A Guide to Master's DegreesforMilitary Members and Veterans

The military does a great job teaching its members how to manage and supervise people and projects -- even when operating in hostile environments. Businesses today are striving to find people with both the experience and the education to manage their workforces and run the technical side of their businesses. For soon-to-transition service members or veterans, a Master's degree can be the link that brings the military and civilian worlds together.

Meet the Expert

Ron Kness Ron retired with 36 years of military service. His assignment as Supervisor of Military Personnel Services (including the Education Benefits Section) provided him with a wealth of knowledge, training and experience with the GI Bills and post-secondary education in general. His last assignment was the 34th Infantry (Red Bull) Division Command Sergeant Major/E-9.


It’s no secret military service teaches skill sets that are valued in the private sector. Leadership, management, organization, communication and team building are just a few in high demand throughout the business world. Developing these assets starts at basic training and continues on through Individual Advanced Training. Experience and leadership schools continue to hone these skills as one makes his/her way up through the ranks.

Businesses in the private sector actively seek highly qualified individuals with experience to fill many of their vacant positions. However, as the responsibility and technological complexity of the vacant positions increases, the pool of qualified people decreases. Many of the military members and veterans applying for these positions have the on-the-job practical experience, but lack the college education many companies require to hold the position.

The good news is, military members and veterans represent one of the fastest-growing groups of new college students. The number of veterans going to college rose 67 percent from 564,487 students in 2009 (when the Post 9/11 GI Bill® came on board) to 945,052 in 2012 (the latest year for which data is available). Of that number, 48 percent are in undergraduate programs and 32 percent in graduate school. The remaining are in doctoral, certification or licensure programs.

The following guide provides key information for military members and veterans thinking about (or on the precipice of pursuing) a master’s degree. It dives into the educational benefits, financial options, the most in-demand programs and other considerations all current and former service members need to know before taking the first step toward graduate-level learning.

Military Skills and Master’s Degrees

Private companies often find recent college graduates who possess the degree needed to do the technical aspects of a job. Yet many of those candidates lack experience working in dynamic, interpersonal environments where teamwork matters just as much as individual performance. This is where military members and veterans have a big leg up on their young civilian counterparts. The service teaches many of the hard skills required to do the job, but it also teaches “soft” skills such as leadership, communication, organization and team building.

This combination of hard and soft skills gives service members and veterans a solid foundation on which to build. They’re battle-tested (literally) and know how to deal with and flourish in high-stress situations. However, just as new college grads little to no work experience, some military members and vets lack the requisite formal education. And while a bachelor’s degree is a great first step, master’s degrees have fast become the gold standard for advanced careers. For service members and veterans ready to learn at the graduate level, the following military-learned skills match very well to a number of popular master’s degrees.

Military Skill: Leadership

Master’s Degree: Master of Business Administration (MBA)

In the military, leadership starts right away at the lowest level when a new recruit learns how to follow orders while in basic training. As he or she progresses through the ranks, the training shifts from one of following to one of leading. While the principles of leadership remain the same, the complexity and volume of people led increase with each pay grade.

As part of the training process, military members learn leadership skills, such as:

  • Accountability
  • Conforming to rules, structure and standards
  • How to give and take orders
  • How to work under pressure
  • Setting the example
  • Systematic planning
  • Taking responsibility for their actions
  • The importance of meeting deadlines

Many MBA programs do not focus on leadership. Instead they concentrate on business strategy: how to identify issues and analyze problems, and how to create and present recommendations to solve found issues. But that is only half of the equation. The other half is the execution of the recommendations and that usually involves working with people at some point in the process.

Companies like to hire people with the whole package: having the education and experience to get the job done with little to no “ramp-up” time after hiring. Veterans with MBAs are that whole package.

Education Spotlight: Master of Business for Veterans (MBV)

The MBV was created specifically with military personnel in mind. Veterans, active duty and reserve members can take the 10-month program biweekly on weekends (on alternating Fridays and Saturdays) across two semesters. Each semester consist of 18 days of class and uses a thematic curriculum instead of just a non-related collection of classes like many other business graduate programs.

Under this type of curriculum, students learn how business principles interrelate with each other rather than each one being taught independently. The take-away is more exposure to how businesses operate in real world situations instead of just theory of the business function itself.

Because of the compressed schedule, admission into this program requires prior academic performance and professional leadership experience. Specifically:

  • A four-year undergraduate degree
  • At least three years of military service
  • Verifiable military leadership or management experience
  • Verifiable academic and work-related math skills
  • An interview

Military Skill: Leadership

Master’s Degree : Education (M.Ed.)

