The Military Service Member and Veteran’s Guide to National Security Studies Degrees and Career Opportunities

national security studies

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National security gets more complicated every day.

Whether it’s deciding how much armament to send to allies locked in a struggle with geopolitical opponents, making hard calls about drone strikes on terrorist targets halfway around the world, or factoring the impacts of climate change into military base designs, it’s a field that draws on deep knowledge in many areas.

That makes a college degree essential for jobs in national security. Your country wants you to put that advanced education to use while you are still in uniform, and military service gives you a lot of options for earning one of those degrees on Uncle Sam’s tab.

Because national security studies are so directly aligned with the core functions of the American military, NatSec degrees are some of the most sought after among service members interested in college while still on active duty.

Hard choices are made every day in national security roles, both in and out of the military. A degree gives you a fighting chance at making the right calls.

Explore Your Military Training and Degree Options

National Security Is Job One for the American Military

monitoring national securityWe don’t exactly have to draw you a diagram to connect national security studies to your military service. Defending the country underpins everything you do in the military, regardless of your Military Occupational Specialty (MOS).

Of course, a buck private digging foxholes on rock-filled ridges in Korea near the DMZ may be doing important stuff on the business end of national security policy, but that’s not exactly what people are talking about when they talk about national security studies.

Instead, in S2 (intelligence) and S5 (plans) shops and in dedicated think-tank units like the Strategy and Plans Division at USMC Headquarters, experienced senior officers evaluate global threats and develop strategies to support national security missions.

National security is big-picture in scope, but it can never lose sight of the individual elements in play. The military has to evaluate not only the traditional threats of nation-state actors, but also incorporate new and emerging threats like:

These are the kinds of hot-button security issues that absorb not only military and government planners, but also top security managers at private companies. That means a military career can lead to great career prospects in both the public and private sector post service.

National Security Decisions Don’t Always Offer Clear Results

jet engineOne good example of the strategic calculations of logistics and manufacturing come with the saga of the 5th generation F-22 Raptor fighter. Originally, the Air Force planned to order 750 of these technological marvels at a price of nearly $148 million apiece. With stealth, avionics, and sensor breakthroughs capable of out-classing every possible competitor, they would ensure American air superiority well into the 21st Century.

In fact, the F-22 was too good. As costs ballooned and asymmetric ground conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated military challenges, it was hard to imagine so many F-22s finding much work to do. Orders were cut repeatedly until only 187 planes were ordered. The money would be better spent elsewhere.

But that shut down the production line and created the strategic issue: if more planes were needed, restarting production could take $200 million and months of work before a single reinforcement could be delivered. With new threats from China and Russia looming, security planners were worried. Many urged that additional aircraft be ordered, just to keep the production line open.

That didn’t happen. Was it a strategic miscalculation? This is where the world of national security planning gets murky… only history will know whose calculation was correct.

Civilian Roles for National Security Experts Are More Common Than You Might Think

tracking criminalsWhat kinds of jobs can your military service and a national security studies degree qualify you for? Probably more than you imagine.

The obvious positions are exactly where you think they are – in the federal government. Working for one of the big three-letter agencies (CIA, NSA, FBI, DIA, and others) offers some of the most direct applications for military experience and expertise in security and strategy.

The executive and legislative branches are also major employers of well-trained national security professionals. Diving into international political and intelligence information and evaluating national goals against geo-political pressure points helps support political leaders in making decisions and developing security policy. The National Security Council and Homeland Security Council have staff and participants drawn from agencies as diverse as the Office of Management and Budget and the Drug Policy office.

And of course, many major corporations, particularly those in defense or multinational roles, need capable high-level security officers. In some cases, like defense or utility companies, these are directly related to American national security interests. In other cases, the goals of corporate security may diverge from national interests, but still require a comprehensive understanding of strategy, threats, and responses.

National Security Specialists Bring Home Salaries Commensurate with the Gravity of the Work They Do

Although these are high security clearance jobs that don’t get talked about very much, they can offer strong salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track national security jobs specifically. But they do offer 2021 median salary data for a variety of different job categories that align with roles that national security specialists can fill:

These jobs are found in or out of government. Government roles will often have lower base salary levels than what you find in the private sector but come with better benefits and more stability to make up for it – not to mention a greater sense of purpose.

MOSs That Provide the Best Preparation for National Security Studies

working at security workstationYou can develop a sense of national security implications through many different military roles. But for anyone who is serious about a degree and career in national security, there are certainly some specialties and some assignments that offer better preparation than others.

In any service, work in an intelligence billet can offer an edge in training and big-picture security perspectives that will serve you well as an advanced student of national security studies. 

Intelligence billets for each service:

There are also dedicated strategic studies and planning specialties scattered through the services. The Air Force has 16PX Political-Military Affairs Strategists; the Army has two different strategic planning or intelligence functional areas, 34A and 59A.

