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Higher Education Academic Guide for Veterans

Veterans are a special segment of the employment market. If you've served in the military, you are likely highly skilled, disciplined, and motivated. However, your military training likely did not involve the academic credentials that the civilian world expects. Further, you may have injuries or other difficulties arising from your service. Regardless, there are still numerous opportunities available for you.

One of the key strengths you have as a veteran is the GI Bill. This lauded program will help you pursue an education with less debt than you would incur as a civilian. When you evaluate your experience as a soldier, you probably have many skills that you can apply towards a degree or certificate program. On the other hand, you might wish to pursue something wholly different and start your civilian life on a whole new footing.

This can be challenging because the civilian world does not provide the rigid training and pre-set tracks to success that are available in the military. Rather, you will need to ask yourself what is most important for you and then find the best route to success in that area. However, you can do it; the values and discipline you have learned in your service to your country can serve you well. Once you determine what you want, you will have taken the first step in achieving your goal.

This page is designed to help you get back to school, into a rewarding career, and on the road to success. The resources listed at the end will provide additional information, too.

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Choosing a Degree Program

This is a very important process. Not every program is created to suit your specific needs, so it is vital that you have a firm idea of exactly what you need prior to applying. For example, you might want to pursue medical school after you complete your undergraduate degree but if a school only offers a standard biology curriculum it might not prepare you to even apply to your first choice med school.

Not only is it vital to assess a program's curriculum, you also need to determine that the program is fully accredited. If you are pursuing business or engineering, among other fields, look for a national or regional accreditation. You should also look for information regarding how the program's alumni are doing and you would be well-served to investigate the school's support regarding career counseling, including job fairs and other town-and-gown relations with business leaders.

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What do you want your career to be?

When you consider a career path, it's far more important to examine yourself than it is to weigh median salaries as listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is, when you pursue a career path that reflects your skills and abilities, you are far likelier to be happier and more successful than if you chose an ill-fitting, but higher paying, job.

Thus, take an inventory of your skills and interests. In fact, your hobbies might be a good indicator of what you should pursue. For instance, if you enjoy long hours reading, you might be best suited to a degree in the humanities that might lead to a career such as law, public policy, or library sciences. If you'd rather spend time rebuilding a motor or building models, you could be suited to work as an engineer.

Other core skills such as math, writing, interpersonal communication, and general organization can also lend clues to areas you should consider. If you have strong math abilities, you can consider careers in the worlds of business, science, and high tech, among others. Then, within those broad areas you can begin to sort out what specific careers appeal to you. If you are happy working in front of a computer for long hours, look for fields such as accounting, computer programming, or engineering. Others with strong mathematical and analytical abilities, but also strong interpersonal communication skills, might thrive in a sales, management, or even a clinical healthcare career.

Which degree is the best suited to help you move into this career?

Once you have determined the general direction of your career, it's time to find a degree that will help you launch a career. If you have a highly specialized career in mind, your decision will likely be easier than those who have a more general sense of what will work best for them. If you’ve been building and programming model robots since childhood, love calculus, know a few programming languages, and spend your time outdoors rebuilding bicycles and motors, you might be suited to a robotics engineering degree. On the other hand, if you are more drawn to reading and writing and can envision a career where those two things are paramount, you could consider a pre-law program or even a Philosophy and Economics double major.

It might be helpful to discover how successful individuals have achieved their status. You might have contacts you can reach out to who will be happy to tell you how they made it. You might find that, in some fields, there are multiple routes to the same point but that other fields are quite rigid in their protocols for success. For instance, you cannot become an attorney without a law degree, and doctors and scientists are focused on their fields from the day they begin college. Nurses, teachers, engineers, and CPAs also tend to follow very rigid paths to their position.

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Once you have decided on a field to pursue, and a degree, you can further hone your focus. For instance, if you wish to pursue an accounting degree, you will find that there are numerous paths to take within that seemingly specific degree field. You’ll find that you can concentrate on forensic accounting, financial accounting, or governmental/nonprofit work. However, this is the beauty of your life as an undergraduate. You can explore a range of areas and determine how well they will work for you. Some have redirected their entire career based on an elective course.

Which program is the best option for you?

You will also need to determine what degree level you are prepared to tackle before heading into the job market. These days, more and more workers are attaining master’s degrees. While some fields absolutely demand an advanced degree, not all do. Then again, you can work in some fields prior to graduate school, though you might not be able to achieve the level of success you envisioned. For instance, a graduate law degree is a requirement to become an attorney. However, you can work as a well-paid paralegal with as little as an associate degree. That experience can be very informative and might result in your pursuit of law school, or you could decide that paralegal work is fulfillment enough.