Many school districts now require teachers, school counselors and administrators to earn a master’s degree within five years of entering the profession. A career in education and learned leadership skills go together like a hand and glove. Using a high school teacher as an example, each task is paired with leadership skills learned in the military:

  • Assessing students --> writing performance reports
  • Communicating with parents --> communicating with and leading a team, section or platoon
  • Enforcing classroom rules --> accountability and adhering to a standard
  • Planning lessons --> systemic planning of an operation
  • Supervising students outside of the classroom --> supervising and giving orders

On a higher level, an education administrator manages a school staff and works with a school board. Many of the same leadership skills apply, but on a more intellectual level.

Military Skill: Communication

Master’s Degree : Public Policy (MPP)

An MPP prepares the student for a career in public service, like working in government, for non-profits or private consulting to public agencies. Jobs could range from a city planner to national-level politics. Skills learned with this degree include policy analysis, economics, finance, negotiations, ethics and politics.

Coursework typically includes a policy-oriented internship or practicum, either as an individual or team. Both are performed with a business client and focus working on real-world policy challenges and formulating/presenting solutions to the challenges.

While this degree helps prepare students to create solutions to social problems, being able to effectively present those solutions requires excellent communication. Military training often includes effective listening and speaking, and managing stress and emotions – both individually and as a team.

Most schools require a bachelor’s degree as a pre-requisite. However, some schools also require some knowledge or experience in college-level economics, statistics and calculus.

Military Skill: Management

Master’s Degree: Management (MiM)

While an MBA is usually a mid-career business degree choice, a Master’s in Management (MiM) is generally a one-year course designed for those who want to get into a business career, but lack business world experience. An MiM degree would be perfect for someone wanting to get into an entry-level business management position, such as project management, data analyst or sales and marketing. Prior military management experience would be a valuable addition to this degree as it focuses on a number of key business principles including:

  • Decision-Making
  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Marketing Management
  • Negotiations
  • Organization Behavior
  • Statistics
  • Strategic Leadership

The degree usually capstones with an entrepreneurial consulting project of some type. The student works with a business client to generate and evaluate solutions to a real business problem, make recommendations and present his or her findings in a final report.

Military Skill: Team Building

Master’s Degree: Leadership (MSL)

As an alternative to an MBA degree, the Master of Science in Leadership (MSL) degree concentrates heavily on:

  • Behavioral motivation
  • Coaching
  • Cross-cultural communications
  • Influencing
  • Leader-follower interactions
  • Organizational change
  • Project leadership
  • Strategic thinking
  • Team development

It differs from an MBA in that it does not include financial, quantitative analysis, marketing, or accounting – all common courses found in advanced business administration programs. Having an MSL degree and team building experience would enable the student to walk into a team leading position with minimal ramp-up time -- something businesses strive to find.

Military Skill: Specialized Technology or Technician Training

Master’s Degree: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)

With the use of technology solutions increasing in just about every industry sector, the demand for graduates skilled in the science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) disciplines continues to rise. Overall, between 2012 and 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 14 percent increase in STEM job opportunities. Here’s a quick rundown of estimated growth rates for five key STEM disciplines:

  • 62 percent in Biomedical Engineers
  • 36 percent in Medical Scientists
  • 32 percent in Systems Software Developers
  • 22 percent in Computer Systems Analysts
  • 16 percent in Mathematicians

As President Barack Obama said in a speech on September 16, 2010 "... Leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today -- especially in science, technology, engineering and math."

Many service members and veterans have the training and experience to provide a solid foundation for additional training in the STEM disciplines. For example, the Army breaks down many of its officer occupations into the STEM fields:

  • Medical Service Corps Officer
  • Environmental Science
  • Biochemist/Physiologist
  • Microbiologist
  • Clinical Laboratory Scientist
  • Technology – Signal Officer
  • Engineering Officer
  • Environmental Science
  • Military Intelligence Officer
  • Financial Manager

The Army also breaks down 46 enlisted occupations that fall under the STEM disciplines.

Schools are doing their part in creating new STEM education programs to meet the upcoming demand of students seeking STEM careers, and to meet President Obama’s initiative of creating 100,000 new teachers qualified to teach STEM subjects in the next ten years.

