Veterans’ Greatest Misconception When Applying to Graduate School

So, you are a veteran (when you are done with this post, be sure to follow this link with more general information getting a PhD as a veteran), and you decided that a PhD was right for you. I have some hard truths to share with you, and you will not like them. In the best circumstances, applying and getting accepted into a PhD program is an expensive ordeal. Colleges do not attempt to make the process any less stressful or cheaper. As a USAF veteran, I was surprised when I started applying to various PhD programs, and I had very little success. My lack of success was partly due to the many misconceptions that I had, and today I hope to share one of them with you. I will attempt to light the way, and by the end of this article, you will be better informed. Hopefully, your application will shine like a star.

Many vets falsely assume that people in the civilian world will be as informative, kind, and helpful as the folks in the military world. The transition from military to civilian can be an arduous one, and if you are uninformed, it can be a real headache. To add to the headache, the PhD application process is as mystifying as it is frustrating. This frustration is enough to make many people give up on advanced education (I know I almost did). In some cases, the application process can be needlessly expensive as well. You should take a costly generalized test (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT), then you must send those scores to every college you apply to. You must pay to have your transcripts sent to all the schools you want to attend. Finally, you will probably have to pay an application fee. These costs can add up. When I applied to four MA programs, it cost me about $1000. For that price, I could have taken a cheap vacation.

There will be many things for you to write or talk about in your applications (check out this nice blog post on tips for applying to PhD programs). You will probably have to write about your research interests, a personal statement, attach a resume/CV, interview, answer questions about your motives, or write about your experiences. These are all areas where you can easily talk too much about your military service and consequently hinder your application. Military service is significant, but it is only one part of who you are.

As for my experience, I have applied to and been accepted into a handful of MAs in Philosophy, PhDs in Philosophy, and PhDs in Business/Management. I have also talked in-depth with several admissions committees. I admit that I am not an expert, there are many gaps in my knowledge, and I have never served on an admissions committee. I will draw from my own experiences and knowledge, but there are some things that I do not know. If it seems like I am couching my statements with a lot of “safety words,” it is because I am. No two people’s applications will be the same, and no two admissions committees will be the same.

Additionally, the United States is a vast, diverse country with a lot of colleges. Your experience may vary when it comes to the application process; however, I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I made. Even if one of the schools you applied to is super “veteran-friendly,” not all of them will be. I don’t want you to miss out on your dream school, because you made a silly mistake that I also made.

I will mostly focus on the PhD application process, but it is generalizable to any graduate school application. Many veterans overemphasize their veteran experience, and that leads to much heartbreak. (Although, this is a general problem for any person’s experience). It is understandable to overemphasize military service when you spend years of your life attached to it. Your time in the military can seem like the most important thing in the world. Additionally, military service is essential and necessary for society. When done correctly, it helps to make the world a better and freer place. However, not all people understand or view service in the same way. Sadly, no matter what you do in life, you will either have to work with or work for some of those who do not see your service in the same way you do. Some people may love the fact that you are a vet, others may hate it, but most will not care either way.

The Greatest Misconception Vets Have: Your Status as a Veteran Matters to Colleges

In the world of graduate applications, your military service can be both a blessing and a curse. It may put you ahead of an equally qualified candidate, or it may disqualify you because “you do not fit the grad student profile.” Some people will see your military service and see you as someone who is well-traveled, hardworking, and experienced. Others will see your service and think you were “too dumb to go to college,” they may assume you hate whole groups of people, imagine that you support certain political parties, or think you are a PTSD riddled mess. Thus, you must guard yourself and be ready to deal with frustration.

Many times, when your application is denied, you will not know why they rejected you. If they do tell you why, the answers you get will likely be very vague. They may say things like, “there were better candidates,” you were not a good “fit,” or my favorite, they were “unsure about your abilities.” You will be left feeling as though you failed when, in reality, you had very little control of the situation to begin with. You cannot control how people might view your veteran status or your accomplishments. What may seem to you like a story of struggle and achievement (such as taking classes online while being active duty in the military), may seem unimpressive to them. From my experience, I have found academia to have a very negative view of online classes (although Covid-19, may have changed that). It is an uncomfortable truth, and you must come to know it.