With this in mind, consider that many fields allow entry at any degree level. You might be able to land an entry level job in your chosen field after completing an associate's degree, even if you might need a bachelor’s or master’s degree to reach the peak of career fulfillment. However, if you alternate years in school with years in the field, it might result in a more robust career. For instance, if you want to become a physical therapist, you can work as a PT assistant with an associate degree. In a similar way, you can work in engineering or architecture with a two-year technician degree. This approach will not only bolster your resume with experience, but you will be able to be certain that this career is exactly what you want.

Lastly, consider the expense of your degree level. It is not cheap to attend four years of college and then dive into a graduate degree, especially if you haven't worked in that field yet. You should try to gain practical experience in your chosen field as part of your education. You can do this formally through a for-credit internship program or informally through full- or part-time jobs while you work on your courses.

Benefits of Earning Your Degree

It is enormously beneficial to complete a degree. As the old saying goes, "Nobody can ever take your education away." A college degree is a permanent positive badge on your resume. A large part of this phenomenon is that a degree represents completion. Thus, if you are one semester shy of an undergraduate degree, it might be more beneficial to mention the associate degree you completed along the way than to try to explain why you have yet to complete a four-year degree.

Hiring managers love to see that you started a project and completed it. Further, they are more likely to recommend you for higher pay if you’ve completed a degree. Your degree indicates that you have attained a significant knowledge base on top of stronger critical thinking skills.

Lastly, when you have a degree you have something that you can build on. Degrees are often required if you want to pursue a professional certificate and especially if you want to attend graduate school. Even if your degree didn't cover the specific subject of your graduate work, that you have completed the baccalaureate degree is a large part of your application. You can then easily pick up the courses you might need to complete for full admission to the graduate school of your choice.

Fastest Growing Career Paths

  • Solar Photovoltaic Installer – Growth rate 2016-26: 105% – Work Environment: HVAC/Electrical Contractors or Self-employed

    solar_photovoltaic_installer Solar Photovoltaic Installers are charged with installing and maintaining solar arrays in a variety of locations. Frequently, they are HVAC technicians or electricians. If your job in the military involved electrical work or construction, then this career could be an ideal transition back to civilian life. If this position is appealing, investigate states that are offering the strongest incentives for solar installation. Those states are likely to have the strongest demand for solar installers. If you are in a state that does not offer such incentives, you can work as an electrician with a certification in solar installation. Your credentials will stand out to those who still wish to save on their electric bill and businesses looking for hard working individuals.

  • Wind Turbine Technicians – Growth rate 2016-26: 96% – Work Environment: Electric Power Generation Plants, as Maintenance, or Self-employed

    wind_turbine_technicians The sustainable energy sector is growing fast these days. You might pursue a career as a wind turbine technician if you have built military experience as an electrician, mechanic, or some other skilled trade. While consumer-grade turbines are not quite a viable technology, you can work on large wind farms. You will need to be comfortable with high places, outdoors, and even in confined spaces to service conduits.

  • Physician Assistant – Growth rate 2016-26: 37% – Work Environment: Physician’s Offices, Hospitals, and Outpatient Care Centers

    physician_assistant If your military work involved work as a nurse, or some other healthcare-related job, this is a great field to pursue. Physician assistants perform many of the same functions as a doctor, but they don't have the same licensure as an MD. PAs earn median salaries in the six figures and they frequently work autonomously. Many states allow PAs to manage their own clinics, albeit under the license of an MD who may work offsite.

  • Physical Therapy Assistants – Growth rate 2016-26: 31% – Work Environment: Offices of Physical, Occupational, and Speech Therapists or Hospitals

    physical_therapy_assistants This is a fantastic, fast-growing part of the healthcare field. Physical therapy is increasingly in demand, so if you have a military background in healthcare, you might wish to pursue work as a PT assistant. You will need at least an associate degree in this specific field in order to land a job and to qualify for state licensure. However, if you only have high school diploma you might be able to find work as a PT aide, but your pay will be approximately half of what an assistant makes.

  • Software Developers – Growth rate 2016-26: 31% – Work Environment: Computer System Design Services and Software Publishers

    software_developers Your high tech position in the military may have prepared you for this career already. The workplace environment is likely to be a darkened room full of silent cubicles where programmers write code for hours on end. Other software developers work from home, either as independent contractors or as full employees in a remote-working situation. You'll probably need a bachelor’s degree in computer science, but most hiring managers will want to see evidence of your coding skills. Thus, even non-degreed programmers are often able to do very well.

  • Medical Assistants – Growth rate 2016-26: 29% – Work Environment: Offices of Physicians or Hospitals

    medical_assistants Medical assistants can start work after completing a relatively short certificate program. However, if you complete an associate degree you are likely to find better job prospects and pay. There may be equivalent support positions in the military but suffice to say that, if you worked under nurses in the military, this position will suit you well.