Education Spotlight: Professional Science Master’s (PSM) Programs

Designed for military personnel with backgrounds in at least one of the STEM areas, two-year PSM programs help prepare students for careers in high-demand science and technology jobs in business, government and non-profit organizations. Coursework includes a combination of science and mathematics, along with management, policy or law, and terminates with a Master of Science degree. Most programs also include a corporate or public sector internship.

Currently, over 130 colleges and universities in the U.S. now offer more than 300 PSM programs. To show the demand for these programs, the Council of Graduate Schools recently released the following data:

  • Enrollment is PSM programs increased by 23 percent between 2010 and 2013
  • 5,800 students enrolled in PSM programs in the fall of 2013
  • The awarding of PSM degrees increased by 85 percent between 2009/2010 and 2011/2012
  • 91 percent percent of recent PSM graduates are working in their field of study.

PSM graduates working in business and industry earn an estimated $55,000 to $65,000 their first year out of school; graduates working in government and non-profits earn slightly less, on average, at $45,000 to $55,000.

Military Skill: Military Knowledge and Experience

Master’s Degree: Military History

This graduate program generally teaches military strategy, historical research and cartography, and may include a research project or teaching assistantship. There are two routes to a military history degree – Master of Arts and Master of Science.

Master of Arts

This degree track includes historical pedagogy, geography, anthropology, research skills and proper academic writing. Specifically, coursework usually includes:

  • Diplomacy
  • International relations
  • Military historiography
  • Military thought
  • Professional military ethics
Master in Science

On the other hand, a Master in Science degree track focuses more on cartography, weaponry and historical battle strategy. Coursework typically includes:

  • International relations
  • Literature and ethics
  • Military philosophy
  • Military psychology
  • Naval warfare
  • Political science
  • Strategic studies

With either type degree, graduates could establish a career as a:

  • Defense Contractor
  • Museum Curator
  • Research Assistant
  • Teacher

Interview: From the Military to Master’s Student

Heather C. is a résumé client of mine and currently works as a Battalion S1 for the Army Reserve. She currently has a bachelor’s degree and three master’s degrees. She is a wealth of knowledge as you’ll see in the interview:

Heather, when did you return from deployment?

I returned from my last deployment in October 2011 and started my third master’s degree in leadership three months later.

Before getting your latest master’s degree, how long had it been since you were in school?

I was out of school for a little over two years between finishing my second master’s degree and starting my third one. Since August 2013, I’ve been mobilized again.

How did getting your last master’s degree differ from when you got your other degrees?

Master’s degrees are time-consuming and require a lot more research time compared to bachelor’s degree. There was less time studying for tests and more time researching. While studying for my bachelor’s, I wasn’t married, worked a couple part-time jobs, and didn’t have any responsibilities per sé. While studying for all three master’s, I was fully engaged in a career and married. As my circumstances changed, so did my availability.

Did being older than many of your peers cause any issues?

For me, being older was advantageous because I was able to utilize my real-life “worldly” experiences while conducting practical exercises. I was more disciplined, which meant I had already established good time management skills. Last but not least, networking. Because I was older and wiser, I was able to utilize my networking skills I gained while in the military. Networking is a powerful tool and can play a big part in future employment.

Did having military experience help with getting your degree?

Yes! My discipline, leadership, management and networking skills all assisted in my 3.5+ GPA for all three master’s degrees. Being disciplined allowed me to take ALL online courses for my last two degrees because I was able to manage my time. My leadership and management skills were very useful while conducting research for papers. I was able to constantly provide examples of real-world experiences and put them into a perspective others could understand.

What did you look for when choosing your school?

I attended the same private school for all my degrees. If not for the Alumni discount, I would’ve discontinued my education with that school immediately upon graduating with my first degree.

Make sure the school is “military-friendly”... Do they offer the Post 9/11 GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon tuition match? (One thing I didn’t know about and lost out on.) Look at reviews from past students in regards to their deployments and the ease they had in dropping courses due to deployment. Work with your advisors.

Many veterans are trying to support a family. What kind of issues did this cause when also trying to go to school?

I had it easier that most being I was married but didn’t have any kids. Therefore, I was able to allot more time to my research and studies. The master’s degrees that I have were all very time consuming. I am thankful that I am disciplined enough to focus on mission, or shall I say, school accomplishment.

Did you take classes online, on-campus or a mix?

For my MBA, 75 percent of my classes were on campus, 25 percent online. For my second and third master’s degrees, both were entirely online.

What was your driving factor for taking online classes verses on campus?

CONVENIENCE! I am the type of person that likes to dictate my own schedule. I like to know that I have the freedom to study on my own time. The downside is that it does cost more money; however, my time is worth money.