For better or worse, the veneration of the military is a side effect of our culture, which attempts to honor military service. This leads to the biggest misconception that many vets hold: that their military service matters to civilians.

(Note from Dave: It’s not that military service is misunderstood, it’s just that academic publications are the currency in academia. In order to survive in a graduate program, you need to publish research articles, no matter your experience.) Consider watching this video:

The veneration of the military is the crucial point. The military gives you a title and makes you into somebody. You go from being “some guy named Zach” to being “Staff Sergeant Renfro.” However, when you crossover from military to veteran, you lose your previous identity. When you get your DD-214, “Staff Sergeant Renfro” ceases to exist, and suddenly you are “some guy named Zach” again. When you are just some guy or gal, you are no more important or significant than any other guy or gal. As a veteran, you can no longer pull from the social capital that is afforded to military members.

Now there are some veterans whose veteran status will give them an advantage. Veterans who worked on research programs (such as weapons R&D), in which they did original research will be at an advantage. Research positions in the military are exceedingly rare. Those veterans who might receive an advantage in college applications are Medal of Honor recipients, Purple Heart recipients, and people whose military service has allowed them to do incredible things. For the record, “incredible things” are things like being on Forbes 30 under 30. Incredible things are things that civilians can understand and that are newsworthy. For example, building a school in Afghanistan is newsworthy, whereas loading munitions on a plane is not.

Sadly, most veterans (myself included) will not get to do incredible newsworthy things. The things you did while you were in the military might seem incredible to you or your family, but they will not likely impress any admissions committees. I know this is unfair to those people whose service did not give them a chance to do those “newsworthy” things, but life is unfair, and so are PhD admissions. I would not include more military stuff on your application than is necessary to tell your story. You want to make sure that you are more than a one-trick pony, and you don’t want to let yourself become defined by veteran status. If you are defined by vet status, then you will find it hard to fit into new groups (such as a PhD cohort). It will help if you emphasize your interest in the field of study and any research experience.

“Fit” is something that many PhD committees try to measure. In many cases, a committee will decide whether or not you “fit” into their program based on the written materials you submitted. As sad as it is to say, some faculty members will pass over an application that makes you look like Captain America. They might tell you are not a good fit and move on to some kid whose most significant achievement is a 4.0 GPA and paying his rent on time. Additionally, if your job had you involved in the kill-chain, some admissions committees or members may pass you over out of a misplaced fear that you are racked with PTSD or are some kind of warmonger. This may be an unpleasant truth, but you would rather know the truth than live in fantasy.

What is the most important take away from all this?

The most important thing to take away from this article is not to hide your veteran status, be proud of your service, and let it shine. But, don’t let yourself become defined by veteran status, otherwise, you will always be tied to the past and never able to achieve the future. Whether you left the military after four years or forty years, if you are a veteran, then your military days are over.

You must open up your life and your identity to become whomever you need to be now. That means that you must highlight all the pieces of your life in your PhD application. Talk about personal goals, talk about things you have achieved as a civilian. Talk about your research goals, talk about your research interests, and talk about your research experience. A PhD is all about research, so you have to show aptitude and excitement for the area you want to research.

(Note from Dave again: Doing a PhD is a ‘research’ degree, so you should focus on what you want to study based on your experiences in military service. For instance, if you do have PTSD or have friends that have had PTSD, then the focus could be on how you can reduce PTSD in military service using organizational design.)

Talk about how you have set an excellent example for others. Talk about ways you have achieved things, which you never thought were possible. If you do those things, your application will be 1000 times stronger than if you just spend page after page talking about how many troops you had, the budget of your organization, or how you improved efficiency of squadron training materials by 15%. Let yourself shine and remember the military was only one part of your life. You can succeed in academia; it is just a matter of finding the right program and the right mentors. I believe in you.

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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