Choosing a Master’s Program as an Air Force Officer
Choosing a master’s program was one of the most difficult decisions I have made in my life. As some of you may have read in my more personal posts, many of the major decisions I have made over the years have been based on a series of opened or closed doors. I would sometimes make a career decision such as to separate from the Air Force, but that door would close and would soon be followed by an opportunity such as retraining or commissioning. In this way it seemed to me that I just followed the path of life which was laid out in front of me. For choosing a master’s program I felt like I was supposed to make a well informed decision for myself. It was sort of like I was being told now that I am an adult and I have 10+ years of wisdom and professional experience, the decision was up to me alone.
The Air Force Answer – If and When
After asking this question of others and of myself hundreds of times, I realized there is an Air Force answer and a personal answer to the question of whether or not to get a master’s degree. The Air Force answer is fairly straight-forward: although getting a master’s degree isn’t mandatory at this time, you should probably “check the block.” A few years ago having a master’s degree was required for promotion to Lt Col. Prior to that it may not have been required in writing, but if you didn’t have a master’s degree you wouldn’t promote to Maj or above. Now I think Air Force leadership has recognized the fault in mandating a master’s degree at any level so they removed the “requirement.” However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to add it again later.
Since having a master’s degree isn’t a hard Air Force requirement right now, when and whether or not you do your degree is largely up to you. Here are some points to think about when considering the ‘if and when’ to the Air Force answer:
- Being Competitive. Don’t give a promotion or assignment board a reason to pick your peer over you. Almost every other Lieutenant I am working with has already started their master’s. When it comes time to PCS and our records are otherwise identical, having his master’s degree box checked already will set them above me.
- Ops Tempo. As a Lieutenant we will be the least busiest of our career now vs. later. Now we work at the tactical level so we are the do-ers of the mission. As we are promoted to leadership positions we will have more responsibility, and thus less free time for school. Additionally, more officers start to have families the further into their career they go.
- Cost – Tuition Assistance. Officers are eligible for tuition assistance for master’s degrees, but the rate caps are the same. For example the cap is still $250 per semester hour even though graduate classes are often twice as expensive. Take advantage of the assistance while you still can (while you are active duty).
- Active Duty Service Commitment (ADSC)- Tuition Assistance. Officers incur a 2-3 year ADSC for using TA (I can’t remember if it is 2 or 3.) Since this can be paid concurrently with any other ADSC you owe, you should definitely consider this if you are only planning on doing one assignment as an officer then separating.
- Tuition Assistance. There are web sites out there which can help you find schools who will match our TA rate even for master’s degrees. For example, Tuition Assistance only covers $250 per semester hour but there are schools out there which will lower their cost to $250 per semester hour for active duty military, allowing you to go to school with 100% of tuition paid by the government.
- Type of Degree. I have attended many mentorship briefings, and someone always asks this question. ‘Do I need to get a degree in a space field because I am in the space career field?’ Many Field Grade Officers are asked this, and their answer is the same. The Air Force does not care what field their degree is in, or if it aligns with that officer’s current career field. I completely agree. I literally feel like at this time or for this season, the Air Force literally looks at the master’s degree as a yes/no block to check. Choosing a degree program is more of a personal decision, and I will talk more about that below.
- Online vs. In-Residence. While I don’t regret that decision, pursuing a master’s degree gave me the opportunity to do it over again. I didn’t want to go to the most convenient school this time, I wanted to do research and make a deliberate decision. I knew I wanted to do my degree online (mostly because I didn’t like the local options) so that helped me narrow down my options.
- GRE/GMAT Scores. I never took the SAT/ACT in high school because I immediately joined the Air Force, so the thought of taking the GMAT or GRE slightly terrified me. I of course took the ASVAB and AFOQT, but those are different, they are ‘military.’ I looked at these tests as legitimate placement tests, and to be honest I was really nervous how I would stack up against other college grads. Additionally, I finished my bachelor’s in 2012 and my last math class was in 2010, so I really would have had to dust off the cobwebs. I told myself over and over again for about 14 months that I needed to man up and take one of these tests, but in the end I chickened out. Instead, I used this as a discriminating factor and only considered schools who did not require these test scores.
- Prestige. This was really important to me. I picked the easiest option for my bachelor’s degree, and my education laid an outstanding foundation which I have drawn upon professionally for the past 5-6 years. But despite how much I learned, the fact remained that virtually no-one has ever heard of my school. I suppose this brought out the pride in me because it personally irked me. I told myself that I am better than that, and I am capable of so much more. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? No. But does it matter to me? Apparently it does. I’ll talk more about this later.
Choosing a Major – Information Technology
Now that I started to narrow down the direction I wanted to go, I really needed to nail down a major. It probably took me a solid three or four years to actually make this decision. When I started making this decision I was still in the IT field as an enlisted 3D so my decision leaned toward cyber. I knew I wanted to go to one of the best schools so I Google’d “best computer science schools” and eventually found a US News Report. My method was much more complicated than this, but I basically found 4-5 different “best of” lists and cross referenced them with each other before I actually started going down the list of programs. I wanted to learn from one of the best programs, so this is how I found what I wanted.
Here are some of the lists I referenced. At this point I decided to pursue a Master’s of Science in Information Technology (Heinz) through Carnegie Mellon University. I debated the IT Management track vs. the Information Security and Assurance track for a long time, but chose Information Security and Assurance in the end (until I decided to go an entirely different direction.)