Did you use your GI Bill® to get your latest degree? If so, what issues did you run into trying to use your GI Bill benefits?

I used my first GI Bill (MGIB) and kicker in 2000-2004 while attending undergraduate school. I used my Post 9/11 GI Bill for my second master’s degree. While I only received 85 percent, every penny helped.

Even with two GI Bills, the amount they pay are very limited. As I said earlier, both my undergrad and grad schools were at a private school, something I wouldn’t do again if I had it to do over. I think I could have gotten just as good of education by attending a public school and it would have been a lot cheaper.

The expenses for my degrees were fairly hefty. I’m currently maxed out on school loans -- both subsidized and unsubsidized and all my GI Bill benefits are gone.

What recommendations do you have for military members just coming off of active duty and wanting to start their master’s degree?

First, find a school that is military & VA benefit friendly. Someone to guide you through the process and make you are aware of what benefits you’re entitled to.

Second, gather as much education financial assistance information from the Army and the VA as you can. There is plenty of money out there that currently is not being used.

Third, know what benefits the National Guard and the Reserves can offer you if applicable. They can end up giving you more money towards school when compared to active duty. Look into ROTC, if you qualify for the program, you may be eligible to receive money in addition to your tuition, and room and board.

Fourth, don’t forget about education tax credits. As a student, you can write quite a bit off.

Fifth, look into going to a Yellow Ribbon school and know about match tuition assistance.

Sixth, know your GI Bill: what it covers, how long you have to use it, etc.

Is there anything else that you think could be useful to other veterans or military members when trying to get their master’s degree after getting out or returning home?

The only other things I can suggest are:

  • You have a vast knowledge and additional leadership and managerial skills, something non-military students don’t have. They will come in handy when working on your master’s degree.
  • Having a master’s degree opens the door to higher paying jobs with more benefits.
  • With a master’s degree, you are more marketable when it comes to job placement and career advancements.
  • A master’s degree allows you to focus on one specific area; in the end, the process creates endless amounts of knowledge and handy tools to use in everyday situations.

That’s about all I have. I hope military members and veterans thinking about getting a master’s degree can put my experiences and recommendations to good use and maybe make the road a little less bumpy for them.

Graduate School Admissions

Getting into grad school is not easy. Besides having a bachelor’s degree, prospective students have to meet certain eligibility requirements, which vary from school to school. Some schools accept upper division credits earned from military training and experience. Many schools waive the application fee and allow active duty personnel and veterans to test out (with at least a specified grade point average (GPA)) on pre-courses aimed to evaluate aptitude, instead of submitting the normal college entrance exam test scores.

But there are still schools that require all students to submit undergraduate transcripts, test scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), letters of recommendation, essays and possibly evidence of completion of specific pre-admission courses as part of their admissions process. Ask questions and shop around.

While both the GRE and GMAT test the applicant’s overall ability in verbal, quantitative and analytical skills, the GMAT has more of a business focus. Both tests are designed to evaluate the applicant’s ability to think, along with test knowledge in math, vocabulary, reading comprehension and writing.

Before taking either test, applicants should be sure they know which test their school requires. Some business schools accept either test, but that is the exception and not the norm.

Upper Division Credit Transfer

Military transcript credits for prior learning (the training and military occupations held while serving) break down into lower and upper division credits. Grad schools will normally transfer in up to a certain number of upper division credits. As a student, this reduces the number of credits needed get a graduate degree. Not only does this save money, but also time – and gets a career started earlier.

Application Fee Waivers

Many of the more military-friendly schools offer graduate degree application fee waivers. Some schools have a specified requirement to get the waiver, such as applying to graduate school within three years of getting out of the military.

Pre-Admission Courses

Instead of requiring military members or veterans to take either the GRE or GMAT, some schools allow the student to take specified courses as a predictor of their aptitude. Courses required vary according to the type of master’s degree desired. Usually courses are at least three credits and may be taken either on-campus or online. Most schools require meeting a minimum grade or grade point average (GPA) for the pre-admission courses.

Financing a Master’s Degree

Master’s degrees can run a pretty penny. Some master’s programs can surpass $40,000, depending on program type, length and location. Consequently, it is not a decision that should be taken lightly and how to fund a grad school degree should be one of the major considerations. However, there are many ways to fund a master’s degree; many of the popular ways are discussed below. The bottom line up front -- exhaust all other sources of funding before resorting to student loans.

