Every year, the Navy sends about two dozen graduating Naval Academy midshipmen to civilian universities around the world to complete master’s degrees through the Immediate Graduate Education Program (IGEP). The Class of 2020 has graduates bound for Cambridge, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and other prestigious schools.1 These ensigns and second lieutenants, as well as junior officers in other civilian educational programs, have been afforded a remarkable opportunity—but also a responsibility that must be carefully stewarded.
An Oxford- or Harvard-bound ensign or second lieutenant can fall prey to one or more traps. In some cases, selection may feel like a victory in a years-long competition with your Academy classmates, an invitation to join a group of “warrior-scholar” elites that can lead to feelings of superiority. After four years of hard work, you have been awarded a period of time of relative luxury and relaxation to think big thoughts on the Navy’s dime, while your peers grind through their initial warfare training pipeline and qualifications.
Conversely, accepting an IGEP billet can bring a nagging anxiety or insecurity. It is jarring to watch classmates take on the rigors of life at sea, working 18-hour days leading divisions or platoons, while you spend your O-1 years reading books and writing papers that seemingly affect no one but yourself. At best, the contrast can make you slightly envious; at worst, adrift and devoid of purpose. Graduate school’s individualism seems inconsistent with the camaraderie and team values learned in Bancroft Hall, and you may start feeling awkward or ashamed about it.
None of these feelings are beneficial at the start of a naval career, yet IGEP ensigns may experience some combination of these feelings, at least occasionally. I certainly did during my time studying at the University of Chicago. I have also found that some midshipmen who would have made excellent IGEP candidates are so wary of these pitfalls that they avoid applying. As a result, the Navy may not be fully realizing the benefits of sending junior officers to complete master’s degrees.
One solution starts with treating IGEP less like an honor or reward that one receives and more like an important mission that one chooses to complete. For decades, the Naval Academy has acted on an understandable impulse to display its winners of prestigious scholarships as academic trophies. Midshipmen selected for IGEP have much to be proud of, and it is never a bad thing for a college to celebrate its Rhodes and Marshall Scholars. However, the cycle of competition and reward that culminates in IGEP selection can obscure the fact that attending graduate school is first and foremost a serious tour of duty for a junior naval officer—not simply a life accomplishment or a “sweet deal.” Recent Department of the Navy reforms, including the new Education for Seapower Strategy and significant changes to the officer fitness report process, emphasize continuing education’s critical role. In keeping with these efforts, future IGEP candidates should think about graduate education at civilian universities as a vital military mission.2
Before my time in Chicago, I did not fully appreciate that graduate programs are about learning how to think, not just what to think. Filling out Navy Educational Plans, which require satisfying specific syllabus requirements to earn a subspecialty code, can leave prospective graduate students with the mistaken impression that the Navy merely wants them to learn collections of facts from their fields of study. To the contrary, the true value of most civilian master’s degree programs is to instill methods of analysis that can be applied to any set of facts and details—or as the Education for Seapower Strategy puts it, to “develop the . . . critical thinking skills and strategic perspectives necessary to prevail against any adversary across the full spectrum of conflict.”
My most profound learning experience at the University of Chicago was a small seminar with Professor John Mearsheimer on great power politics. As we read books and journal articles about contemporary international relations, we considered competing viewpoints, examined various research methods, and scrutinized lines of argument for logical consistency and coherence. I can hardly expect, during my first couple of tours as a junior submarine officer, to make use of specific facts I learned about China’s economy or the liberal international order. I do expect, however, to apply the critical thinking and analysis tools Dr. Mearsheimer taught us when I am faced with complex situations.
Another aspect of the graduate education mission is to bring intellectual and cognitive diversity into the Navy. Many studies have reinforced the value of diversity in decision-making environments, and the Navy itself has gone to great lengths in recent years to learn from a variety of outside entities about leadership and organizational theory. Sending active-duty personnel to civilian institutions helps the Navy learn how non-military actors think about issues. In appropriate contexts (i.e., not while operating a reactor plant, I have been told), these personnel can contribute insights and analytical methods from the outside world to Navy ships and staffs. IGEP ensigns should consider this “bringing in” of external perspectives—tempered by a healthy realism about their junior status once they get to the fleet—to be an essential takeaway from their graduate school time.
Finally, graduate-school tours give junior officers the chance to act as ambassadors for the military amid gifted civilian classmates from all walks of U.S. and international life. A small minority of Americans personally know a member of the armed forces, and much has been written on the dangers of a military that is increasingly separated from the society it serves. While analyses of this trend are many, solutions are sparse. Few are in a better position to actually help bridge the United States’ gaping “civil-military divide” than active-duty graduate students. IGEP ensigns or second lieutenants straight out of the Naval Academy may not feel like they have much credibility in this regard, but they would be wrong. They are well-equipped to help their civilian peers gain a baseline understanding of how the military functions and the military’s role in society. They can share why they joined the military, why they selected their particular service communities, and what military service means to them. After graduation, they can keep their classmates updated on their career progression or perhaps even invite them to tour their ships, submarines, aviation squadrons, or Marine Corps units. For the rest of their lives, their civilian classmates—future business leaders, policymakers, professors, and voters—will associate the previously faceless U.S. military with their graduate-school friends. This responsibility should never be taken lightly.
At the same time, IGEP students are given a unique opportunity to understand the various ways in which their civilian peers are planning to serve, whether in a direct public service capacity, like many of my University of Chicago classmates, or by contributing to society in other ways. For me, getting to know friends who will go on to serve in public health agencies, the diplomatic or intelligence community, law enforcement, activism, and local government – often at great personal cost – was awe-inspiring and humbling. Their service looks different from my own but is no less significant. Learning the experiences of civilian peers can limit the extent to which we believe our own press about the quality of the military’s officer corps when compared with the rest of society, and can contribute to healthy civil-military interaction in the United States at a time when many observers have perceived cause for alarm.3
Programs such as IGEP have much to offer—both to officers individually and to the Navy and Marine Corps institutionally—if we can leverage their full potential. This means articulating a robust vision of their benefits and mission to prospective participants. None of my reflections here are particularly original, and other active-duty graduate students will have different experiences—which is a good thing. Yet, whatever the various “lessons learned” are, we have an obligation to share them with both our peers and those who would consider following in our footsteps. Our lack of clarity around the true purpose of Navy-sponsored civilian graduate education hurts us as a service, and we can do better.
- USNANOTE 1520, “Class of 2020 Immediate Graduate Education Selectees,” 16 April 2020.
- The author is grateful to COL Nathan K. Finney, USA; CDRs Robert C. Watts IV, B. J. Armstrong, and Ryan Mewett, USN; and Capt. Christian Heller, USMC, for sharing feedback via Twitter and email about their graduate school experiences.
- Risa Brooks, “What Can Military and Civilian Leaders Do to Prevent the Military’s Politicization?” War on the Rocks, 27 April 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/04/what-can-military-and-civilian-leaders-do-to-prevent-the-militarys-politicization/; Andrew Exum, “The Dangerous Politicization of the Military,” The Atlantic, 24 July 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/07/the-danger-of-turning-the-us-military-into-a-political-actor/534624/.