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Military to Civilian Career Transition Strategies

Transitioning from military service to civilian life can be a complex process but does not need to be overwhelming. Active duty service members prepare to separate or retire from the military about one year out. There are appointments and milestones to pass, which vary depending on the military branch you served.

This transition period is a great time to work on your resume, start building a professional network, and decide on your path forward. Whether you choose to go into the workforce directly after separation or further your education, many options are available.

Returning to School?

Many service members and veterans decide to further their education post-military. The benefits of a college education can include higher wages, better job opportunities, and increased professional security.

Many colleges, universities, and training programs nationwide support veterans with specialized services, support, and financial assistance.

Benefits such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill and programs like the Yellow Ribbon Program help veterans receive substantial education benefits.

How much financial assistance you are eligible for will depend on several factors, including when you served and your length of service. Enlist the help of a Veteran Service Officer (VSO) or a student financial advisor to find out all the options available to you.

Related: Get a free Education Benefits Guide

Seek out military-friendly colleges and universities. Because veterans often face unique challenges, selecting a school with a military-friendly track record will help boost your success.

Look for schools that offer:

  • Substantial financial support for military members and veterans
  • Military-specific academic assistance
  • An active veteran center and/or community on campus
  • Military-specific career resources and counselors

Also, be sure to consider online opportunities. With online colleges and universities, you’re not limited to attending a school nearby.

Lastly, don’t forget to apply your experience. Veterans and servicemembers can use military experience to earn college credits. Transferring your experience into credits can save you both time and money. Because every school has unique policies, it’s essential to understand what can carry over and what cannot.

One option is to take the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, designed to gauge your understanding of college-level academic material. Depending on your score, you may qualify to skip some general education or introductory-level courses.

Finding Employment

If you plan to enter the civilian workforce directly, you should start looking for a job about 6-12 months before separation. But there are things you can do to prepare as far as a few years out.

Your Support Team and Networking

Leading up to separation is a great time to identify the people who will support you during your transition to civilian life. If you know what kind of work you want to do, find a mentor currently doing that work who is willing to coach you. Or seek out assistance from a VSO.

Then, get in touch with friends and fellow veterans. The most valuable job search tool is a referral, so continue to build and expand your network.

Federal Jobs

The federal government offers unique hiring paths to help hire individuals representing our diverse society. This includes veterans and active duty service members.

As a veteran, you may get preference over other candidates when you apply for federal jobs. Veterans’ preference does not guarantee that you will get the job, and only some veterans will be eligible.

Private Sector Jobs

Entering the private sector is also an excellent option after service. Military experience is valuable to many employers looking for candidates with a proven work ethic and dedication.

Look for organizations committed to helping veterans find good jobs. A few examples are:

Putting Together a Resume

Whether pursuing employment with the federal government or in the private sector, you’ll need a good resume and cover letter.

First, ensure you have a copy of your Verification of Military Experience and Training (VMET). Your VMET gives the overview of all the skills you gained during your time in the military. If you need a copy, request it through the Department of Defense.

The components of your resume should include:

  • Contact information: Name, address, phone number, and email address go in the header
  • Objective: In one or two lines, explain what kind of job you’re looking for and how you are uniquely qualified for it
  • Summary of qualifications: This can be a bulleted section below the objective. Here, you should include a paragraph or two highlighting the skills that qualify you for the job. Include your experience, certifications, and any related training.
  • Employment history: This section will include dates of any specialized positions you’ve held and your responsibilities.
  • Education and training: List any schools, colleges, and military training programs you have attended. You do not need to list dates.
  • Special skills: Include foreign languages, technical and computer skills, medical training, and other relevant skills that will set you apart. Be sure to include non-tangible skills such as leadership, work ethic, and discipline.
  • Volunteer Work: Include any volunteer work you’ve done only if it’s relevant to the job you’re applying for or showcases your unique skills.

When listing your military certifications or licenses on your resume, keep in mind that some may not be recognizable to the civilian world. You can learn how to translate your training and experience into skills employers recognize with Credentialing Opportunities Online.

Visit the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service website to learn more and locate your service branch’s COOL website.

Resume Tools

There are many resources out there to help you build a resume and translate your military experience and credentials into civilian skills.

  • Veterans Employment and Training Service – This site from the U.S. Department of Labor has an online job board with access to employers, a skills translator, and a resume builder.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs offers an interest profiler, educational and career counseling, and links to other job resources, such as support for veteran-owned small businesses.
  • Resumeengine.org – This site is sponsored by Hiring Our Heroes and provides an easy-to-use service that translates military records into a strong resume that civilian employers can easily understand.

Automated Resume Checkers

Artificial Intelligence is everywhere in the civilian world, including at work. Often, companies rely on software to weed out (or, in reverse, seek out) resumes that contain specific keywords.