Active duty personnel have a couple of funding options not available to veterans: Tuition Assistance (TA) and Tuition Top-Up. While TA is a standalone program funded by the Department of Defense, Top-Up is a combination of TA and entitlement from the student’s GI Bill. Using TA or Top-Up are great ways to maximize GI Bill benefits, as TA pays a good portion of the tuition bill.

Veterans on the other hand are limited to using the funding options listed below and any veteran education benefits that may be offered by their state.

GI Bills®

Today, many service members are coming out of the military with at least two GI Bills – usually the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) and Post 9/11 GI Bill. By exhausting their MGIB entitlement first and then switching over to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, veterans can get up to 48 months of education benefits -- enough to fund a four-year degree and at least part of a master’s degree.

While serving, most of the military branches offer TA to their members. By taking full advantage of this benefit, military members can earn a four-year degree while on active duty, thus preserving more of their GI Bill benefits to fund a graduate degree.


The MGIB pays the student a set amount each month to go to school. With three years of service, the 2013 rate is currently $1,648 per month for up to 36 months. Out of that amount the student must pay tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses.

Post 9/11 GI Bill®

The New GI Bill (as it is also known) is different than all other GI Bills in that the VA pays the student’s tuition to the school directly. If attending a public school, a grad student with three years of service could get up to 100 percent of his or her tuition paid at the resident tuition level; students who pay non-resident tuition are responsible to pay the difference (unless they can use the Yellow Ribbon Program discussed below). Attend a private school and the VA would pay up to $20,235.02 per year towards tuition.

NOTE: Non-resident tuition should almost be a thing of the past for veterans at most schools. As of this writing, Congress just passed a bill that would require schools to charge veterans the resident rate regardless of residency, if the school wanted to continue to accept Post 9/11 GI Bill funding. The bill is currently on the President’s desk for signature and should be signed by the time you read this.

Under this GI Bill, veterans also get a monthly housing allowance based on the zip code of the school and the number of credits taken; members still serving do not get the housing allowance. However, both military members and veterans get a book stipend that calculates out at $41.67 per credit per semester with a $1,000 per academic year cap.

The Yellow Ribbon Program

A feature of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program cannot be used independently. It can be a very valuable program for students attending a private grad school or paying non-resident tuition at a public school.

For schools having a Yellow Ribbon Agreement with the VA, the school states how much they would pay toward the difference between what they charge and what the Post 9/11 GI Bill pays. The VA commits to paying an equal amount (on top of the $20,000+ they already pay). Also, the school states which programs are included in their agreement, how many students they accept into the program, and the maximum amount paid to each Yellow Ribbon student.

Prospective grad students who may be eligible for the Yellow Ribbon program should first check the current Yellow Ribbon School List to see if their school is part of the program, and if their grad program is included in that agreement.

Scholarships for Service Members and Veterans

Even with tuition assistance, Top-Up and the GI Bill, additional funding is usually needed to help pay the tuition costs of a master’s degree. Fortunately, there are myriad scholarships available that do not require payback.

Military-friendly scholarships come from a variety of sources: veteran organizations, private foundations and from the schools themselves. The rule of thumb when trying to secure education funding is to apply early and apply often. Why? Scholarships take work to get. First, there is finding them; this can take some Internet searching. Then comes applying for them; some have simple application forms to fill out while others may have additional requirements, such as writing an essay. Regardless of the application procedures, follow them to the letter and submit application packets well before their deadline.

The money is out there for the taking; each year millions of dollars go unused due to the lack of applicants. Time spent searching and applying is time well spent.

Listed below is a small sampling of scholarships available to military and veteran students seeking funding for a master’s degree:

AFCEA Educational Fund -https://www.afcea.org/site/?q=foundation/scholarships - Provides $2,000 to students pursuing a graduate degree while employed in the science or technology discipline.

Colorado State University Global Campus U.S. Military Active Duty/Veteran Master's Degree Scholarship - https://csuglobal.edu/cost/tuition -Recognizes active duty U.S. military personnel and honorably discharged veterans for their service to our country by providing institutional scholarships that can be used to pursue a master’s degree.

Ladies Auxiliary of the Fleet Reserve Association - http://www.la-fra.org - Helps deserving students reach their educational and professional goals with annual awards of up to $5,000 to individuals pursuing graduate degrees.

Pat Tillman Foundation - https://pattillmanfoundation.org/ - The Tillman Military Scholars program includes both veterans and active duty members pursuing graduate degrees. Fifty-eight service members, veterans and military spouses were chosen for the 2014 Tillman Military Scholars program. These recipients will receive in total $1.4 million in scholarship money. Do the math and it is easy to see this is a scholarship worth pursuing even if it is highly competitive. The 58 chosen were selected from 7,500 applicants.

