Can You Get A PhD As A (Military) Veteran?


I had always dreamed of doing a PhD, however, while I was in the military, I could not find useful information on doing a PhD as a veteran. I would wonder, does veteran status help or hinder graduate education, and how do my skills prepare me? Is it better to stay in the military and try to do my education, or should I separate? This post will focus mainly on my PhD education, but is generally applicable to all graduate education.

It is possible to do a PhD after being in the military. In fact, veterans have some distinct advantages such as: dedication to duty, the ability to work very hard, and perspective on the difficulties they face. Dedication to duty keeps vets focused when others might slack. The ability to work very hard allows vets to survive the challenges of a high workload. Perspective on their difficulties will enable vets to see that the stakes in many situations are relatively low; missing a deadline will not lead to a loss of life. Things like lousy feedback can derail some students (Check out this blog post of dealing with negative feedback), but veterans are used to harsh feedback. Thus, you have an advantage.

Challenges of Pursuing a PhD in the Military

While roughly 30% of the total US military has an associate’s degree or higher, there is a vast education culture gap between enlisted and officers. Enlisted folks are expected to attempt to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree while serving; however, after earning a bachelor’s degree, there is relatively little support for continuing education. I did my BA in Philosophy while active duty and had many supervisors who did not understand my desire to get an advanced education. I would sometimes tell them, “I only get to live once, and I don’t want to die a dummy“.

Frontline supervisors will typically encourage troops who have a bachelor’s to switch their focus from education to other options that help with promotion, such as volunteering, extra duties, and mentoring. While each of those things is intrinsically valuable, the promotion of non-education items (as well as a lack of programs to support advanced education for enlisted), can lead enlisted members to feel as though their education goals are not worthwhile. For a long time, while I was enlisted, I struggled to get buy-in from my leadership for my education goals. Eventually, I just stopped telling them about my desire to get a PhD. I figured it was better to guard my goals than have them degraded by those I must serve.

For officers, advanced education attainment is a bit of a different story. In many cases, to promote officers must earn a master’s degree. Thus, officers have a culture of support for advanced education. Additionally, officers will sometimes get temporarily released from duty to pursue PhDs and other advanced degrees. Many enlisted folks are not eligible for advanced in-service education due to their rank.

Although the military is full of a lot of brilliant people, it is not a society of academics. For an enlisted person desiring advanced education, they must either stay enlisted and swim against the tide, become an officer (which is exceptionally difficult), transition to guard or reserve to pursue their degree (which has its own difficulties), or separate and continue their education as a civilian. For officers seeking an advanced education, they will find a culture and programs that support education; however, the excessive workloads and competition officers face may make it impossible to pursue education during active duty.

Challenges of Pursuing a PhD Outside of the Military

There are many challenges to pursuing a PhD as a civilian, such as a feeling of a lost purpose, struggling to connect with other students, and financial issues.

One of the most significant challenges for me was the feeling of lost purpose. The feeling that I was not contributing to something meaningful. When I was in the military, I worked in Intelligence. When I separated after a short stint working as a financial advisor, I returned to intelligence work as a private military contractor. My work was exhilarating, stressful, and fun. I contributed to a critical mission. However, at some point, I was exhausted from the work and decided that I needed a vacation, so I did a full-time MA in Philosophy.

After doing my MA, life pulled me (and my family) to southern KY to help take care of my aging grandparents. I wanted to continue my education, so I applied to the only school near me that granted PhDs and decided to study business. Thus, I ended up studying business with a focus on strategic management almost by accident. As I started my studies, I occasionally found myself longing for the days of high-stress missions, great responsibility, and danger. I would wonder whether I was making the right choice in my life. I dealt with those feelings of inadequacy by remembering that my life in Afghanistan was over and that fate did not intend for me to be a “mercenary”. If you leave the military and pursue graduate education, you may have similar feelings. It would help if you remembered that from the randomness of the universe, spontaneous order shall rise. If you chose to pursue a graduate degree, then you are likely already following the path that is meant for you. Order has been made from chaos.

Some veteran students also struggle to connect with other students. I did not have any trouble with this. I am by no means a “people person,” but I love interacting with academics. Much like Confucius, when I am in the company of new people, I try to learn from each of them (Analects VII, 22). My advice to vets struggling to connect with students who may be younger or may have different viewpoints is to put aside any ego and see how they can enrich your life. Sometimes, you might feel like an old person if all your classmates are much younger, but that is fine. Old people are allowed to have fun too. Remember that if you ever held a supervisory position in the military, then you already have experience interacting with young people, so do not stress over it.

Another great struggle that veteran students might face when attempting a PhD is finances. Many vets have families, and it is tough to leave a good job to become a TA or GA while doing a PhD. From my perspective, as a PhD student I make one-fifth of the salary I made when I was working. It has been tough for my wife and me to adjust to the tighter budget, but it is not impossible. If one focuses on living within their means and avoids excess, then it can be done. You must make sure you build strong connections to your support network, and you will survive the financial challenge.

Final Thoughts

Although it might be scary to leave the military (or a job) to do a PhD, if you have the desire, you can make it happen (check out this blog post on pursuing your research journey). Just make sure you pick the right doctorate degree to advance your life (Here is another post about choosing doctoral degrees). Finally, remember learning something new is always a pleasure, to quote Confucius, “isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned?” (Analects I, 1).

This post was written by Zachariah Renfro, a USAF veteran and a third semester PhD student in Business Administration on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

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