Useful links I frequented at this time:
- US News Best Computer Science Graduate Programs
- NSA/DHS National Centers of Academic Excellence in IA
- The 100 Best Universities in the World
- What are Ivy League Universities and Why Should I Care
- Master’s of Science in Information Technology Management (Carnegie Mellon)
- 100 Best Online Colleges for 2017 (thebestschools.org)
- US News Best Online Graduate Information Technology Programs
- Webster University – M.S. Space Systems Operations Management – This program is available online and I believe you do not need GMAT or GRE scores for admission. My assessment was that it is less prestigious (although General Mark Welsh (retired) is an alumni), but still a decent program. The cost was lower than the top universities in the nation, which was a plus.
- University of Colorado Colorado Springs – Master of Engineering in Space Operations – Almost everyone I talked to spoke highly of this program, including retired 13S’s. I think a lot of people retire from the Air Force and teach with this program so it is drawing upon some solid experience. My assessment was that it is a solid program and if I wanted to do a space degree I would probably pursue this program.
- Air Force Institute of Technology – AFIT has some extremely good programs to include a Master’s in Space Systems, Aeronautical Engineering, and Astronautical Engineering. The Air Force will often fund your education here but you have to apply and there are generally TOS requirements at your first “ops tour” before you can apply. My assessment was I didn’t really want a degree with “Air Force” in the name. I know this is wrong but it felt the same as CCAF feels as an enlisted guy. It can check the block but I personally wanted something different, mostly a different perception for jobs I try to get after the Air Force. There is a general stereotype in the private sector that people in the military only know military things, so for me personally, getting a degree from AFIT didn’t help me counter that stereotype.
Needless to say I decided not to pursue a degree in Space Operations. A different mentor who is a retired 13S Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) told me although UCCS had a great program, she advised against getting a degree in Space Ops. I expressed my concern about feeling out of my comfort zone and she said she recommended self-study and that it was something I could easily overcome without the degree. She told me that as an officer I wouldn’t be operational for long so a more beneficial master’s degree would be a management masters with a business or language minor, or even a government or international studies program. Her advice was to think about what would be most beneficial after the Air Force.
Choosing a Major – Engineering
My search for the right major was becoming exhausting, but I was dedicated to finding the perfect program which would help me achieve my goals. I put everything on hold for a few months and focused most of my efforts on my Air Force training. After I finished training I restarted my search basically from scratch, and I reconsidered my personal career goals.
- Two or three years later, I still had not taken the GRE or GMAT, so it probably wasn’t going to happen.
- Going to a prestigious school was still important to me.
- I wanted to complete my degree 100% online.
- Cost was not an issue, or rather, I did not want to let it become an issue for me or prevent me from obtaining the education I wanted.
My personal goals hadn’t really changed, so I eventually realized the only thing I really needed to decide was what type of program I wanted to go for. Although I thought IT was a wise choice it never really felt right. I already explained my thoughts on a space ops degree so I essentially had to go back to the drawing board and really ask myself what I wanted out of my education. The advice I received in the past still resonated inside of me, so I began internalizing it:
- “At this point in your career, it is time for you to specialize. You need to have a field of expertise and be an expert in that field.”
- Your education is your foundation of intellect from which you draw upon to make decisions in the future. – Paraphrase, Lt Gen Gina M. Grosso
In my opinion a lot of personal thought and reflection should go into deciding what you want to major in. I would love to be able to put advice on here that applies to everyone, but it is such a personal decision that it is essentially impossible to provide general advice which can be applicable to your own personal situation. This is why I have chosen to walk through my entire decision-making process for my own personal decision, in hopes that you can pull out what is helpful to you and meditate on your own answers. I am of course always open to helping you pursue your own career or educational goals if you need it (my email address is at the top of the blog.)
I understand people’s reasoning with simply “checking the block” for your master’s degree but in my opinion if this is where it stops for you, you are missing out on a huge opportunity. Here are my closing thoughts on how to think about education.
- Building a foundation of intellect. The valuable part of learning is not in what you learn, but how you practically apply it in the future. Once you build a “foundation of intellect” through your education and experience, as you progress through your career you will find yourself drawing from this foundation more and more. The more you build this foundation when you are young, the farther you can go in the advanced years of your career without having to ‘touch up’ your knowledge with self-study or additional education.
- You are learning more than you think you are. It has been five years since I completed my bachelor’s degree, and I recently realized that I use the knowledge I obtained from earning my degree on an almost daily basis. I built an Microsoft Access database the other day to make things easier at work. My management classes have helped me see how my squadron could be reorganized to work more effectively. My two basic accounting classes help me manage my rental property… I have so many more examples.
- Education vs. experience. Education and experience have a truly symbiotic relationship. You will be better armed to tackle professional duties if you have a foundation of education, while having experience will help you to better understand the importance of education. Being a “lifelong learner” means spending your entire career constantly developing both.
- Security Experience. I started in Security Forces, so as an Airman I gained a lot of security related experience.
- Management/Information Technology Education. I started my education in Management and Information Technology. Management closely related to what I already did as an Airman leader in Security Forces, Information Technology is where I wanted to go.
- Management Experience. As a Security Forces Airman and NCO I gained management level experience leading my Airmen on post.
- Information Technology Education + Management Experience. As a Security Forces NCO I was hired for a program/project management position which helped me apply my Information Technology education while gaining additional program/project management experience.
- Information Technology Experience. Retraining to comm allowed me to gain Information Technology experience.
- Space Operations Experience. Now that I am a space officer, I have been gaining space operations experience.
As you can see, I have been able to apply my Management/Information Technology education to every professional position I have been asked to fill so far. Even now as a space officer, I have found having a background of education and experience in Information Technology has been extremely helpful in understanding the more technical aspects of my career. In this case, I still have a foundation of educational intellect available to pull from. The question is how much more do I have left, and what should I augment it with in the future?