There’s a very chicken and egg problem with many of these slots, however—they may require that you are well on your way to earning a degree in national security studies, or already have one. Particularly as an officer, if you are angling for these billets, you are also going to be angling for an assignment where you can pursue advanced college studies in the field.

If the enemy thinks of the mountains, attack like the sea; if he thinks of the sea, attack like the mountains.

Where You Work in the Military Dictates What You Will Work On

More important than your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) in most cases will be the unit or role you are assigned to. General staff assignments in intelligence or planning will involve national security studies. Billets at the Pentagon, in the J2/J5 departments of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or at major joint forces commands or international headquarters like NATO will drop you in the thick of national security issues.

Opportunities for these assignments can come from a wide variety of different specialties. The Army, for example, doesn’t place any branch requirements on volunteers for strategist roles. Although these slots are extremely competitive, they also come with some very advanced training as part of the process.

Strategy is definitely officer-grade territory. Since you need to have at least a bachelor’s degree to become an officer in the first place, you’ll probably need to look into ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) or other pre-service benefit programs to fund your initial degree. With a variety of scholarship offerings, these programs can cover some or all of your four-year degree costs, while guaranteeing you a commission on completion.

But there are also opportunities to get some exposure to strategic and national security training even from enlisted ranks. Senior enlisted personnel have plenty of hands-on work to do in national security-focused units. And generous veterans benefits, or even active duty commissioning or education programs, can get you some of the same college-level training as officers.

Military Strategy Training Can Offer a National Security Degree as Part of the Package

missile defenseA lot of what turns into national strategy and force posture starts off in academic circles at a handful of dedicated, military-operated universities. These staff colleges were designed to turn officers into strategic thinkers and planners. There are five War Colleges, one each operated by the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, and a joint National War College operated by DoD (Department of Defense) at the National Defense University.

These schools confer full-blown, fully-accredited master’s degree programs in strategic or national security studies. Additionally, you can tap into dedicated think-tanks like the Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, which includes partnerships with strategic analysts around the world.

Although the National War College is the only specifically intraservice military university, it’s common for each service to cross-train students from other services at their own colleges. This means it’s perfectly common to be a Marine studying at the Army War College or an Air Force officer attending the Naval War College.

Since the Coast Guard doesn’t run a War College of its own, Coasties must rely on the National War College or assignment to a joint slot at one of the other service colleges for strategic studies.

There are also graduate degree programs in strategic and national security subjects available at the Naval Postgraduate School and the Air Force Institute of Technology. You may also be assigned to earn a degree in the field through a civilian university while still on active duty, if your leadership believes you can bring back valuable thinking from outside programs.

This is some of the best military training you can get to prepare for civilian career opportunities: full-fledged college degrees that you are actually assigned to earn. A posting to one of these becomes your entire mission. You have no other objective than to study and learn.

On the whole, these kinds of training opportunities aren’t wasted on folks who are only in for a basic three or four year stint. The military will want to take advantage of all that free training they have given you for as long as they can. So these advanced training slots and degree programs are probably only coming your way if you are an officer or senior NCO, and commit to additional years of service.

Degrees in National Security Studies are Challenging Even for Senior Military Leaders

strategic world mapDegrees in national security studies are full of complex social, legal, and cultural coursework. They offer a course of study that helps students make sense of a complicated world, and offers them the tools and historical examples to find successful points to concentrate on and actions to recommend.

This means a four-year bachelor’s program, with a combination of security and strategic studies and a traditional liberal arts foundation that covers history, social studies, and sciences, is the basic entry point for national security studies.

More commonly required for professional purposes are the graduate level studies of a master’s or doctoral degree. These are the level of studies that war colleges provide, and they are also the qualifications that civilian and government employers usually look for. Taking anywhere from a year to five years each, these come with the focus and research required to truly forge strategic expertise.

You’ll Study a Wide Range of Topics in National Security Studies

female special agentNational security rests on a wide array of very different specialties and bodies of knowledge, ranging from environmental science to cultural studies. You’ll find that your coursework will be all over the map in these degree programs, both literally and figuratively.

The core curriculum for most programs gives you the logical and foundational knowledge you need to integrate other information and branch out into any of the many specializations available in the field. That means classes covering topics like:

World and Military History – National security has been a thing ever since there have been nations, and the history books are some of the best places to find strategic thought and assess outcomes. Global history and particularly military history are core subjects in national security studies for this reason.

Strategic Concepts – From real-world examples, you’ll learn how to categorize and analyze strategic policy formation. The building blocks of national security strategy are broken down and laid out so you can understand how to assemble them again into coherent plans for national defense.

War is the continuation of politics by other means.

Foreign Policy and Diplomacy – You’ll have gotten your fill of ol’ von Clausewitz in those military history classes, but you’ll also study the political side of national security. Deterrence theory, negotiation, and posture are all vital ways strategists learn to manage threats before physical conflict becomes inevitable.

International Law and the Law of Armed Conflict – History course will have taught you about the development of the modern international system. Here you’ll study how it is organized, managed, and balanced among the competing interests of nations great and small.

