Lessons from a First Semester in ACS

Note: This post was originally published here on January 3, 2016.

If only the Army would give me five years…
I’m a fan of online research. Searching for a good book? Take a look at what other people are reading. Want to eat out? Find the highest rated restaurant in the area. Looking at taking a certain class? Research the professor. About to start grad school via the Army’s Advanced Civil Schooling (ACS) program? Look up other folks’ experiences in that program.

You may notice that last one isn’t linked to anything. That’s because, before moving out to start grad school, I couldn’t find a whole lot in the way of firsthand accounts from officers in the ACS pipeline. This is my contribution to what I feel is a sorely lacking selection of literature on the subject.

After two rounds of applications (first to teach at West Point and then to get into a reputable graduate program), I started my first semester of grad school as part of the Army’s Advanced Civil Schooling (ACS) program in August. Here are some things I have learned at the conclusion of the semester and a quarter of the way through my Masters program.

Group Work

The best way I can sum up group work in grad school is that it’s like staff work minus the XO in charge and minus the understood lanes of expertise within each staff section. On a staff, the commander delivers his intent and the XO directs the staff, each member of which works, more or less, within his or her predetermined lanes of expertise (the S1, S2, S4, S6 do their thing, the S3 staffers do everything else, excepting the odd tasker every once in a while).


Exit Army life, enter grad school. Congratulations, you have a group project! No one is in charge, no one has a predetermined lane. You have to get along with folks from divergent backgrounds and life experiences, collectively decide and assign tasks, propose and set timelines, meetings, and work benchmarks, and use group consensus to discover where the “good enough” level of completion is for the group. Who’s going to design the slides? Who’s going to hold me accountable? Who’s going to proof the final product and submit it? Who knows?!

But, truth be told, all of my first semester group projects went pretty well and earned good grades — thanks to the effort of my teammates more than me, I’m convinced.

I can’t speak to experiences above a brigade-level staff, but my Army time left me fairly unprepared for civilian group work. It has been the single most valuable learning experience in my ACS journey to date, and it’s something I’m still working on.

The Army didn’t teach me about Google apps… should it have?

Perhaps the biggest enabler for group work is the suite of apps available through Google: Drive, Docs, Sheets, Forms, Slides, Hangouts. Seeing multiple users editing a document simultaneously for the first time had me more impressed than it probably should’ve. I felt like a grandparent whose grandkid is showing them the marvels of Facetime or some equivalent technology for the first time.

“…I might just be technologically inept.”

I left my undergrad time in 2008 and never saw anything like those apps back then. Hell, Facebook still required a .edu email address my sophomore year. The closest thing I’ve seen in the Army is shared drives and intranet-style portal sites, each with their own set of pros and cons. I’m sure there are some kind of encryption/classification/commo-related restrictions that prevent the Army from investing in similar programs (not to mention the potential intrapersonal conflicts when someone messes with my damn slides!), but they have value, especially on collaborative projects. Moreover, the “real world” is using them — it might be worth preparing our troops. If I was half as knowledgeable about available productivity apps as I am about PowerPoint, it would’ve spared me the geriatric moment.

Then again, I might just be technologically inept.

The Value of Diversity

I have the great fortune to be classmates with an amazingly diverse group of students. My peers in our small class hold undergraduate degrees in over 50 different fields of study, hail from over a dozen countries, and have a tremendous breadth of professional experience. Some worked in the Peace Corps, some in education, some for non-profit organizations, law firms, government offices, banks, and so many more. Each of those experiences is just as valuable as my own.

There’s a sentiment trending among Soldiers and veterans (the latter being a term that I believe can have overlap with the former) that our sacrifice and/or choices afford us some sort of special deference. I choose not to use this piece to argue about this entitlement, but I feel that humility must accompany our profession, with or without praise. Am I guilty of forgetting to take my humble pills from time to time? Sure, but what better way to expand one’s perspective than to surround himself with diversity? I’m hoping some of it rubs off on me, and maybe I can also spread the good word of the United States Army.

My FB profile right now his of me in uniform…

The Army helped to dial down the stress level significantly
AKA Stress and workload are not the same things

I’ve deployed to Afghanistan. I’ve been a commander. I’ve worried about Soldiers, and missions, and property, and suspenses, and plenty of other things.

I got my Stress Card, Sarnt!


But I find it hard to get worked up about school.

What I mean is that I find it hard to stress out about grad school work while I see others that do. There is plenty of work, sure, but so what? Do the work, do it well, and move on to the next thing. Pretty much like the Army… just without the uniforms, formations, and endless repetitive deadlines (my condolences go out to everyone working on the first USR of the calendar year).

“My condolences go out to everyone working on the first USR of the calendar year.”

Here are a few smaller lessons learned:

  • Commutes suck; Audiobooks and podcasts are the Lord’s work — For the sake of my family’s comfort (and to get the best bang for my buck in a ridiculous Bay Area rental market), my wife and I decided to live fairly far away from campus. I may have the longest commute out of all of my classmates, but I think the tradeoff is worth it. To help alleviate the slow crush of my soul, I have turned to audiobooks and podcasts. The variety is seemingly endless, and I wish I would’ve found them earlier (see the part above where I admit to maybe being technologically inept). Entertainment and education are a screen-tap away!
  • You can do as much or as little as you want — Like I said, my commute is pretty painful, so I don’t dial up the extracurriculars as much as others. But opportunities abound to get involved in so many ways, on campus and off. From social activities, to sports, to student government, to student organizations, to professional and academic discussions, the opportunities truly are limited only by time and your motivation level. Or you could take that fabled knee everyone’s always talking about.
  • There’s far more time to think and write — My favorite idea lately, stolen from some smart guy somewhere, is that you only get better at writing by writing. (And it’s only hard if you do it.) If you’ve read down to this point, thanks for indulging my attempt at getting better. So far, grad school has been an academically encouraging experience for me, and I think that it’s an experience many of our Army’s leaders (officer and enlisted) should be afforded at some point in the middle of their careers.

“You only get better at writing by writing.”
-Some smart guy somewhere

This article has been more “lessons learned” than talk about the processes of applying for or experiencing the ACS program. I’m happy to talk about that as well (feel free to comment your questions), and I encourage everybody to consider it and other such programs to continue your never-ending educational experience.

Views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the US Army or the Department of Defense.


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