Make the Most of Your Time in Graduate School

A Guest Post by Zachary Griffiths

With an Advanced Civil Schooling (ACS) scholarship, the Army sends officers to civilian graduate schools. Last Thursday, I completed a Master’s of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Coming off a demanding staff assignment, I thought graduate school would be easy. However, balancing school, with its classes, homework, and extracurricular opportunities, with family and social engagements was tough. Below are my seven recommendations for things to consider if you’re starting graduate school this fall, are in graduate school, or are planning to attend in the future.

March 16, 2012 – Photo by Timothy L. Hale

1. Spend time with your family

Key tip:
– Strike a good work-life balance early.

Graduate school offers unparalleled family time. Like many officers, I spent almost half of my last assignment deployed or on TDY. I picked my school because it was close to my hometown and offered a great education. My parents and my in-laws came over frequently and connected with their grandkids in a way impossible from 1,998 miles away.

However, homework and evening opportunities pressed hard against family time. Everyone I talked to before graduate school said the homework was no problem and they got me excited about guest speakers like Governor John Kasich or Secretary of State John Kerry. I realized too late that my sample did not include married couples with kids. I found work-life balance by staying at school past bedtime two nights a week. With those extra hours, I could participate in student life and complete my homework so weekends were free for family fun.

2. Get active in the veterans community

Key tips:
– Join your campus veteran organization.
– Meet other veterans and participate in mentorship.
– Reach out to the veteran community as you apply for the inside scoop.

Veterans and active-duty personnel account for nearly 10% of the Harvard Kennedy School’s student body. As the President of the Armed Forces Committee (AFC), I built on my predecessors’ work and pushed the AFC to support the veteran community in several ways: orientation, information, outreach, and mentorship. Before school started in the fall, the AFC contacted all military affiliated new-admits to answer questions and invited them to a pre-orientation beer call. During the year, we ran a weekly lecture series on national security and veterans related topics where students could share their experiences with non-military students or hosted outside speakers. We also managed two mentorship programs: one where Captains and Navy Lieutenants mentored ROTC cadets, and another where Colonels and Commanders, earning their War College credit as National Security Fellows, mentored company-grade officers. I loved working with and mentoring three, fresh-minted Air Force lieutenants on the AFC leadership team. Finally, the AFC published a weekly rollup of military and veteran related events across the university to inform our members of key events. Leading the AFC was a highlight of my time in graduate school, and I strongly recommend ACS candidates at least sign up for your school’s mailing list.

Active participation in the veteran community also came with perks, like small sessions with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, or special invite to hear from now National Security Advisor LTG McMaster. Officers applying to graduate school should reach out to the veterans community as they apply to get the inside scoop. Some clubs advise admissions departments about applicant military qualifications, so it doesn’t hurt to let the club know more about your experience. In addition, I recommend that officers invite a mentor to their new school to speak about their experience or another topic of interest to the broader school community. Few civilian students ever interact with military officers, and hearing from an expert can help bridge the civil-military divide.

3. Meet non-military folks

Key tips:
– Bridge age and demographics to make close friends.
– Explore the entire university.
– Participate in a conference or service day.

Many programs will stick you in a cohort or similar group where you will quickly make friends. However, two kids, a dog, and three years separated me from my generally single, younger classmates. Geography also separated me from my peers. My wife and I picked a house four and a half miles from campus, which was near my in-laws, but far enough from school that I rarely made it back into town for extracurricular or social events if I went home.

While I rarely joined friends for late-night drinks, I did meet several friends weekly at a local watering hole to talk about school and the issues of the day. I also started a curling club with a friend who liked to curl. The club was low commitment, but setting a weekly meeting time ensured I made time to catch up with friends.

Another recommendation is to reach across your university. Interesting people with divergent interests fill universities. Busy student life at my school kept me too busy to hear lectures on whale populations, from the Chief Justice of Brazil, or the chief of defense technology in the Israeli Defense Forces. ACS is one of the Army’s premier broadening opportunities, so take advantage of your time at a university to broaden yourself. International relations classes beckoned me because they were closer to my experience, but new subjects like macroeconomics or American political theory did more than just deepen my knowledge. Those classes gave me totally new frameworks through which to see the world and introduced me to people passionate about topics I knew nothing about.