When it comes to jobs in the federal government, this is only partially true, as they offer the following explanation: 

“Real people, Human Resource (HR) specialists, do look at resumes. However, some agencies also use an automated system to review applications. For the agencies that do use an automated system, the resume review process has two parts:

  • An automated application review process to include all the required areas of the applicant’s eligibility and qualifications for the job.
  • A manual review, by the HR Specialist, of an applicant’s resume to validate the information in the application package.”

Whether you’re applying for a government or a civilian job, avoid using catchphrases or trendy buzzwords such as wheelhouse, synergy, pivot, interfaced, and team players.

Writing a Cover Letter

You should always send a cover letter with your resume. Your cover letter will explain why you’re interested in the position and how your skills make you the best choice for the job.

Get the name of the person in charge of hiring, and email your cover letter to them. You can call the company directly and ask for their name and email address or try to locate it on their website.

In your cover letter, you should mention the job you are applying for by name in the first paragraph. Then, keep the content focused on how your skills and abilities will help the company succeed.

Keep your letter to one page, and use a business format. Mention in closing that you will call to follow up and set a reminder to do so.

Research the Market

With your updated resume and cover letter template ready, start narrowing your job search to a few fields and research what to expect. Use the CareerOneStop website, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, for free skills and interest assessments and career exploration tools, including salary information.

They also have a section for transitioning service members, veterans, and military spouses.

Where to Find Job Listings

There are several avenues for finding and applying for jobs in the federal government and private sector.

Websites that act as job bulletin boards let you post your resume for employers to find and search for and apply for jobs in a wide array of industries. These sites include Monster, Indeed, CareerBuilder, and ZipRecruiter.

However, the only place to apply for federal jobs is at USAJOBS.gov.

You can also utilize resources like your college veterans center and the resources from your specific military branch.

On the Job Training

If you’re currently employed but want to level up your career, options are available. Post-9/11 GI Bill training programs are available that can help you pay for books, supplies, and housing while you’re learning a trade or skill through on-the-job training or apprenticeships.

Avoid these Common Mistakes

Forgetting Social Media

Employers today take social media seriously; if they consider you for an interview, they will look at yours. So take a long stroll through all your accounts (be sure not to miss any old ones) and clean up anything that might not portray who you are today.

Use a professional site such as LinkedIn to connect with people in your professional network. Use a proper headshot as your photo, and list all your accomplishments in your bio. Make sure your email address is professional sounding as well.

Being Unprepared

Having served in the military, you know that being prepared is everything. That’s why your initial research and the time you spend putting together your resume and practicing for an interview is so important.

Some additional ways to prepare include:

  • Anticipate the interviewer’s questions, and practice your answers beforehand with a mentor or coach. Practicing this will help you frame your answers and rehearse your responses to complex questions.
  • Contact potential references. Reach out to your professional and personal network before the interview and make a list of contacts willing to be a reference for you. Bring a list of only the confirmed references and their contact information to the interview.

Read more: Best Online Colleges for Military Members

Bad Mouthing Others

Whether you’re talking about past employers, former co-workers, or even the competition of the company you’re applying with — do not put others down. Always answer questions focusing solely on yourself and how you would do things. Never resort to bad mouthing.


Some things never change, and one of those things is dressing to impress. An interview, even done remotely, is your chance to put your best face forward, so dress appropriately.

Be sure to research the company you’re interviewing with well in advance. Read the “about” section on their website, search for employee reviews online, talk to anyone you might know who has connections with them, and jot down questions you have along the way.

Dress to impress for the interview. Whether it’s a remote or online interview, this is your chance to put your best self forward. Do not wear military attire or casual clothing. Wear office-appropriate attire.

Bring extra copies of your resume, and arrive on time for the interview. Be sure to turn your cell phone off in advance. Greet your interviewer with a firm handshake and confident introduction; then, it’s your time to shine.

During the interview, avoid using military jargon, including ranks and acronyms. Practice interviewing with a friend or SVO. Review your resume and practice using the civilian translations for your technical skills.

Follow Up

Following up after the initial interview is essential to help yourself stand out and show dedication to the process. Doing so expresses to the employer that you are proactive and interested in the position.

The thank-you may be a phone call, email, typed business letter, or handwritten note.

When sending a note, restate your interest in the position, thank the interviewer for their time, and provide any additional information you may still need to relay. You should do this within 24 hours of the interview.

Accepting An Offer (Or Not)

Before you take any position, you should consider the company culture and work environment, the location and proximity to your home, the growth potential, job security, salary, and benefits.

And on the other hand, if you don’t get a job offer, that’s okay. Don’t be discouraged. Look back at the interview process and use it as a learning tool. Think about what went right and what you could learn from. And then be ready to do it all again.

Read more: Best Online Colleges for Military Members

About the author

Andrea Daniell

Andrea Daniell is a freelance writer based in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Specializing in copy and blog writing, she has ten years of experience writing across many industries. In addition to her love of both writing and reading, she enjoys boating, cooking, and spending time with her husband and two kids.