Military to Civilian Transition Thoughts

I transitioned from active duty to civilian life in 2009, following five years of service in the US Army.    While our nation’s military continues to be at war in Afghanistan, budget pressures and draw down plans point to a likelihood that many veterans will make a similar transition in the coming years.  For those who are considering this path, here are some words of advice and things to think about.

What matters most to you and why?  I stole this directly from Stanford GSB application, but I feel it is a particularly important question for one to consider when making a career change.  Your job/career will be a major part of your life and identity for the foreseeable future, why not target a career, role, or company that you are passionate about?  Do not feel the need to just find a job, start by looking for the perfect job … one that fits what matters most to you.  Start the introspection process while you are still on active duty if possible.

Perhaps what matters most is the time you spend with your kids or family.  That is great, and hopefully you will then target a career that affords you a good work life balance, likely at the expense of higher pay or promotion opportunities.  Or maybe higher pay and career progression, or international opportunities, experience in certain roles or industries, or working towards a specific cause or solution is most important to you.

Once you have identified what matters most to you, use it as a prism though which to analyze career choices.  If your career choices do not match with what matters most, then you need to ask yourself why.  Are you being honest with yourself about what matters most or are you not focusing on what matters most?  We often try to justify that we’re just on a stepping stone towards being happy, but how long until you get there?  You’ll have the most opportunity to make major career changes when you are younger – it does not get easier with time.  Go for it now!

Career Management & Choices.  Most branches of the military use some form of career or assignment manager, but the old adage is that you are your best career manager.  In the civilian world, you are your only career manager, and there are infinite career paths to take.  This is both scary and exciting.

It scary because the first thing you’ll feel is overwhelmed by the potential choices and opportunities.  You won’t quite know where to start, and you’ll likely feel pressure to just find something and/or look at roles related specifically to jobs you did in the military (government or defense/security industry).  While everyone will have their own personal financial runway, to the extent you can take time to exercise the new found freedom of choice and align your career with what matters most to you, I recommend doing so.

You’ll also soon discover the wonderful freedom of being able to change jobs when you want (obviously subject to your ability to land a new role, but that’s now on you, not an assignments manager).  It will be more work than it was in the military to find a new role, but you have control and influence over your destiny.

Do I need to go to school?  I often get asked about the necessity for heading to school as a transition vehicle for service members.  My reply is often the same, “Well, it depends.  Why do you want to go to school?”  School is a great transition vehicle, but it is also a very expensive and time consuming one.

For those without a degree already, I would definitely recommend using your GI Bill to pursue your bachelors degree from a reputable university or a solid technical or apprenticeship type program.  Be smart in the program you choose though, a degree needs to provide you the skills or training you need to be a value added employee – it’s not a check-the-box effort.  Use your benefits wisely.

For those considering graduate school, make sure you give some thought to what you expect to get out of the experience.  Graduate school is a great opportunity, but is costly (particularly when you consider the opportunity cost of forgone salary).  Don’t pursue an expensive degree that does not move you towards a career you want.

Interviewing & Resumes.  You’ll also need to be comfortable with managing your resume and interviewing.  You need to sell yourself, something that many from the military are uncomfortable with.  This does not mean you need to forget about the importance of teamwork, but you do need to learn how to focus on your role in the team, the skills you developed, and the accomplishments you directly impacted.  You need to become a good story teller, not to mislead anyone but to succinctly connect the dots of your career choices and to articulate the value you bring to the organization. (Watch Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Speech, he has great advice.)  Focus on how you can help reduce your would-be bosses’ pain points or help solve major challenges for the organization.

Reserves or National Guard?  You’ll also need to make a decision on whether to stay in the Reserves, National Guard, or Inactive Reserve (assuming you have completed 8 years of service, otherwise you are required to be in one until you hit 8 years total).  There is no right answer, choose what is best for you, your family, and your career path. Staying in the USAR or ARNG can bring much needed Tricare Reserve Select health insurance benefits, particularly if you are trying to start your own company or working for a company without a solid healthcare plan.  Continued service also keeps you in uniform and eligible for some level of retirement benefits.  Do not feel, however, that you need to stay in uniform to serve your country.  There are plenty of opportunities to do that as a civilian and your service in uniform to date is something you can always be proud of.

Networking.  Tied to the freedom of choice is the importance of networking.  There’s an old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  There is some truth to that.  There is some value in the size of your network, but more important is the quality of your network.  You build a quality network by doing great work, taking advantage of networking opportunities having intelligent conversations with people (requires doing your homework), and being diligent in following up with people.  As you prepare to transition, get yourself a LinkedIn account (they are also currently offering veterans free upgraded membership).  Use the account to reach out to other veterans that may be working at companies or in roles that you think you may be interested in, and reach out to them to schedule a short call to discuss their company, role, and similar types of roles they can recommend.  You may also want to consider checking out RallyPoint, a new professional network site exclusively for veterans.  Service Academy graduates can also use the iSABRD.  Following up with people on these networks after you meet them, and always include a short note to remind them who you are unless they know you well.  You’ll find having folks submit your resume internally for a role will be far more successful then simply applying to a job, so build that network!

Mentors. These are important in the military, but they are particularly important in the civilian world.  Find experienced folks who will help mentor you.  Don’t chase big names or higher ranking individuals who are far removed from your career, focus on folks who are a few levels above of you.

Budget.  Spend some time reviewing your budget and retirement plan once you have settled in.  You may make a higher salary on the outside (or you may not), but you will not likely have similar retirement benefits or allowances.  Make sure you plan for your future accordingly.

These are just a few thoughts, and they reflect the opinion of just one person, so take it for what it is worth.  Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn if you have any questions.

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