school programs culminate in a real-world capstone project, with students partnering with area businesses to help evaluate and recommend solutions for a current business problem.

    Job Prospects

    The above coursework and this final capstone project provide veterans the technical foundations to pursue a wide variety of careers in the business world. Depending on your specific business interests, you should work with your academic counselors to tailor your real-world capstone to the industry you’d like to enter following graduation.

    Graduate Degree: Public Policy

    • Military background: Communication; public affairs; strategic planning
    • Related master’s degree: Master in Public Policy


    Master in Public Policy (MPP) graduate programs, as the name suggests, prepare students for careers in public service. This can include work in the government, non-profit, or private consulting sectors.

    While each MPP program will have a unique curriculum, most emphasize skills in policy analysis, economics, negotiation, finance, politics, and ethics. To meet these skill areas, common coursework generally includes an internship or practicum – similar to the MIM above – where individual students or student teams help solve a real-world policy problem for a government or business partner.

    Job Prospects

    Public policy constitutes an umbrella term that stretches from local governments all the way to international organizations, meaning that a wide variety of job prospects exist for veteran graduates of these programs. Here are some common examples:

    • Government relations manager for a private business
    • Program analysts
    • Program managers
    • Private or government public relations
    • Consultant
    • Community relations

    Graduate Degree: Education

    • Military background: Leadership; training
    • Related master’s degree: Master in Education


    In more and more school districts, new teachers, counselors, and administrators must attain a master’s degree within five years of beginning a profession in the education world. A Master in Education A) meets this requirement, and B) bridges the gap between military training skills and educational pedagogy.

    In other words, this sort of degree provides veterans the tools to translate their military training techniques into a civilian education environment like a middle or high school.

    Job Prospects

    While middle or high school teacher are obvious careers for a veteran with a Master in Education, principal, academic counselor, and administrator are also all career paths supported by this graduate school program.

    Graduate Degree: Business Administration

    • Military background: Management / leadership
    • Related master’s degree: Master of Business Administration


    Most Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate programs don’t focus on leadership, per se. Rather, they provide students the skills necessary to analyze and drive successful business strategy. As such, for military veterans with a solid grounding in leadership and the soft skills outlined above, and MBA represents the premier graduate school option for entering the business world, as it provides the associated technical grounding to excel in a business strategy and/or leadership role.

    While each MBA program will have a unique curriculum, standard coursework across all business schools includes the following subjects:

    • Accounting
    • Finance
    • Marketing
    • Organizational behavior
    • Economics
    • Management
    • Business ethics

    Furthermore, most MBA programs also require students to participate in a summer internship between their first and second academic years. These internships provide veterans real-world business experience while also potentially opening the door to a post-MBA job offer.

    Job Prospects

    As stated, companies hiring people for leadership and management positions want candidates to possess both the business knowledge and soft skills necessary to succeed in those positions. As such, MBAs can provide veterans armed with the latter the foundational skills of the former to excel in a variety of business positions. While certainly not an all-inclusive list, here are some of the common jobs for recent MBA graduates:

    • Business operations manager
    • Marketing manager
    • Financial manager
    • Medical and health services manager
    • Database administrator

    Final Thoughts

    Graduate school can be an outstanding option for veterans who’d like to expand their post-military career options. And, while the above does not represent all graduate school options, these common degree paths provide veterans a variety of subject areas to choose from, ideally allowing them to align their A) military experience; B) graduate school curriculum; and C) desired career field.

    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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