Lessons from a First Year in ACS

About five months ago, around the time I started this still-young blog, I shared my lessons from a first semester in ACS – the Army’s Advanced Civil Schooling program. It didn’t seem like there were many firsthand experiences shared, so I decided to pitch my voice into that void on the off chance that I might help someone out or at least get them to think about ACS.

One semester later, I feel like there are a few more lessons worthy of sharing as I wrap up my first of two years in grad school. The overarching lesson? Grad school isn’t that different from many things I’ve learned in the Army:


Long-term projects are still a thing in grad school, and they are practically identical to any extended project you’ve seen at the brigade or below level in the Army. For the spring semester, students in my school’s program are required to take Introduction to Policy Analysis (IPA, but the wrong kind). This is a semester-long, real world client-based policy project designed to throw students into the world of policy analysis with some good ol’ on-the-job training.

Now imagine instead of the words I used above, I wrote that the project was, say, a battalion change of command. You know the event is coming (the IPA project is part of my school’s recruitment material), you receive a WARNO (we got a presentation late in the fall semester), you get an order (think the syllabus plus professor verbal guidance), and you get your designated task to subordinate units/staff (actual project and group assignments). Just like Army projects, there are suspenses, and bosses love to use in-process reviews (IPRs) to make sure you are on track and hitting benchmark deadlines.

Telling your peer about the project vs. briefing your boss.

For better or worse, there’s a culminating event and/or product, and then life resumes, business as usual. Well, not really. The biggest difference (besides the obvious civilian/military ones), is that the culmination of a grad school project usually comes at the end of an academic year or is the last project before graduation. After an Army project, things, more or less, return to the status quo ante-project (maybe with some changes to the organizational norms after a change of command or responsibility).

Regardless, the Army does a good job prepping its leaders for projects just like the ones you would encounter in grad school. With the exception of things like civilian group dynamics (see my section on group work in the original post), an Army leader considering the ACS program would have no issues here.

Organizational Organization

Last month as part of my “In Between” series, I wrote a post about the simple organizational management and administration things the Army generally does well that you might miss when they’re gone. That post was born from a continuous frustration I felt regarding coordination failures.

I’ll leave it to you to check out the linked post for elaboration, but the bottom line is that organization and synchronization failures will color your experience in every line of work, uniformed or not, in or out of a classroom. Understand that military efficiency is not universal. Understand that not everyone lives and dies by the maxim “early is on time, and on time is late.” Understand that there are cultural differences between higher education and an Army unit.

I coped; you can too.


Grades Don’t Matter

Quick preface: of course grades matter. You can’t bomb out of grad school. In fact, the Army requires that you make at least a B in all of your classes or it’ll kick your ass to the curb.


Grades Don't Matter

That said, these kinds of programs (ACS, West Point rotating faculty gigs, reputable graduate programs) generally admit achievers who *gasp* actually want to be there! Students are given a heaping pile of “benefit of the doubt” along with the grown-up gift of trust. As in the program trusts that you will study, trusts that you will actually make the effort to learn the material, trusts that you will dedicate adequate time and energy to your assignments, and trusts that it didn’t completely blow it by choosing you.

Is it possible to totally crash and burn? I’m sure it is. But why? Why even apply in the first place? Why waste your time? Why throw away your money (or your career, since the Army pays for the ACS program)? Why ignore the help that’s all around you? Why fail when you can succeed?

Grades don’t matter, but that’s only because you’ll do the right thing.

Mission Command in Grad School

I almost couldn’t believe I didn’t identify it before I started making notes for this piece, but there it was. While grinding through classes and a demanding program this year, I experienced a concept that is so beloved by us Army types: there’s a lot of “what to do” without a whole lot of “how to do it.”

A shining element of mission command itself.

This means that students must practice disciplined initiative to be successful. As an example, my program requires that I work a 10-week policy-related internship over the summer. That’s about all the guidance we got. It’s up to students to find and secure the internship and work a contract out with the employer.

Sure there’s help and resources available, but isn’t that also true of anything we do in the Army? The fact is, the more you compare the military with successful graduate programs, you recognize that there are more similarities than differences. Success has a formula, and trust is a big part of that formula.

Manage Yourself

Perhaps one of the most valuable things I’ve learned over the last year is that a traditional resident grad school program for Army leaders doubles as a lesson in career and self-management. As I mention above, the program invests trust in you to succeed, a byproduct of which is significantly reduced supervision. Some junior Army officers may be familiar with what it means to operate without a neck-breathing micromanager, but there is always a briefing to deliver, a commander to satisfy, or a box to check. Those things don’t necessarily go away in grad school, but the intensity is dialed down significantly. If you’re not already, you must learn to be a self-starting, self-motivating individual.

In that same vein, the level of commitment you dedicate to your studies in graduate school is completely on you. You can hit the minimums and coast through, or you can completely immerse yourself, involve yourself in everything you can handle, and maximize your experience. (Full disclosure: I’m definitely not toward the latter on that spectrum.) Either way, don’t expect to stand out if you don’t put your skin in the game.

On another point of career management, as an adjutant, I would always advise junior officers to take ownership and manage their own careers. The average Army officer can get by on minimal contact with HRC or any other assignment contacts all the way through company command. There are plenty of exceptions, and it’s those folks – the ones with the contacts and the networking skills – who you see landing gigs in New York City or other cool “black book” sites. Maybe you haven’t developed those skills yet, but you will in grad school.

For serious, this is an actual place and home of the New York MEPS Station (among other units).

Like the internship example above, students are forced to branch out and make contact with opportunities. You can’t land the kickass Washington, D.C. gig unless you pound the pavement, so to speak. While in grad school, I’ve also written my first resume and CV. That will surely come in handy in down the road.

The Nature of Mentorship

Finally, the nature of mentorship in graduate school is practically identical to the Army (really to any setting, likely). If desired, mentees must still seek a mentor, and both parties must agree to the mutual relationship in a dedicated, long-term way.

That’s right, TWO Dilbert comics in one article!

In graduate school, that relationship is often sought by students finding the faculty members with similar research and academic interests. In policy school, the ever-pervasive question “what policy areas interest you?” is like a color-coded system of matching up students with professors. Army branches might serve a similar purpose, though I can’t be sure.

Whatever the case, mentorship is available, and it may even be easier to find in grad school than in uniform.

I’ll probably revisit this topic of lessons learned a year from now as I frantically move my family cross-country for our life’s next chapter. One thing is certain: there are lessons to be learned, and I strongly encourage Army leaders to consider attending graduate school.

If you have any questions about the program or the process, please feel free to contact me on social media or via email.

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