This ship is built to fight, from stem to stern! In nautical parlance, stem is synonymous with the bow of the ship. The saying stem to stern, then, represents the entire ship, or the total package. STEM has a role for the IW Officer as well, especially with regards to the total package. In this case, STEM represents degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. If you have been paying attention to selection board convening orders as of late, STEM graduate degrees have been steadily increasing in value when it comes to selection for advancement, milestone tours, and command. While we can debate the true value of an IW Officer earning a STEM degree, that is not the point of this post. The point here is to provide pro-tips for completing a STEM graduate degree, leveraging currently available programs and resources, while also identifying potential solutions to increase throughput and educate the force.
Naval Postgraduate School (NPS)
NPS is the gold standard for Naval Officers earning STEM graduate degrees. According to a recent graduate, “The Naval Postgraduate School affords an amazing experience and an excellent opportunity to take advantage of a variety of activities not available at the typical shore command, all while earning a Master’s degree.” While the curriculum is challenging, instructors are top-notch, many of which are recruited from some of the best schools in the country, and quality of life in Monterey is superb. From the NPS website, “Selection for the Navy’s fully funded graduate education program is based on outstanding professional performance, promotion potential and a strong academic background.” Graduates also have the opportunity to complete JPME Phase I.
Offerings for IW Officers include Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Cyber Systems and Operations, and Space Systems Operations (limited quotas). Annual quotas for each program range around 6-7, with Space Systems Operations offerings limited to 1. For a community with approximately 500 O2-O3s, that isn’t a lot of throughput. Assuming you meet the academic requirements, timing of attendance matters, given community demands, career path, previous performance, etc. For example, attending NPS while in zone for LCDR could result in two consecutive years of NOB FITREPS before the board, potentially impacting or derailing selection. However, a fairly senior LT coming off a tactical tour who had strong at sea FITREPS and strong FITREPS “in traffic” prior to sea duty should be safe attending NPS immediately prior to an in zone look. Timed correctly, NPS offers a first class education and a once in a lifetime experience.
Internships and Fellowships
The Navy has a fantastic amount of internships and fellowships, including the Federal Executive Fellowship (FEF) program, Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) Military Fellowship, Political Military Master’s Program, and Olmstead Scholarship. While these are great opportunities to expand your portfolio, none of these programs leads to a STEM Master’s degree.
Graduate Education Voucher
The Graduate Education Voucher “enables selected officers, with demonstrated superior performance and potential for future contributions to the Navy, to earn a Navy-relevant Master’s degree leading to an approved subspecialty while meeting other Navy needs.” Unfortunately, this program is only available to Unrestricted Line Officers.
On Your Own Time/Dime
Potentially the most challenging, you can complete a STEM Master’s degree on your own time, leveraging funding assistance from the Navy. The GI Bill and Tuition Assistance (TA) are two available resources. From the Navy College Program website, “Tuition Assistance (TA) is the Navy’s educational financial assistance program. It provides active duty personnel funding for tuition costs for courses taken in an off-duty status at a college, university or vocational/technical institution, whose regional or national accreditation is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.” Unfortunately, TA is capped at $250 a semester hour. Also, Officers who have already earned a Master’s degree are normally not eligible for TA.
Finding a quality, and reputable, educational institution that provides Master’s-level STEM courses at those prices might be tough, but not impossible. For example, University of Maryland University College (UMUC) offers rates for military capped at $250, and includes distance learning opportunities for STEM Master’s degrees. Additionally, as one current IW Officer has noted, a request citing the board convening order guidance on STEM Master’s degrees was enough to justify a waiver and receive TA. Still, balancing a workload, family life, and off-duty education can be challenging.
The Way Ahead
IW Officer opportunities to earn a STEM Master’s degree are limited. Yet, if the IW community is going to demand this level of education for its Officers, a supporting plan must be put in place. Fortunately, some work is being done to that end. A zero-based reviewed of IW Officer billets is currently underway, with the goal of assigning appropriate Q-codes to each. That in turn should drive up quotas at NPS, helping satisfy some, but not all, of these requirements. More can be done.
Expand the Graduate Education Voucher program. IW Officers should be able to leverage this same resource that is currently available to Unrestricted Line Officers. Expansion of this program to include IW Officers, and probably all Officers across the Information Dominance Corps, is a sensible first step.
Create a two year, career-intermission program for IW Officers to earn a STEM Master’s degree at an institution of their choosing and at their expense. This could be completed at minimal cost to the Navy (PCS transfer funds) and minimal impact to manning, if timed appropriately.
Establish a STEM-version of the Politico-Military Master’s Degree program, leveraging civilian universities and colleges that offer STEM Master’s degrees. Similar to the Politico-Military Master’s Degree program, a board will select the most competitive candidates and the program fund both the member’s transfer and education. Appropriate “pay-back” tours can be established to ensure the best return on investment.
The demand signal to expand STEM Master’s degree requirements across the IW Officer force has been sent. Now is it time to establish an appropriate plan to achieve that goal.