Finally, consider leading or organizing a conference or service day. I served as an assistant site leader for a veterans-oriented community service day that aimed to narrow the civil-military divide. Veterans Impact Day brought more than sixty student volunteers to assist veterans or inform students about military service. Other students organized conferences around issues like African Development, Europe, India, and Social Enterprise. Conferences draw distinguished speakers and can be a great opportunity to meet an admired leader or thinker.

4. Be a Teaching Assistant / Research Assistant

Key tip:
– Build a relationship with a professor by serving as their TA or RA

Civilian students pursue Teaching Assistant and Research Assistant roles for two primary reasons: to earn income and to build a relationship with a professor. As an ACS student, you are not permitted to earn income, but I recommend everyone consider assisting a professor for the latter reason. I was not an RA or TA, but I did have the opportunity to work closely with a professor I admired on an immigration policy proposal. He helped me clarify and narrow my idea to its most simple and understandable form. Close work with a professor may lead to publishing credits or just provide you a mentor outside the military.

5. Learn a skill

Key tip:
– Take advantage of your opportunity to focus on learning a skill.

Graduate school may be one of the last opportunities in your life where you will have focused time to learn a “hard” skill. Outside of my required courses, I brought my German up to 2/1+, learned to use GIS systems, and developed competency with the R statistical programming language. Other military officers dove deep into negotiations or public speaking as ways to improve their leadership and communications skills. Hopefully you have a sense of what skill you might want to develop before you enter graduate school; if not, get active in a certificate program during your time at school.

6. Get Healthy

Key tips:
– Recover from injury and pursue surgery, if necessary.
– Stay in shape.

Military service will grind your body down. Whether staff work has gotten you out of shape, or you have a serious injury, graduate school is a great place to convalesce. Coming off an Afghan deployment with serious nerve damage in my right leg, I pursued a micro-discectomy in Boston at a world-class hospital. While results may vary, my nerve damage subsided. I paired my surgery recovery with a strength training progression and wound up leaving graduate school in great shape. Be careful not to let your fitness slide however. Some officers lapse without military structure and ready access to fitness centers. If you are away from military fitness centers and face gym fees, the YMCA’s DoD Military Outreach Initiative funds YMCA memberships, gym memberships, and respite child care for military families.

7. Write and publish

Key tip:
– Submit your graduate school papers to journals and contribute to discourse about the military or issues important to you.

As military officers, we all have experiences to share and ideas to make the Army or nation better. In 2011, Major Trent Lythgoe wrote in Military Review that the Army’s “deterioration of writing skills is causing a corresponding deterioration of thinking skills” and proscribed improved writing training. His article kicked off others about developing a writing method and finding time to write. Graduate school solves the time problem by taking you away from your unit and forcing you to write, so make the most of it and improve a skill you will use every single day as an officer.

Professors should provide excellent feedback to improve your reasoning and the clarity of your prose. As you write papers, think hard about which papers might be suitable for a broader audience and tailor your piece accordingly. Venues have proliferated beyond the core professional journals to a myriad of blogs, like this one!

Finally, demand feedback from you Professors and take your writing training seriously. Some Professors are busy and do not take time to provide detailed feedback unless requested. To further improve my writing, I took a course on Op-Ed writing. Op-Ed word limits force you to be clear and concise – the hallmarks of effective military writing.


I went into graduate school blind, starting school only days after escaping the National Training Center. In this article, I offered seven suggestions to consider if you are fortunate enough to attend civilian graduate school on an Advanced Civil Schooling Scholarship. This list is not exhaustive, but it includes things I tried or saw people try that seemed to work and wish that I had known going in. You will learn a ton in graduate school, but make sure to refresh and broaden yourself by spending quality time with your family, getting healthy, and trying new things.

Beyond these activities, graduate school let me see problems, military and otherwise, from a new perspective. In Afghanistan, my team sergeant constantly reminded me that the problems “up and out” were mine to handle. After graduate school, I’ve got new tools to understand the “up and out” challenges that face our Army and Nation.


Captain Zachary Griffiths is a Special Forces officer, graduate of the United States Military Academy, and holds a master’s degree in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.  He served as the Assistant Operations Officer in 3/10 Special Forces (Airborne) and commanded Operations Detachment – Alpha 0325.  Captain Griffiths is currently an American Politics Instructor at the United States Military Academy and Resident Military Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point. Follow him on twitter @z_e_griffiths.