The Pursuit of Education as a Military Spouse

As proud military spouses, we are all too familiar with the term- sacrifice. Don’t get me wrong, I love military life, my Army family and friends, and even my FRG responsibilities. However, giving much of ourselves leaves little time to consider our personal and professional wants and needs.

At one point or another, many military spouses ponder the question of whether or not to go (or  go back) to school. Whether it be enrolling in a technical degree program, or finishing a graduate or professional degree, we seek opportunities to gain more knowledge. This may be for personal satisfaction, career advancement, pay increase, or something else.

Freshly married, my husband and I PCS’ed to Fort Leonard Wood from Fort Hood. I had recently finished my Master’s Degree in Music Education and considered continuing graduate studies. I always knew I wanted to pursue a doctorate, but questioned whether or not the timing was right. It was my dream to finish my Ph.D. before the age of 30. Thoughts flooded my brain:

“But who would watch the kids?”

“I don’t want to miss anything when my children are little.”

“My spouse/partner is never home.”

“We’ll PCS next year and I won’t be able to finish the degree…then what?”

“But who would watch the kids?”

As a first time mom with no family nearby, no babysitter, nanny, or daycare facility was good enough to watch my precious baby. I created mile-long lists of interview questions for potential sitters, and the conversations resembled that of FBI interrogation sessions. Yup, I was that mom. Don’t worry, I’ve lightened up with child two.

“I don’t want to miss anything when my children are little.”

I strongly considered taking a break from studies when my son was born. I cried on the day that I dropped my baby at daycare.  I had meltdown moments while I was pumping on campus. I would think about dropping out every day. But I would remember why I was pursuing my doctorate in the first place- it had been my lifelong dream.

Quality vs. Quantity. The wisest person I know, my mother, told me that it’s the quality of my time with the kids that matters. Being present, sans electronic device, notifications, emails, etc…, and truly engaging with my babies. As a stay-at-home mom for the last year, I sometimes found myself perusing Facebook or checking my email while talking/playing with my toddler. After all, I am human, and can only take so much of Daniel Tiger and nursery rhymes.

Many spouses decide to pursue their education after the children are in grade school. There is no right or wrong time here- only what is best for you and your family. For myself and my family, we decided that completing my Ph.D. while the boys are little will offer more opportunities for me to spend time with them later.

“My spouse/partner is never home.”

Ah, the joys of trainings and deployments. Not. Although this part comes with the territory of marrying a Soldier, it doesn’t get any easier. I resented my husband for making me hold down the fort. Is it just me, or does the house fall apart and all of the kids tend to get super ill when the Soldiers are away? I digress. Focusing on your academic program or doing something meaningful to you will help your mental state when your loved one is not home.

“We’ll PCS next year and I won’t be able to finish the degree…then what?”

Timing is of the essence, but orders can send your family to the next duty location in a snap. Luckily, we live in a society where there are many types of programs and opportunities- brick and mortar, online, remote, hybrid, accelerated, flexible, etc. Do your research about each program, talk to the faculty representatives, discuss the different options available in the case of PCS-ing before graduation. The majority of schools and programs are very willing to accommodate special circumstances and situations.

Another [HUGE] consideration is the cost. I looked into all of the scholarships, fellowships, grants, and assistantships that I qualified for. My program covered my tuition, fees, and also included a small stipend, but I was required to teach on campus (several hours away from post). For two years, we lived apart on weekdays, and saw each other on weekends. Having two apartments and households was a financial challenge, but with aggressive budgeting, we somehow made it work.

Here are a few tips and suggestions regarding the pursuit of your own education:

1. Assess and Reassess

Regularly ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. I have had to do this time and time again. Some days, your motivation level will be sky-high; other days, you’ll question why you began in the first place.

2. Be flexible to different pathways

There is no magic formula to figuring out the logistics: what, when, where, how.

You must do what works best for you and your family.

3. Be persistent in your goals

“Eyes on the Prize!” Focus, and remind yourself that you are worth it.

4. Give yourself a break

Not taking oneself seriously will make the experience more pleasant and less challenging. If you are in the middle of a homework assignment or reading, and your significant other or child want to go out for ice cream,

5. Have accountability “battle” buddies

My family and friends know how important it is for me to finish my degree before we PCS. They are always willing to watch my toddler, come over so that I can study/focus, and ask me how my work is going. Some use their social media accounts and write posts in order to remain accountable. Whatever works for you!

6. Remember your goals/success is not “one size fits all”

Society tends to dictate many of our values- fame, fortune, ideal physique.

Ignore all of it and focus on what is most important to you.

7. Use your resources

Go to your local ACS building, research the opportunities on Military OneSource, talk to people who have pursued higher education, go to college and career fairs, connect with people on social media groups.

Have you heard the phrase, “well this is what you signed up for by marrying a soldier.” It is aggravating. No, we married the person we love, who happens to be a service member. Being a military spouse does not mean we need to put our own education and careers on the back-burner. Our pathways will surely be different than those of civilian spouses, but different is not necessarily a bad thing. Bottom line, keep an open dialogue with your spouse and family, and pursue your dreams.


Michelle Ko is currently finishing her Ph.D. in Music Education from the University of Missouri- Columbia. She is an Army wife and mother of two human babies and one fur baby.  She enjoys writing, working out, and spending time with her friends and family.

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