Meet the Expert
May 23, 2023
If you’ve served in the U.S. Armed Forces, you’re likely aware of the great educational benefits accessible to you under the GI Bill. More than 60% of all veterans end up using those benefits to enroll in higher education programs, with around 10% of those student veterans pursuing doctoral-level degrees. What you may not realize is that as a current armed services member or veteran, you have a tremendous amount of experience with real value not only in the military but also in the academic world.
Doctoral students who are also veterans are steeped in military culture but likely encounter a number of unique challenges when transitioning into college life. Overcoming those challenges can be, well, a big challenge. The good news is that there are tons of great support services and resources you can tap into to help you succeed in your pursuit of a PhD or other doctoral degree. This guide introduces you to those services and resources, as well as provides you with a look at the many assets and challenges of bringing your military background into a doctoral degree pursuit.
Common PhD Challenges That Veterans Face
Student veterans face a wide range of challenges when pursuing a doctoral degree, including those related to cultural differences, education funding, and, for those still serving, balancing continuing military obligations with the strenuous requirements of a doctorate program. Below is a discussion of the most common challenges, along with suggested strategies to help you overcome them.
Balancing Military Duties and Doctoral Studies
Both military service and doctoral studies require a tremendous commitment of time and effort. Taking on the responsibilities of both at the same time is an enormous task, to say the least. Many service members do it, however, forcing them to become experts in efficient time management. Effective time management strategies include setting realistic expectations regarding assignments and overall degree completion times and taking advantage of the study convenience and flexibility of online doctoral programs and courses.
With the robust educational benefits available through the GI Bill, you may be surprised to learn that many veterans must still take out student loans to help pay for their college educations. In most cases, loan money is primarily used to help pay for living expenses (e.g., rent, food, etc.), though some need to secure funding beyond the GI Bill to pay for education-related expenses. This sometimes happens because benefits were exhausted with undergraduate or master’s program studies. Another financial challenge is simply documenting your eligibility and completing the paperwork involved in applying for benefits. Overcoming these challenges begins by starting your funding search as early as possible to inform your program choice and avoid financial aid problems down the road.
Little to No Military-Friendly Support Systems
Lack of veteran-focused support services and a general feeling of isolation are critical issues that many student veterans encounter. To counteract them, many schools provide a variety of military-friendly support services. These often include academic tutoring and mentoring programs, veteran-specific financial aid and career counseling, mental health services, and student veteran-sponsored clubs and organizations. Look for doctoral programs in your field offered by schools that are recognized as military/veteran friendly. Examples include (among many, many others) Southern New Hampshire University, the University of Florida, and the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Technology Challenges and Connectivity Issues
Another challenge is the technology employed by your college and doctoral program to deliver program content and through which you’ll complete coursework and interact with faculty and fellow students. These systems are, not surprisingly, used much more for online degree programs, but on-campus students often use them as well. There are dozens of learning management systems (LMS) out there. Find out which LMS you’ll use in your doctoral program and familiarize yourself with its features and functions as soon as possible. If you’re currently serving, check into any potential internet connectivity issues on your base.
Transitioning from Military Life to Doctoral Studies
Military members who have spent time stationed overseas often experience some degree of culture shock during those assignments. Still, culture shock also can occur within the borders of one’s own nation. This can happen during the transition from military to civilian life generally and to the academic environment more specifically. Below is a list of some of the ways that transitioning out of military culture can throw up roadblocks to your academic pursuit, along with a few suggestions for knocking down those roadblocks.
Adjusting to the Civilian Environment
Adjusting to civilian life can be a real challenge for many service members. In this particular case, we’re talking about civilian life in a graduate-level academic environment. Seek out the veterans’ support services your school offers to aid in the transition. Speak with an academic counselor, visit your campus veterans’ office either in-person or online, and/or join a campus veterans’ group. The one thing you definitely do not want to do is isolate yourself.