The Graduate Incentive Scholarship (GIS) Program -http://scholarships.collegetoolkit.com/scholarships/awards/graduate_incentive_scholarship/1015.aspx - Provides “forgivable loans to historically underrepresented students” in master’s programs at the following institutions: Clemson University, University of South Carolina, University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina, College of Charleston, The Citadel, Winthrop University, S.C. State University, and Francis Marion University. The current merit-based scholarship award value is $15,000.

Other Sources of Financing

Besides the GI Bills and scholarships, there are also federally backed loans, work-study programs, fellowships and assistantships. Loans should be used as a last resort as they require payback once out in the work force. It is a daunting feeling coming out of school already burdened with debt.

All of these programs should be your financial sources of choice when looking to fund a master’s degree. When applying, keep in mind that scholarships are usually awarded based on merit while grants are awarded based on need. However, certain grants for master’s degrees can be either merit- or need-based.


One of the main sources of master’s degree grants is in the U.S. Department of Education. Their grants fall into three categories:

  • Discretionary. Awarded through a competitive formal review process that evaluates applications against published selection criteria.
  • TEACH. Awarded to students who want to teach in high-need fields generally defined as bilingual education, English language acquisition, foreign language, mathematics, reading specialist, science, and special education.
  • Formula. Uses a formula determined by Congress to award instead of an application process. The formula takes in consideration some form of quantifiable measurable data, such as low income, infant mortality, population, etc. and awards grants based on how applications specifically pertain to the formula.
Unsubsidized Stafford Loans

Graduate students can get up to $20,500 per year up to a maximum amount of $138,500 (including undergraduate Stafford Loan debt). Interest rates vary as the rate is determined by the 10-year Treasury note, but generally run an additional 3.6 percent to a cap of 9.5 percent. Once the loan is awarded, the interest rate is locked and will not change throughout the life of the loan. Because these loans are unsubsidized, interest starts accruing right away.

Graduate PLUS Loans

This loan can only be used after exhausting Stafford Loan options. However, eligible students can get a loan to cover all costs of school, including reasonable living expenses. Interest rates are determined the same way as with Stafford Loans, however the added percentage is 4.3 percent with a cap of 10.5 percent.

Federal Work Study

Need-based, it provides part-time jobs to graduate students. Jobs are related to course study and may be located either on or off campus. Students are paid at least once per month and the money may be applied toward tuition, fees, books, or room and board. Also, some schools have their own work study programs.


Fellowships are usually broken down into three different types:

  • Federally Funded Portable
  • Independent Organizations Portable
  • Institutional

Portable fellowships may be used at a school of the student’s choice where an institutional fellowship must be used at the school from where it was awarded. The amount of the stipend depends on several factors.


Financial assistance provided to graduate students for part-time academic work. Pay for work can be a stipend or tuition remission. Assistantships usually take one of two forms – either teaching or research.

A teaching assistantship consists of helping a professor conduct labs or study groups, preparing lectures, grading papers or a combination of all. A research assistantship is more focused and assists a professor with research projects or studies.

Challenges and Solutions

Going back to school after serving in the military can be challenging. Eighty-seven percent of veterans going to school are age 24 and older; Forty-seven percent have a family to support; some students suffer from mental issues in varying degrees from having served in combat zones.

Being an older student makes it harder to relate to younger fellow students. Not only does the age gap create its own problems, but differing experiences do, as well. While their peers they may be young and unattached, many veteran students have family responsibilities.

Veterans fresh from combat may not yet have fully acclimated to civilian life; noisy campuses can be particularly troublesome; so troublesome in fact that many combat vets choose online programs so they don’t have to experience the uncomfortable conditions on campus.

Below are ten challenges veterans and service members commonly experience when going back to school, along with proven solutions for each.