  • Information Security Analysts – Growth rate 2016-26: 28% – Work Environment: Computer System Design Services and Finance

    information_security_analysts Since cybersecurity is becoming increasingly vital, this is one of the faster-growing fields. If you performed any coding or IT work in the military, you are well primed for this position. In fact, the military is probably training many soldiers in this field. After all, if your battlefield plans or troop movement information is breached, an entire area could be forfeit. Now that you're in the civilian world, you can help private industry protect its vital intellectual property from prying eyes.

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Employment Rights for Veterans

As a veteran, you have special employment rights that you need to know. This is especially pertinent if you've been injured in the line of duty. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) in particular will cover you if you encounter discrimination as a result of your condition. In fact, your disability needn't come from your time on duty, as the Americans with Disabilities Act also covers your right not to be discriminated against.

You also have unique benefits in that federal agencies are bound by law to give preference to veterans. The Veterans Preference Act ensures that disabled and able-bodied veterans alike are given preferential treatment for hiring. There are also provisions for those with severe physical, psychological, or intellectual disability.

You should also be aware of what is legal and illegal when pursuing employment in the civilian world. For instance, a potential employer is banned from asking you about the cause of any injury, no matter how subtle or severe, during the hiring process. However, it is legal for them to ask about an injury, if the question regards any accommodation you might need. They may also ask performance-related questions regarding your physical state. For instance, they might need to know how you'd handle a situation in which your accommodation was not available.

If you have a disability, you should know that you can ask for accommodations in order to do your job with utmost effectiveness. Depending on your workplace, you might be able to ask your supervisor directly. However, it is a good idea to write out your needs so that you have a record of the request and so that your employer has a clear indication of your specific needs.

To make sure that your rights are protected and that you find any recourse you need, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is available to hear your complaints and to provide the information you need. Their website is full of valuable information for able-bodied and disabled veterans alike.

The GI Bill

The GI Bill was first enacted at the end of World War II as a way to compensate soldiers who had fought hard to defeat the rise of global fascism. Soldiers then and since have been able to attend college or other post-service training for free or at a reduced rate. In fact, many of your fellow veterans enlisted in order to receive a GI Bill and the chance to attend college or receive technical training. The benefits vary depending on a number of factors, but nearly every veteran can pursue an education with the assistance of their GI Bill benefits.

Many soldiers, reservists, or national guardsman can receive assistance with college tuition. The Montgomery Bill – Active Duty and Selected Reserve – covers soldiers who served at least two years in active duty. For Selected Reserve soldiers, you are eligible for benefits if your commitment is at least for six years. Note that you must have a high school diploma or a General Equivalency Degree (GED). You should also remain in good standing for the duration of your service commitment. However, if you receive an honorable discharge on account of disability, you are still eligible for educational benefits.

If you have a dependent spouse or children, you should know that they are also covered under the GI Bill. However, these benefits only become available if you are profoundly injured or killed in action. This sort of legacy can be of comfort for a service that is often inherently dangerous, even in non-combat situations. As a soldier, your service will translate into benefits directly to your family.

Yellow Ribbon Programs

The Yellow Ribbon Program is an interesting feature of the GI Bill that can allow you to complete your education in an institution that the GI Bill might not otherwise cover. That is, if you decide to attend college out of state, in a private institution, or are ready for graduate school, you may still be eligible for benefits. First you need to determine that you qualify for this special program, then you need to ensure that your intended school is a participant and that their level of participation supports your goals.

First off, you will need to have spent a minimum of 36 months in active duty. This can be one straight stretch or service broken up over time. You also qualify if you spent less than 36 months but were discharged with a Purple Heart on or after 9/11/2001. You can also qualify if you've received a Fry Scholarship, which is available to the children of soldiers who fell in the line of duty on or after 9/11/2001.

Your school should also be a participant in the Yellow Ribbon Program. Note that each school is allowed a certain number of students for each term. Thus, if you want to use your Yellow Ribbon benefits you should apply for them as soon as possible. Consider that more popular schools might fill their quota quickly.

The program can be limited because the schools themselves contribute a set, agreed-upon amount to help cover the additional fees and tuition. These funds come from a scholarship or grant program that are matched by the Yellow Ribbon Program. Thus, each school's Yellow Ribbon offering is wholly unique. Larger, better-endowed institutions may seem more likely then have more to offer veterans, but don't rely on guesswork. Some smaller schools support an unlimited number of Yellow Ribbon scholars while some top graduate schools support as few as two students through this program. Whatever you’re interested in, you will be best served by researching the list of schools available through the Veterans Administration.