Many doctorate programs require the completion of prerequisite coursework before you can begin your doctoral studies. The only way to know if the program you’re interested in includes prerequisite coursework is to contact an academic adviser at the program’s school. Often, you can obtain credits that can be used to satisfy prerequisite or possibly even doctoral course requirements for training you received during your military service. This is especially true for specialized training closely related to your chosen academic field. Again, the only way to know for sure is to contact an academic adviser.
Building a Support System
In addition to accessing the veteran student support services offered by your school, we strongly encourage you to use them. But you should also approach support from the other direction as well. That is, make an effort to create and maintain your own individual support system. Along with school support services, your support system should include fellow student veterans, family members, doctoral program faculty and staff, church and community groups, and anyone else in a position to provide you with support and encouragement to keep you on track academically.
Mental Health and Wellness
Possibly the single most important topic covered in this guide, mental health concerns are serious business for both military service members and doctoral students. Specific mental health issues common to student veterans include, among others, anxiety and depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and anger management. A growing number of colleges and universities are adding access to mental health resources to their package of student veteran support services. Make full use of these resources during your transition from military to academic life and throughout your doctoral studies to help you stay strong and healthy mentally.
Military Skills That Translate into Getting Your Doctorate
Do not undervalue the very real and substantial skills that you’ve gained in your military service. You’ll find that many of those skills, like the ones listed below, will serve you well throughout your doctoral studies and provide you with a leg up on your competition in the job market once you’ve earned your degree. Also listed are a few doctoral programs in which each skill may play a more significant role, but all these skills can be put to good use in any doctoral degree program.
Accountability (i.e., the willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions) is the foundational attribute of all members of the U.S. Armed Forces, as anyone who has gone through basic training will tell you. Likewise, accountability is also a foundational trait for any PhD student conducting research in their academic field for their dissertation.
Some degree programs where accountability skills are especially beneficial include a Doctor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan-Flint and a PhD in Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.
Attention to Detail
Attention to detail is another foundational skill drilled into service members from the very start of their training and throughout their military careers. The reason is simple: missing the slightest detail in combat can mean the difference between life and death. Attention to detail is also essential in creating and presenting academic research. Again, it’s simple: your academic work means nothing if it cannot stand up to intense scrutiny.
Examples of degree programs where attention to detail skills are especially beneficial include the PhD in Nuclear Engineering at Pennsylvania State University, PhD in Engineering at the University of Michigan, and PhD in Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida.
A primary skill of all leaders is the ability to make sound, reasoned decisions. For members of the armed forces, however, it’s more than having decision-making ability. It’s being willing to make good decisions, sometimes in a split second and under dangerous conditions. As a doctoral student, immediacy in decision-making might not be as crucial, but sound reasoning certainly is, which is why the decision-making skills developed during your military career will play an essential role in your academic career as well.
Some degree programs where decision-making skills are especially beneficial include the PhD in Cybersecurity at Boise State University, PhD in Engineering at the University of Georgia, and PhD in Criminal Justice at the University of North Georgia.
The ability to effectively express yourself, both orally and in writing, is of the utmost importance in both military and academic environments. It’s also one of the most sought-after skills by employers. Military service emphasizes the importance of communication skills that are not only effective but also respectful to fellow service members both up and down the chain of command. You’ll also find that respectful communications are the key to success in academics, too.
Examples of degree programs where communications skills are especially beneficial include the PhD in Organizational Leadership at the University of Arizona Global Campus, Doctor of Public Administration at West Chester University, and Doctor of Health Administration at Morehouse School of Medicine.
Leadership and Management
At their core, all military skills are leadership skills. Maybe a better way to put it is that leadership is a core component of all military skills. As a PhD student, you’ll be required to apply such leadership skills to effectively delegate tasks and enforce critical standards in conducting research. Another leadership skill you’ll use in your academic work is the ability to listen to and recognize the contributions of others.
Some degree programs where leadership and management are especially beneficial include the Doctor of Business Administration at the University of Dallas, PhD in Health Management at Johns Hopkins University, and the EdD in Leadership and Innovation at New York University Steinhardt.
