Using the GI Bill to get a college degree is one of the best ways to improve long-term career outlook and earning power. Over the course of a lifetime, a degree can mean the difference of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The benefits of having a diploma hanging on your wall are so widely accepted that sometimes it might be easy to forget that higher education can offer much more than just an improvement in immediate career prospects.
While there’s no doubt that financial incentives often make up a significant part of the decision to invest time, money and limited benefits in a degree, don’t underestimate the long-term power of putting in a little bit of extra work in your chosen field.
Obviously, graduating quickly and with high grades is important, but there is something to be said for putting in the extra work to attain mastery in your area of study. In the complex, technical or research-oriented jobs that college-educated workers often perform, a deep understanding of the material can mean the difference between becoming the indispensable and fast-rising member of your team, and languishing in a dead-end position with little hope for advancement.
So, with that in mind, here are four areas that can help you to get the most out of your GI Bill education.
Go above and beyond
This one might seem obvious, but in my experience most college graduates I know would say that there is at least one area where they wish they’d gotten more out of their time in college than they did. There are absolutely times where I’ve skated through work because I knew I could get away with getting a good grade without putting in a lot of effort. In the long run, that hurt no one but myself.
Remember that whether on loans or GI Bill benefits, the time you spend in college is valuable and limited. It might be tempting to skip reading assignments when you know you’ll be able to ace the upcoming quiz, but consider how much distance you could put between yourself and your job market competition by getting deeper into the subject matter.
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Sometimes, that means going on to the next chapter, or sometimes it might mean looking into related fields. Consider the kind of career a Spanish major could carve out by learning the specialized language of Spanish-speaking engineers or diplomats.
It doesn’t have to lead to a double major or even a minor. There are often times where simply understanding the connection points between two fields of study will open up opportunities that would otherwise have been closed.
Learn how to research
It’s disheartening when you hear a junior or senior give their professor what we call the “seaman shrug” in the Navy, when the answer is easily within their grasp. We live in a time of unprecedented access to information, but people are sometimes not willing to do the research to find it.
In college, and in the jobs that college graduates often aspire to, the willingness to show initiative to find information can be one of the single most crucial skills you can learn.
Search engine mastery is a skill with obvious application, but in college it’s at least as important to understand how to use academic databases, archives, library systems, or just to have the willingness to email up an expert.
There is a good chance that your field will have some kind of holy tome like the DSM-5 or The Chicago Manual of Style. I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to know how to use these books, even if you’re not willing to memorize them cover to cover.
I assure you, a senior English major admitting to their professor they’ve never heard of the MLA Style Guide is akin to asking a senior NCO “what’s a reg?” The only major difference is that the resultant F-bombs tend to be printed on permanent transcripts.
Keep an open mind
I’ve found that most veterans start out in college with a good idea of what they want to do, and frequently that means a desire to go into the practical fields.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with going for computer science or a business degree, even as your heart longs to major in interpretive dance or women’s studies. As the holder of an impractical liberal arts degree, I am still fully capable of understanding the choice to choose the solid and practical course.
All I would say is that it can pay off to keep an open mind to other opportunities.
One of the nice things about college is that it forces you to take elective courses outside of your major. Sometimes you are going to be utterly bored with those classes. But if you let your guard down for a moment, you might just find that you are enjoying yourself. Everyone has heard the cliché “find something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” but I think there is some wisdom there.
In all but the least practical fields, the people who have passion for what they’re doing and are willing to bust their tail find a way to get ahead.
This can work the other way too. There’s nothing wrong with hedging your bets by pairing your dreams as a professional clarinet player with a biology degree. Sometimes it makes sense to just add a minor or even take a few classes in an area that can complement your main area of study. Keeping an open mind in elective courses is a great way to make the kind of course-corrections that can open doors and keep you from locking yourself into a job that you don’t really want to be in.
I think college is probably more about the people you meet than it is about books you read.
Sure, you’ll get plenty of knowledge from your texts, but your professors and peers will probably be the biggest influences on your academic journey. An informal mentor relationship with a professor can lead to out-of-class conversations about advanced subject matter, or perhaps even a job opportunity down the line.
He or she might be willing to write you a letter of recommendation regardless, but that letter can either say “Seaman Timmy got a B in my basket-weaving survey class” or “Seaman Timmy is a brilliant student who asks questions and is devoted to the shared goals of State University’s basket weaving department.” Which one would you rather have?
It’s not just faculty that can help you along either. Having friends and allies in your field can pay off in the short-run with a better understanding of your subject matter, and in the long-run by having a built-in network of peers who can provide job opportunities that you might not otherwise have even known about.
It’s amazing how often you read biographies of successful politicians, artists or CEOs to find that they knew each other in college. It’s not a coincidence. It’s networking.
It’s entirely possible that some brilliant would-be entrepreneur is out there just chilling on his couch because he went home every day after class and watched TV instead of going to a study group (or kegger) with Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg.
Joining an honors society, a club or a study group can be a great way to network and maybe even meet your future allies and competition.
The most important point I want to make is simply to be aware of how much more college can offer than merely putting a diploma on your wall. Even if every tip on here doesn’t apply to you, I think it’s undeniably true that whatever your degree is in, the more you know about it, the better.
A lot of the value you will eventually add to your job field will come from on-the-job training, but taking the time to get ahead before you get to the workforce will give you a leg up on your competition. If a little bit of time and effort helps you get the most out of your GI Bill education, it is almost always going to pay off in the long run.
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