Social Studies and Comparative Culture – Security analysis rests in accurate understanding. Many conflicts over the ages have stemmed from cultural competition and misunderstanding. By learning the essentials of global culture, you’ll become a better interpreter and analyst of statements and actions of foreign nationals and countries.

Insurgency and Asymmetric Conflict – It’s impossible to talk about security studies today without an in-depth exploration of the role of asymmetric conflict. For all the immense power of the United States and other major countries, the ability to resist through insurgency and terrorism represents threats both today and tomorrow.

In a field that has a lot of theory to grasp and understand, it’s also important to learn how to apply your studies in a practical sense. You will already have a good understanding of this from your work in military units with a strategic or planning focus. But most degree programs include internships and field placements as a key part of their curriculum as well. This puts you side-by-side with planners and decision makers in civilian security roles, and gives you a sense of how to put your new training to good use.

Choosing a Concentration in National Security Studies Offers a More Focused Path

It’s very common, and sometimes required, to take a concentration in a specific area of national security studies. The field has become so specialized that to really engage with the area you are interested in, you’ll need a lot more focused coursework than you get in the core curriculum.

Concentrations are particularly important the further you advance in your education—the Naval Postgraduate School Security Studies master’s degree, for example, requires a regional or topical concentration.

Different colleges approach this challenge in different ways. Some simply allow you to select a wide range of electives, to build your own unique specialization along the way. Others offer a set range of concentrations, with designated classes.

Concentrations are available in a wide range of areas:

All of these have clear applications in both government and private sector jobs.

Choosing a Military-Supportive University for Your Degree in National Security Studies

military command centerIn such a sensitive subject area, it should be immediately clear that you need to pursue your degree at a university that is close to the action and understands the needs of the Department of Defense. You can be sure that the elite universities that prepare military leaders also have all the administrative policies and student support services in place to make the most of the college experience for service members and veterans.

In fact, many senior NCOs and officers pursuing these programs will be doing so while still on active duty. Of course, any service university is going to be military-supportive by nature. But you may also be bound for a civilian school, assuming it meets DoD standards.

But whether you are pursuing your degree while in or out of the service, you’ll find that many of the same features are going to be helpful:

The GI Bill® Comparison tool, found on the VA website, will help you identify military supportive colleges that fit the bill.

Schools Recognized as Centers for Academic Excellence (CAE) in Cybersecurity

electronic world mapWhether or not you decide to concentrate in cyberdefense, the National Center of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity (NCAE-C) designation provides a clear indicator that a university has a real understanding of national defense needs.

NCAE-C is a joint program between the NSA and Homeland Security, offering three distinct designations to qualifying universities:

  • Cyber Defense (CAE-CD)
  • Cyber Research (CAE-R)
  • Cyber Operations (CAE-CO)

There are clear benefits to the resources and coordination that come with this program if you are focused on strategic cybersecurity studies, but the benefits extend to students in other areas of national security too. The overlap between NSA, DHS, and the joint military Cyber Command means these schools maintain ties with the Department of Defense and host faculty with experience and a working knowledge of national security strategies and protocols.

Veteran’s Benefits Can Do the Heavy Lifting in Helping You Earn a Degree in National Security Studies Post-Service

If you weren’t one of the select few who were sent to earn a degree in national security studies while still on active duty, don’t worry. The GI Bill® has your back.

If you are coming out of the service without any degree, the typical 36 months of benefits that come with the GI Bill® are enough to cover a full bachelor’s program at any public university charging in-state tuition rates. If you are set on a private school or end up with out-of-state rates, real military-supportive schools will give you a boost through the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Yellow Ribbon is a college/VA partnership, where schools sign up to help with tuition payments over and above the GI Bill® limits. The VA matches the amount. Each university decides how many students it can support with Yellow Ribbon in any given department and how much of the tuition costs it will cover—some accept all eligible applicants and offer the benefit without caps. This means an elite private university degree may be more accessible than you might think.

If you already had a degree, as an officer, for example, then you can also apply your GI Bill® benefits to a graduate program and pick up that master’s, or even a doctorate.

Many of the Benefits From Your Military Service Come in the Form of the Grit and Character You Develop

Just getting to the point where you are thinking about national security studies and a career in high-level strategy takes some grit and determination. You have to work your way up the ladder to get exposure to these kinds of roles. You may have to make O-4 or higher to be seriously considered for advanced strategic training.

That doesn’t happen without dedication and resolve. And these are really some of the most important qualities that you will bring with you from military service. It doesn’t matter what your MOS is or where you served—the military builds character, integrity, and instills the kind of values we need in people looking out for our national security.

You’ll see this time and again in the upper echelons of both private strategic think-tanks and in the highest levels of government planning: former service members are almost always in the lead. With a degree in national security studies, the next leader may be you.

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Information Security Analysts, Management Analysts, Political Scientists and other Data for Occupations Not Covered in Detail reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2022.