Service members must be proficient in organizing tasks and personnel to carry out their missions. Characteristics of effective organization include the ability to create a cohesive work environment, communicate mission goals to others, develop realistic time schedules, and encourage teamwork and team input. All these characteristics are drilled into military personnel throughout all ranks. They’re also a major benefit to anyone organizing and planning doctoral research and dissertation work.
Some degree programs where organizing skills are especially beneficial include the PhD in Organizational Leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University, the EdD in Learning and Organizational Change at Baylor University, PhD in Military History at the University of North Texas.
Problem-solving is important enough to college success that it is often taught as a required course for many college majors. You’ll likely not need such a course since problem-solving is part and parcel of military training, often presented as the seven-step Military Problem Solving Process. Military-taught problem-solving skills are so coveted, in fact, that one retired Air Force Major General has referred to them as a ”veterans’ superpower.” As a PhD student, you’ll apply your superpower throughout your doctoral studies, particularly during your dissertation research.
Examples of degree programs where problem-solving skills are especially beneficial include the PhD in Emergency Management at Oklahoma State University, PhD in Cybersecurity at National University, and PhD in Statistics at the University of Minnesota.
According to the Harvard Business Review, Military Skill Sets Lead to Organizational Success and include planning and preparation as essential skills and proficiencies needed in business. Project management and planning skills gained in military service that you’ll put to good use in your doctoral studies include analyzing mission (research) requirements, identifying essential project tasks, resource allocation, time scheduling, and developing contingencies.
Examples of degree programs where project management and planning skills are especially beneficial include the Doctor of Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University, EdD in Organizational Leadership at Pepperdine University, and DBA in Project Management at Liberty University.
Public affairs concern issues of businesses and, most often, nonprofits and government agencies and how they relate to the public. While not all service members receive training specifically in the subject, the military trains its own public affairs officers whose responsibility is to represent their organizations’ interests and activities as they relate to the civilian population. Public affairs training in the military offers tremendous benefits for anyone pursuing a doctoral degree with the goal of entering any number of public relations and affairs-related careers in both the public and private sectors.
Examples of degree programs where public affairs are especially beneficial include the PhD in Government at Cornell University, PhD in Political Science at Boston University, and PhD in Public Affairs at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Team building has always been a cornerstone of military training. Its importance is well-stated by the U.S. Army’s NCO Journal when it says, “Team building is a vital part of the Army because Soldiers need to feel as though they are part of a team if they are going to be willing to fight and die for a teammate and their country.” Team building skills, along with related leadership skills in coaching and mentoring, are essential for success in any number of doctoral programs and the professions they prepare graduates to join.
Examples of degree programs where team building, coaching, and mentoring skills are especially beneficial include the PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Delaware, PhD in Social Work at Columbia University, and the EdD in Education Administration at SUNY University at Buffalo.
Working Under Pressure
Is there any profession where the ability to work under pressure is more critical than in the military? The intensity level may be different, but doctoral students must also be able to work under pressure, overcoming the stresses inherent to completing graduate-level coursework, conducting research that stands up to academic scrutiny, and preparing and defending a dissertation. The skills you gain for dealing with high-pressure situations during both your military and academic experiences will serve you well during the inevitable high-pressure moments that will occur in your professional career.
Examples of degree programs where skills in working under pressure are especially beneficial include the DNP in Family Nurse Practitioner in Emergency Care from Rutgers University, PhD in Epidemiology from Emory University, and DPS in Homeland Security from St. John’s University.
Financial Aid and Scholarships for Military
Funding a college education is challenging for most students, whether they’re veterans or not. You probably have at least a general idea about VA education benefits, but there are plenty of other valuable funding resources available exclusively for vets that you may not know about. Here’s a quick look at the most popular VA and non-VA financial aid resources you’ll want to check out.
Military Tuition Assistance Programs
Scholarships for Military Servicemembers or Veterans
On-Campus and External Resources for Military Members
- Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES): This Department of Defense program provides a range of no-cost education and career-planning services and resources to U.S. Armed Forces members. Accessible on the website are resources for preparing for college, obtaining college credit for military training, and choosing the right school.
- Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program (DoDTAP): DODTAP describes itself as an outcome-based program that “bolsters opportunities, services, and training for transitioning Service members in their preparation to meet post-military goals.” The DoDTAP website offers access to an abundance of services and resources, including many related to post-secondary education.
- Diana Davis Spencer Scholars (DDSS): The DDSS program provides mentoring and other support services to student veterans who are alumni of the Warrior-Scholar Project that aids them in their pursuit of graduate and professional degree programs.
- Military OneSource Benefits Finder: This official U.S. Department of Defense website features a search engine for locating useful resources covering the full spectrum of benefits for current service members and veterans. Users can filter their searches to education and employment-related resources.
- National Resource Directory (NRD): Presented by a partnership of the Department of Defense, Department of Labor, and Department of Veterans Affairs, the NRD is essentially a database of resources designed to support the “recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration” of military members and veterans. Included is an excellent search engine for finding education and training resources.
- Non-VA Resources for Student Veterans and School Administrators: This U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs webpage provides information and links to non-VA government and private resources covering a wide range of services and topics that may be helpful to student veterans.
- Peer Advisors for Veteran Education (PAVE): PAVE is a peer support group whose goal is to help new incoming student veterans make the transition from military to academic life by matching them with experienced student veterans trained by PAVE as Peer Advisors. PAVE currently operates on dozens of college and university campuses nationwide.
- Service to School (S2S): S2S is a nonprofit organization that provides free undergraduate and graduate school application counseling services to current military service members and veterans to help them get admitted to the best school for their academic and career interests.
- Student Veterans of America (SVA): SVA is a nonprofit organization representing more than 750,000 members in over 1,500 campus chapters. It’s dedicated to empowering student veterans both in and beyond the classroom.
- VetSuccess on Campus (VSOC): A service of the Veterans Administration, VSOC offers vocational rehabilitation counseling services to current service members and veterans aimed at providing support in their transition from military to college life. VSOC counselors can be found on over 100 college campuses throughout the nation.
Interview with a Health & Wellness Expert
Michael Fountain is a strategic leader with experience in operational efficiencies, transformational processes, and innovative strategies, with a proven track record of increased process improvements, strategic project management, and leading large transformation and changes management efforts. Fountain is a scholar, professional, military veteran, and DEI advocate for building, creating, and sustaining diverse work outcomes and nurturing organizational cultures. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Global Leadership and Change at Pepperdine University.
Can you tell us a little about your military background and experience?
I spent a total of 11 years in the military, including service in the Army National Guard and Army. I trained first as an infantryman and later as an engineer.
What made you decide to pursue a doctoral degree? Did your military background affect your choice of academic field or research focus? If so, how?
I decided to pursue my doctoral degree because of my internal yearning to explore my curiosity, learn experimental principles in practice, translate my ideas into tangible working models, and become an expert in my field of interest. Being able to travel abroad during my military experience started my global curiosity about how interconnected the world is.
Was your travel abroad a result of being stationed overseas?
I completed several special missions abroad. However, I was stationed stateside. My last mission was in Iraq, where I helped facilitate the building of schools and a mosque for a local community.
Do you feel you’ve been able to capitalize on or leverage your military experience during your degree studies? Do you believe your military background has given you any unique opportunities or advantages in your academic pursuit?
My field of study is global leadership and change. I was able to leverage my military experience by bringing the leadership skills I learned during my time in service. During my studies, I understood and communicated my global experiences related to cultural differences, societal norms, and socioeconomic factors due to my own experiences and familiarities.
Have you faced any specific challenges in your degree pursuit that are unique to your military background? If so, have you been able to tap into any school support services or campus organizations to help you with those challenges?
One of my biggest challenges during my military experience was the lack of representation in leadership roles. At Pepperdine University, there has been a big focus on ensuring representation is a primary factor in enrollment, employment, course material, and programs.
How has your military background or veteran status influenced your post-doctorate career plans?
I have always had a passion for supporting people. Learning about the disparities people face, domestically and globally, sparked that passion even more. My determination has given me the drive and motivation to pursue careers that directly impact investing in the needs of people globally, whether that’s education, health, wellness, social justice, etc.