Challenge #1: Study Skills

Solution: For students who have not taken courses for a while, their study skills may need a serious dust-off. Many schools offer workshops or short introductory courses designed to get study skills back in shape before starting a graduate program. The following tips can also make the transition easier:

  • Get organized. Organize assignments, lesson plans and coursework. On campus work can be arranged in three-ring binders; if taking classes online, arrange material in virtual folders on a computer hard drive.
  • Establish regular study times. Students do better if they get into a routine. Plan out study time so that it doesn’t get trampled on by something else.
  • Finding a quiet place to work. Some grad students work at the library if they do not have a quiet place at home. Students concentrate better if they are not interrupted by noise, music or other distractions. As with study times, try establishing the same place to study each day.
  • Avoiding interruptions. After finding a quiet place to work, avoid interruptions to maintain focus. This includes turning off the cellphone and staying off social media sites while studying.
Challenge #2: Family Commitments

Solution: As noted earlier, 47 percent of master’s degree students are married and have a family. Quality family time is important, so study times should be either early in the morning or after kids are in bed. Family members should understand that study time is sacred.

Challenge #3: Supporting a Family

Solution: Many students hold down at least part-time, and in many cases full-time jobs in addition to going to school. In some families, the non-student spouse works, thus providing some financial relief to the student. However, the fact remains that available study time may be further eroded due holding down a job (or two).

Challenge #4: Coursework Discipline

Solution: Keeping up on coursework is key to staying on track. Yet for students who haven’t been in school for a while, they may have lost the discipline they had when they earned their bachelor’s degree. Staying on task is especially critical if the student is doing all online work because there generally isn’t anyone prodding the student to focus.

Challenge #5: Alienation

Solution: With most fellow students being younger and not having a military background, they may not understand your views on some topics, or your experiences. Schools have recognized this issue and many have their own veteran centers where veterans can gather to talk and support each other.

Challenge #6: Going Back to School Too Soon

Solution: Veterans come out of combat zone deployments with varying degrees of mental issues ranging from occasional anxiety to full-blown PTSD. Loud noises and crowded settings can exacerbate or trigger an episode. Some veterans just need time to work through their issues before starting school. Others with a more serious diagnosis may choose to go to school online instead of in a brick-and-mortar classroom. The point is don’t rush going back to school; take time to recover first.

Challenge #7: Lack of Commitment

Solution: Going back to school takes drive, resolve and commitment. In most cases, veterans are in charge of themselves and responsible for getting their coursework done on time. Many veterans remain accustomed to regiment and orders, but once out of the military, that regimentation is gone. Self-discipline and the desire to commit to finishing a master’s degree will breed success, but may take time to master.

Challenge #8: Enrolling in School

Solution:Students who have been out of school for quite a while may not understand the enrollment and registration process used today. Many find it both frustrating and confusing. If the school has a student veteran center, seek out help. Many times the center can help cut through the red tape and ease enrollment woes.

Challenge #9: Applying for GI Bill® Benefits

Solution:Many veterans are confused not only as to which GI Bill benefits they may have, but also how to best use them. One of the veteran student’s best friends should be the school’s VA Certifying Official. That person can help you negotiate the potential minefield of sorting out GI Bill benefits.

Online Master’s Degrees

Many military friendly colleges and universities have both hybrid and online master’s degree programs that fall into one of five categories:

  • Master of Science (M.S.) – Focuses on research in science, health and some social sciences.
  • Master of Arts (M.A.) – A concentrated program in one of the humanities: English, communication, philosophy or history.
  • Masters of Business Administration (MBA) – Some programs cover business principles in general while other programs concentrate in marketing, finance, accountancy, international business, project management or information technology.
  • Master of Education (M.Ed.) - A degree for educators wanting to advance their career and further their knowledge of education.
  • Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) – A degree for students who want to further their major in the creative or performing arts, such as creative writing, visual arts, filmmaking, dance and theater.
The Advantages of Online Courses

Online courses are delivered in two different ways: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous requires all participants to be connected remotely to the instructor at the same time; asynchronous does not require that connection all at the same time and has quickly become the delivery of choice for military personnel and veterans.


Military members and many veterans going to school online have daily work commitments, so being able to study as their schedule permits is an important advantage for earning a master’s degree online. For military members deployed 7,000 miles away, flexibility to access coursework any time of the day or night can help bridge these substantial time and place gaps.

No Commute

Online students can spend what would be commuting time to work on coursework at home. And not only does the student save time, but also money by avoiding gas and other car-related expenses.

Freedom of Time

Time is a limited commodity for all of us; there are only so many hours in the day. Going to and from classes takes away from things such as quality time with family. In a 2013 study by Learning House Inc., 72 percent of students thought the time they spent getting their online degree was worthwhile.

Freedom of Place

With an online degree, all a student needs is a computer and an Internet connection. This means one can study while at a coffee shop, in the lunchroom at work, at a public library or even while on deployment thousands of miles away. Time that would otherwise be wasted can now be made productive through online learning.


