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Graduate Degree vs. Work Experience after transitioning


Jordan Sanchez Darien, IL

I am currently trying to decide on what to do when I separate from the Coast Guard next year.

Plan A is to pursue a graduate degree full-time on the G.I. bill along with a research position/assistantship to cover non-educational costs.

Plan B is to go to work in the industry that I hope to find a career in, and pursue a graduate degree part-time and online.

I am looking specifically at a career in agricultural/natural resource economics, but I think that this question can apply to people in most industries.

27 February 2021 16 replies Education & Training



Sheila McCormick Oakland, CA

In my college at UC-Berkeley, the ARE Dept. is highly regarded, and graduate students are paid a stipend. You can find more information here:

27 February 2021 Helpful answer


Jeff Sanders Deland, FL

I am retired from USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. It was a great career. You can find opening USDA wide at, unless they changed it. I have been retired for 9 years now. If you work for the federal government you can "buy in" your military time. Not sure what it costs now, but only cost me $6000 for 11 years. That means it applies that time toward your civilian retirement of 30 years. I was a forward observer in the Army, and was team sergeant, and that landed me overseas advisory positions through Dept. of State in Honduras X3 and Afghanistan X2. Many percs to working for USDA, or any federal agency, which you sound very qualified for. Mainly, 5 day work week and pretty much just 8 - 9 hour days. Good luck, and let me know if you have any other questions.

27 February 2021 Helpful answer


James Watters Norman, OK

Petty Officer Sanchez -

On the website ... -look for the article titled
Top Career Paths: Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics
By Georgina Torbet
28 March 2018

Good luck Coast Guard

27 February 2021 Helpful answer



Here is a different "take". I suggest that at your age and situation, you may not really know which career path will be your main path. Life has a way of throwing "curve balls" our way. Thus: Law School. An MBA is fine but, but , a Juris Doctor trumps it hands down, every day, in almost any career and in almost any corporation. You can go to Law School during the normal day or, like I did, at nights. First step, take the free, sample Law School Admission Test (LSAT), on Google, then take the actual LSAT. If you do well - then, there is the opportunity of a lifetime for an executive, very senior level position in any field.
Good Luck.

10 March 2021 Helpful answer


Louis Schwarz Somerville, NJ

Hi, If you can go to graduate school, do it to allow some time to complete your transition. It will also give you some time to find a position in industry. A Masters Degree will open doors for you, and when you get a position, it will be a strategic benefit for you. Use the time in school to prospect and search for a position. You will make contacts in Graduate school that will open doors for you. Good luck!!

8 March 2021 Helpful answer


Matt Johnson Chicago, IL

There's lot of good advice here so let me help distill and unpack it.

1. Work backwards - given your goals, what firms in the agricultural/natural resource economics space are interesting to you? Browse LinkedIn - ping any vets at those companies and ask for a 20min coffee chat to learn about the company and how they got into that role. Use this to discern how to better your odds - getting your degree or going straight into industry.

2. If you find an advanced degree is necessary, do NOT fall into the trap of viewing education as a commodity. They are not all created equal and "vet friendly" doesn't mean better employment or long-term salary outcomes. Check the websites of your target firms and ask your networking contacts where that firm is hiring - limited recruiting budgets mean that only a handful of graduate schools are considered when hiring.

Graduate schools compete with each other based on rankings in many cases - so looking up the USNews list of best program is a good place to start. The best school for vets is the best school. Period. Top schools will often take vets as "leadership admits" if you're willing to put in the work on the placement test (GRE/GMAT/etc). Use the vet clubs at these schools as a resource.

3. To finance your education, look to the GI Bill. You should have earned 100% Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility after 3 years of service. It pays ~$23K/year plus BAH at the E-5+dependents rate while you're enrolled full-time. Times when school is out such as Spring break or Summer don't count - you won't lose eligible months but you won't be paid while you're not in class either.

At many schools, there's Yellow Ribbon Program (YRP) funds that are earmarked for veterans with 100% GI eligibility (how many of these scholarships and the amounts vary by program - but you can look it up on the VA website). YRP funds are matched by the VA and applied directly towards tuition. So a program says they offer $10K in YRP, you get $10K YRP + $10K VA match + $23K GI Bill funds every year. Some schools like USC and UChicago have large YRP scholarships that will pay the full cost of graduate school. There's usually scholarships for vets on top of these amounts (but you can always look into the Tillman foundation as well).

1 March 2021 Helpful answer


Joe Engle Indianapolis, IN

Hello Jordan. Either of your plans is viable. An advanced degree is essential or helpful for advancement and more pay, in many fields. However, there are also many fields, where it is arguable as to whether an advanced degree is worth the time, money, or effort. It really depends on the field, so you should investigate. It certainly never hurts, but you must weigh your personal situation, against the above factors.

Regarding, working on the advanced degree immediately, or after landing a job...
There are advantages in doing it immediately, in that the undergrad info is fresh, and you can get the degree out of the way in short order. Disadvantages, depend on your personal situation, can you afford to not be working, wife or kids involved, etc.

