After years in the military, many soldiers are ready for a college degree and a new career. But figuring out how to focus your education can be difficult.
"It's challenging to sometimes transfer out of one part of your life into another," says Philip Larson, program director for veteran and military services at University of Michigan—Ann Arbor.
Many of the skills veterans may develop during their time in the armed services, in fields as diverse as health care or law, can make this challenge easier, experts say. Time in the military is often the first step in a career that's enhanced with the right major. The experience can help former soldiers figure out what they like and what they're passionate about.
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"I think there is a higher percentage that you will select a major or pursue your degree in that area of concentration that you've got some experience in," says retired Lt. Col. Joshua Jones, director of veteran and disability support services at North Carolina A&T State University. Hands-on experience in a topic can make it more attractive as an academic pursuit, he says.
At A&T, student veterans choose a variety of majors, such as engineering or international relations, but many select a degree track aligned with their military experience. Someone who served in the military police, for example, may major in criminal justice, says Jones. This major is also popular at California State University—Fullerton, says Catherine Ward, the school's veterans student services coordinator.
Criminal justice majors are often drawn to this degree track for many of the same reasons they're drawn to the military: They want to protect and serve, says Ward.
Business administration, though, is more popular for vets at the school because of its job prospects, she says. "Career is the goal," she says. "Business certainly seems to be an area where solid careers can be found."
In this concentration, and others, former soldiers can easily apply some of the skills learned through military training, such as critical thinking, problem-solving and communication, she says.
Experts also say vets who served as medics, which involves providing care to injured soldiers, often study nursing once arriving at a university.
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At the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, some former military officers who had studied at the Defense Language Institute end up pursuing a degree in linguistics; others may have dealt with nuclear propulsion in submarines before studying nuclear engineering.
The decision to pursue a specific major is often based on what kind of experience veterans had in the military and if they enjoyed it, experts says.
"A lot of folks go in to find out what they like and don't like," says Larson. He emphasizes that matching military experience and long-term life plans is a nuanced process.
"It really is an individual experience," he says. "It depends on what their own personal goals will be and what they would want to do for a career."
Even though years serving in the armed forces can give students a solid start for academic pursuits, sometimes it also gives students a feel for what they don't want to do, experts say.
A veteran whose military experience focused on weapons, for example, might not be able to easily translate those skills, says Larson.
"There's not really a job for anybody who operates an M1 tank in the civilian world, other than maybe a repair type of thing," he says.
For veterans who are unsure of which degree to pursue, Ward suggests they consider several factors.
"I certainly would encourage any prospective student to ask themselves: What are they good at? And what do they like to learn about? Where do they see their strengths?" she says.
For any veteran making the transition to college, she encourages them to speak to a school adviser and find a supportive network.
"Find a way to get connected with either their peers or like individuals so that they don't go it alone," she says, noting that returning to civilian life can be easier with the support of family and friends.