While the cost of a getting an online degree itself isn’t much different from getting one on campus, students do save by not having to pay certain fees, such as campus parking, transportation, or, in many cases, buying books (although some distance learning courses still require hard cover textbooks, most online master’s degree programs include all needed resources online). In that same Learning House study, 65 percent indicated their online degree was worth the financial investment. Fifty-eight percent received a pay increase after getting their online master’s degree.

Course Availability

Most on-campus degree programs limit the number of students who can attend class simultaneously, usually due to physical restrictions. Once the course is filled, no other students can enroll in that course for that semester. Some students wait two or three semesters before they can get a seat in a required course.

Due to not having a physical restriction, many online courses can support a larger number of students, so a student taking an online master’s degree program can usually enroll for the courses they need when it fits into their schedule.

Some students earn their entire master’s degree without taking a single step on campus. Other students taking hybrid courses, do most of their work online, but periodically visit campus to talk to professors, attend the occasional class or collaborate with peers. Usually lab-enriched degree programs include some hybrid courses so that the lab portion can be done in a controlled environment with the proper equipment.

Interview: From Military to Master’s in Education

Bob B. is a friend of mine and an educator and administrator with experience as a dean of students and high school principal. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he taught for many years before seeing an opportunity to move into administration. But one contingency of the position was having at least a master’s degree. He actually went on to earn two master’s degrees.

What is your bachelor's degree in?

I have a major in social studies and a minor in education.

How long was it between your bachelor’s and master’s degrees?

It took me about ten years to earn my first of two master's degrees. My second master's degree was earned in three years as a stipulation of the promotion I had received.

What were your two master's degree majors?

My first one was in political science with a minor in education. My second one was in secondary administration.

How was earning a master’s degree different from earning a bachelor’s?

I earned my bachelor’s degree in four years as a full-time student, single without any commitments. However, when I was working on my first master's degree, I also was working full-time as a social studies teacher, got married, started a family and was in the National Guard as a junior enlisted soldier -- eventually working my way up to the NCO level by the time I finished. It seemed like there weren’t enough hours in the day at times to get everything done -- one of the reasons it took me ten years to finish my first master’s degree.

What did getting your master’s degree do for your career?

During the time I was working on my first master's degree, I received a pay raise for every 15 credits earned, which was a great incentive to continue. Getting my second master's degree allowed me to go from being a classroom teacher to two different administrative positions.

How long did it take to get a job commensurate with your master’s degree?

I earned the first master's degree while working on the job as a teacher. The second master's degree was a requirement to maintain the provisional promotion that I had been awarded as an administrator. If I didn’t finish that degree, I would lose the job.

What recommendations do you have for master’s degree graduates when transitioning to the work place?

With my first master’s degree, I was fortunate in that my occupational field allowed for immediate advancement on the salary schedule, so I did not have that transition issue. However, my second master's degree was more of a risk in that I had to get the degree to hold the position.

The key is to find both a master’s degree program that you enjoy and one that has at least average to above average career growth potential. The transition will be much smoother if you are able to get a job in your field of study that is commensurate with your degree. Otherwise, you’ll either have to settle for a lesser job (maybe outside your field) or go back to school to get the degree you need to get one of the higher graded positions available.

Do you have any other advice you feel would be helpful to military members or veterans?

First and foremost, you and your family must be fully committed to you staying the course and completing the rigors and time requirements for success. It is tough to do if you already have a family and just starting your master’s degree.

There are going to be times when your family would like to do something and you won’t be able to because you have to study. Don’t get me wrong, quality family time is important, but there will be times when the studies will have to come first. That is when it is critical to have the full support and understanding of your family.

Another consideration is for military members or veterans to consider studying in a field that they want to pursue outside of the military. The field may or may not relate to their military MOS. Those who like what they do or did in the military may want to stay in that field of study. Others may want to pursue an entirely different field. The main point is to put some thought into what you want to do for a career before committing to a graduate program.

Military members and veterans have a great gift they can use – the Post 9/11 GI Bill. They certainly don’t want to waste it by using up the benefits on a degree they can’t use.


In this guide, we explored some of the challenges military members and veterans face when looking to start a master’s degree program. We also looked at the different degrees available, what to look for when selecting a school, and how to finance a graduate degree.

And the interviews with Heather and Bob helped to illuminate challenges and solutions with graduate study and how getting a master’s degree can further a career. If taken to heart, the information in this guide will help both military members and veterans make smart choices when starting a master’s degree program.

* GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/.