Likewise the pros of landing the job first, are that the employer may pay much of it, income always helps, etc. I have seen the downside be: degree does not get finished, employer does not reward the advanced degree, school at night can drag on for years, can be disruptive to family life.

Just some observations. Hope they help.

28 February 2021 Helpful answer


carlos pagoada Raleigh, NC

Hello Joe,
All legitimate concerns. I do believe that we have a great benefit with the GIBILL. I recommend to use it as soon as you can if you are able to sustain yourself until the completion of your degree. The experience is already there, you just need to reach out to individuals in the field you want to go into and study it. Experience + Credential+ Network= Better opportunities.
Good luck.
Carlos Pagoada


Andrew McAfee Ontario, CA

Hi Joe

There's a lot of advice here and it's up to you to determine which fits you best.

Based on my experience, depending on which career field you're interested in you'll need to determine if a graduate degree is needed to get started. I'm not sure if you have a family to support, but a full-time paycheck is going to be more than you make in Post 9/11 BAH.

Then you should consider if the graduate program you're interested in requires field experience. Not all programs will bring in an applicant without having spent some time in that area and able to bring in practical experience to apply to the research/studies.

I'd like to echo what some other folks here said, why not do both? I got my associates and bachelor's degrees while on active duty and then my master's while working full time in industry. I was able to find a hybrid program was able to meet the VA's requirement for full-time and received the full BAH while earning a salary. If you have the ability to make this work, I found it most advantageous.

This will be a hard decision for you to make but identify any priorities or dependencies and work backwards from your goal.

Good luck!


Christine Kuffel Westchester, IL

Have you identified the specific job position you want?
Some jobs require a graduate degree (for example, I'm a librarian and an MS from an accredited institution is pertinent). Other times, an advanced degree might make you over-qualified.
I see you're from Darien. College of DuPage has some programs - it might be helpful to explore an undergrad class or two in your area of interest before you commit to an advanced degree. They have programs in Botany, Earth Science, Hydrology, Geology, Oceanography, and Economics.


Todd Cloutier Woburn, MA


Why can't you do both? I have a MS in Cybersecurity and IT Management and am currently getting my MBA (full-time student) while working full-time for Raytheon Technologies. I believe education is extremely important and coincides with experience. If you choose the right educational institution the Post 911 GI Bill covers everything, I recommend looking into Southern New Hampshire University, I personally loved their Masters program.

Todd Cloutier


Will Steinberg

Hi Jordan,

You have been given a lot of good advice to consider here. I would just add that whichever plan you decide to pursue, please try to avoid taking on debt in doing so, to the extent possible. If the G.I. Bill and your other income sources wouldn't cover the full cost of the education, try to carefully consider the possible financial impact of any student loans you would need to take on.

Good luck with your transition!


John Dyck, Ph.D. Spring, TX

It's a no brainer.
Take this opportunity to go full-time to graduate school. Get immersed in the program. Work with the faculty on their projects. Get to know the other grad students.
Part-time grad school is ok if it is the only option. But you have an option.
Investigate grad programs that only accept full-time students. There is no substitute for a full time grad program.

I suggest an MBA with specialization in project management. Some offer a masters degree in project management(PM) but that really narrows your future employment options.

Then get certified by the Project Management Institute. Look at the topics covered in the certification program. It really prepares you for leadership in the business world. Many companies are sending their employees for PM training. You will find there is a lot of overlap with PM and your training in the coast guard. PM provides a systems basis for thinking, organizing, communicating and working on a team.

There are applications for PM in manufacturing, law, medical, finance, construction, banking, consulting, logistics, cybernetics, and AI to name just a few.

Go for it! Good luck


Mike Salaka New York, NY

Transition is not easy. Hang on there. I left service in 2016 and went on to obtain a graduate degree. Having an advanced degree helps to land the job that you wanted. I would recommend using the GI Bill to obtain your choice of degree and explore fellowship or training programs in your field. There should be a ThinkTank or employers who are willing to offer fellowships. If want to focus on policy space, I would strongly recommend doing some legislative fellowship programs which will increase your network, and find your dream job. Education plus experience will put you above your peers. Good Luck!


Karen Frank New Canaan, CT

Hi Jordan,

I'd look and see what requirements there are for jobs in the field of interest first to determine if you should prioritize an advanced degree or work experience first. Some jobs don't require advanced degrees to get in the door, in which case, I would recommend prioritizing work experience. When I did my masters in Social-Organizational Psychology, having the relevant context for applying the advanced frameworks and such was super useful rather than just keeping at the theoretical level. Also, getting work experience in your transitioned field will help affirm whether you're truly passionate/well suited for the work before investing in further education (that could be applied to another area of interest). Good luck with your transition!


Bin Yu Pleasanton, CA

Hi Joe,

Education is a long term investment when your current financial status allows. However, if you can land a job of which the experience adds value to your career of your plan, take it and do education part time.

Wish you good luck.


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