Advice from the Trenches: Tips for Balancing Military Life and Your Education

By Kristen Obst, PhD


I am a professor and a military spouse. I have coached many students through their education, babysat my friends’ kids so they could finish their homework, and been on the receiving end of some very sage advice from wise women who have mastered balancing education and military life, letting me conclude that military spouses can successfully pursue higher education. The short version is there is no one formula that fits every family, but there is a formula that fits your family.  

Military life is hard, and we spouses have a big job in supporting our Soldiers/Sailors/Marines/Coasties/Airmen for years of deployments, training, and relocations.  But, that does not mean that we can’t set and achieve personal goals, including education goals. I have learned a lot about managing education and life from my experiences, but also from watching and mentoring my students and friends.

This is what I have learned:

Find your right time to enroll.

College isn’t going anywhere, and you have more choices than ever. Find your time and commit. At the same time that I say that, stop putting it off. Recognize if you are still putting everyone else first. Military life is always going to be fast paced and complex for your family. You can’t wait for things to quiet down before you enroll in college, but you can fit it into your life.

Be flexible.

Your education may not fit into the traditional model; it will have to be customized to your family. Your BA may take you 6 or 8 years, but at the end of the day, a BA is a BA! Your graduation is even sweeter because you know how many things you had to juggle to be successful. Nothing is cuter at graduation than kids with flowers for mommy or daddy.

Don’t leave your work for after everything else is done.

I have learned that if I put off my work to the end of the day, I am exhausted. That is not a good time to start your school work. Work school into time slots during your day when you are fresh. Your brain retains the most early in the day, so try starting your day with your school work, then tackle the rest of your day, instead of the other way around.

PCSing will interrupt your life, but it doesn’t have to interrupt your education.

Be portable. Moving, as you know, takes time to pack, unpack, find things, and set them back up, and who knows when you will get your internet service. When selecting your major, pick something that is portable, and pick a school that is regionally accredited so that your credits will transfer when you move. Build in time to work with the transfer department. Consider online education so you don’t have to start over every time your spouse relocates.

Explore options.

There are a tremendous amount of resources available to military spouses to help you complete your education, but they won’t come to you. You have to research them, apply for them, and then use them. There are resources to help you with child care and to help defray your tuition costs. NACCRRA (AKA Child Care Aware) will help pay for childcare if you are enrolled for at least 6 undergrad or 3 graduate credit hours. There are several scholarships available specifically for military spouses, and Career Advancement Accounts (CAA), the spouse equivalent of Tuition Assistance. As with everything else military, these things take time, so budget for that too.

Schedule time for school.

Block out time to get schoolwork done. I figured this trick out when I looked at my calendar once and realized it was color coded with everyone else’s schedule. When was I supposed to do my job? I started blocking out time to do my job– in your case, your school work–and then work those doctor’s appointments, errands, etc. around it.

Visualize yourself graduating.

There is a lot of research on the power of visualizing and mental practice. Sports teams use mental practice to improve things like shot percentages and field goals. Picture yourself walking across the stage in your cap and gown getting your degree. Have a mental goal. When you get frustrated or overwhelmed, visualize your goal. It is motivating and will keep you going!

It is possible for you to complete your degree, and the next degree you are already thinking about. Do it on your timetable, and using the resources that are available to you through the military and other groups designed to support spouses and families. Manage your time and your expectations, and take control of your schedule.  Good luck, and I’ll see you at graduation!

About the Author:

Kristen Obst is the Program Director for the Public Administration and Security Management Programs and Associate Professor of Public Administration at American Public University System. She is the proud mother of two little boys and her husband is active duty Army. She is still learning how to juggle parenting, work and military life.


Leave a Comment