The transition from military to civilian life is many things: a new beginning, and an exciting, scary, bittersweet ending to a unique way of life that we call military service. This transition can be particularly stressful for those who entered the military straight out of high school or college without having previously experienced a civilian career. Prior to stepping foot into the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School on a warm October day in 2003, I already had three years work experience under my belt after graduating college. Therefore, when I discharged from the military, I certainly had the anxiety that many of us feel making the transition, but I was at least familiar with working in a civilian environment.
During the second and last duty station of my Marine Corps career, I was stationed at the Pentagon and attended classes after work to finish my graduate degree at George Washington University. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in business, however, at that time I could not articulate what exactly I wanted to do, other than be in an energetic and entrepreneurial work environment. One day as I was utilizing the career center website at my university, I noticed a competitive fellowship being offered by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Policy. I applied and after several essays and interviews, I was fortunate to be one of fifteen selected for the fellowship. Shortly after leaving active duty, I began working as a policy advisor in the office of counterterrorism and security policy at DHS. The position was an eye opener into the world of DC policymaking and political affairs and it enabled me to represent the agency at White House meetings and other inter-agency working groups.
Related: 5 ways a civilian mentor can propel your military transition.
That said, I learned a great deal about humility. I left the Marine Corps as a captain, yet my position at DHS required me to start at a much lower pay grade, thus taking a significant cut in salary — painfully so, I might add. This is something many veterans unfortunately have to endure when transitioning, and it is tough. You can go from being in a leadership position overseeing lives, equipment, etc., to starting out near the bottom again. I personally felt that after my six years as a Marine officer, I should have transitioned into a more senior position, but that is not how life works out sometimes. I did what I knew best: buckled down and worked hard. After a year and a half in my role, I was ready to make the move to the private sector and in 2012, I took a meeting during an IRR reserve muster that introduced me to a Wall Street contact, resulting in an offer at a New York bank.
I share this story because there are many valuable lessons that I learned during my transition into the civilian workforce that all veterans should be aware of for their own transition:
- Humility. Have it. Be prepared to start all over again. Certainly do what can be done to avoid starting over completely, but sometimes it is the inevitable reality.
- Resume preparation. Work on your resume and have many people, particularly non-military, review it and give honest assessments. As veterans, we often struggle with how to translate our experiences into civilian terms. Do not talk about what you did as much as the skill sets you learned from your service. Be open to constructive criticism — I revised my resume a dozen times, and just recently after two years, revised it a dozen times more after a friend critiqued it heavily (again, see Humility). After two people pointed out 50 ways to improve it, and some things that should be removed, it evolved into a much more polished product. Once a year I suggest scrubbing your resume and always have it ready to hit send should the need arise.
- LinkedIn: learn how to use it. Linkedin is a great tool, use it to your advantage. I have been contacted by many recruiters from my LinkedIn profile. This is the place to expand on your skills and accomplishments; a resume is simply an executive summary. Make sure you have a good professional photo, meaning you are in a suit and tie, or the female equivalent. I cannot tell you how poor photos or having no photo at all are negatively viewed. For whatever reason, my government friends are the worst at this.
- Research. Do lots of research into the career field you wish to pursue. Had I done more research into finance I could have possibly landed a position earlier. A tip I learned from a hedge fund manager who is now my mentor: he advised me to think about what type of work environment I wanted to interact in, not so much the career field. For example, do you wish to lead people, do you like like energetic environments, do you want to travel, etc. This will help you narrow down what fields you wish to pursue.
- Network, network, and network. This is extremely important. Meet as many people as possible, get business cards, follow up with emails, ask for informational interviews, or just to have coffee with someone to learn about what they do. Don't ever immediately ask for a job, rather, build relationships with people. Build a roadmap of who you want to meet and where you want to go, then work to get there. Do not talk about yourself too much, ask questions of other people. For instance, ask people what they like about their jobs, why and how they chose their particular career field. This will help you learn. Always look sharp and play the part of what it is you are trying to be. Also, use tools such as UniteUs, Hirepurpose, Trident Group, and RallyPoint, which are veteran-owned companies that enable veterans to connect with companies and explore job opportunities.
- The bottom line. Every organization cares about its bottom line; ultimately employers want to know what you can do for them. While many companies would like to hire veterans for our unique skill sets, it’s important to refine your pitch to explain how you can add value to a company. Do not worry so much about any lack of specific experience, companies care more about your work ethic, intelligence, ability to adjust, and qualities you’ve honed in the military. I found the private sector is much more flexible when it comes to hiring talented employees. Employers are more interested in your character — they can train you on the specifics.
Be relentless in the pursuit of your dreams! Do not accept no for an answer or let anyone tell you that you cannot achieve your goals. You are part of the next greatest generation, the next 50 years in America belongs to you.