Thursday, June 9, 2011

“What are the pros and cons of serving in the National Guard or Reserves while in business school?”

I get asked this question a lot, and thought that it might be valuable to offer my perspective on the matter during a time when many officers are in the process of deciding what to do after they leave active duty. As a bit of context, I’m currently serving in the Massachusetts Army National Guard and have done so for the past two years while also attending Harvard Business School. It’s a decision that I would make all over again if given the opportunity, but certainly one that has come with a number of tradeoffs. In what follows, I will list and discuss the key arguments for and against becoming a “weekend warrior” in hopes of helping you make a more informed decision.

Benefits
There are a number of reasons to consider joining the guard or reserves. The primary arguments for joining can largely be classified as a desire to continue serving in uniform, greater stability, and financial.

1. Desire to continue serving - This one almost doesn’t require further explanation, but I’ll throw in my two cents anyway. More likely than not, you’re extremely proud of your military service and grateful for having had the opportunity to develop as a leader while dedicating your time, talent, and efforts to a cause much greater than yourself. But you’re likely also looking forward to your upcoming transition to civilian life and may be wondering whether you’d be all that fulfilled by serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year. I’ll be the first to say that the level of satisfaction I feel from my time serving in the National Guard pales in comparison to that which I felt while serving on active duty. That said, after spending my days in the all-consuming “business school bubble”, it felt extremely refreshing at times to throw on my ACUs and spend time with military folks. I’ve also felt that serving in the National Guard has enabled me to ease into civilian life. As someone who has been affiliated with the Army for his entire adult life, the military was all that I knew and was what I was comfortable with. The National Guard was a way for me to stay connected with the military while also enabling me to pursue other endeavors in my life.

2. Greater stability – Believe it or not, the guard and reserves can provide you with much greater stability while at business school than the IRR. The vast majority of the officers leaving active duty with less than eight years of service do so with an individual ready reserve (IRR) commitment to their branch of service. This is due to the fact that, upon commissioning, all military officers agree to a military service obligation (MSO) of eight years, with some or potentially all of it served while on active duty. For officers who leave active duty before the eight year mark, the remaining time is served in the IRR. And as many of you well know, members of the IRR are subject to recall to active duty in a time of war or national emergency. Seeing as how the US is currently involved with two wars, being recalled while in business school is a very real possibility. Just ask my close friend and HBS sectionmate who received recall orders in November of our first year at business school, ordering him to Afghanistan as part of a Military Transition Team (MiTT). Let’s face it – it’s simply the nature of the beast. By joining the guard or reserves, your unit is authorized to grant you between 12 and 24-months of stabilization (state dependent), meaning that you are guaranteed to not be deployed during that time period. If the state in which your school is located offers 24-months of stabilization, you can complete your degree without having to worry about being recalled to deploy midway through. This was a huge plus in my eyes. Furthermore, as an incentive to join the guard or reserves while still on active duty, your guard/reserve recruiting counselor can offer an MSO reduction incentive which will cut your remaining service obligation in half. That means you could feasibly complete your military service obligation by the time you leave business school.

3. Financial – Though not nearly enough to cover your monthly expenses while in business school, the drill pay you receive each month certainly doesn’t hurt. I, for one, never quite got used to subsiding on not-yet hard earned money (i.e. student loan debt), so earning a little income from serving in the guard one weekend a month felt quite nice.

Tradeoffs
While there are a number of reasons to join the guard or reserves, doing so requires you to make a number of important tradeoffs, as I’ve mentioned. It should come as no surprise to you that the arguments against joining are primarily time related: less time for school, less time for the important people in your life, and less time for you.

1. Less time for school – Maybe it was just me, but I found business school to be a lot more academically intense than I had expected. Many of the concepts, particularly in finance, required that I spend additional time to comprehend them well enough to feel comfortable discussing them in front of my 93 exceptionally bright and accomplished sectionmates. I can recall a few drill weekends in particular (the ones with hours and hours of briefings) where I wanted nothing more than to spend my time reading and preparing cases so that I could be ready to go for class on Monday.

2. Less time for the important people in your life – This was a big one for me. As a husband and father of two, making time to spend with my family is extremely important. For me, I treated business school like a job, meaning that the weekends were my opportunity to spend quality time with my wife and kids. Drill weekends obviously reduced the amount of time I had to spend with them and required me to find ways to make up for lost time.

3. Less time for you – As I mentioned, business school was much more rigorous than I expected it to be. Time is your most precious commodity and anything that eats into what little free time you do have obviously has a ripple effect on your ability to devote time to your many duties and obligations. This, of course, pushes personal time even further back on the back burner. At this point, after serving a number of years in the military, we’re all used to putting ourselves last. But if you’re not careful, you will quickly find that you’re being led by your life and not the other way around.

While my National Guard commitment did in fact soak up some pretty valuable free time, I never found it unmanageable. If anything, it made me more efficient and better at managing my time even if was only out of sheer necessity. Thus, my overarching recommendation to you would be to make the decision of whether to join the guard or reserves based on how much you value the benefits of serving rather than how concerned you are with the tradeoffs you’ll have to make as a result.

-Rob C., Guest Blogger and Co-Founder of MilitaryToBusiness: Consulting Service for Top Performers