Changing Careers: Tips for Moving from the Military to a Career in the Civilian World
The process of discovering and pursuing the next steps in your career presents a variety of challenges. When you add to those challenges the need to translate your working experience in the military to civilian equivalents, or not having interviewed for a job before, the difficulty can amplify for a person leaving the military. But the right preparation makes all the difference; we reached out to the Q-Salute team here to ask for their best advice.
Thanks for agreeing to share your career advice! Would you mind introducing yourselves to us a little?
Nate Leach (NL): I’m Nate Leach, a Principal Customer Success Manager in our Seattle office. I served active duty in the U.S. Air Force for eight years and left as a Captain. I have spent the last two and a half years as a Major in the Air Force Reserves. Prior to Qualtrics, I was a Senior Consultant in Deloitte’s Strategy and Analytics practice.
Dave Dequeljoe (DD): I’m Dave Dequeljoe, Leadership Development. I originally enlisted in the Navy Nuclear Engineering program, then attended the US Naval Academy before flying F-14 Tomcats for Fighter Squadron 32 (The Swordsmen – Gypsy Roll!) in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I retired in 2009 and was an entrepreneur and author before coming to the mighty Qualtrics.
Catherine Nuar (CN): I’m Catherine Nuar, an Operations Program Manager based in Provo. I was an active duty Marine Corps Logistics Officer for five years before transitioning to the reserves. Prior to Qualtrics, I worked as a Data Analyst at Booz Allen.
Linda Yen (LY): I’m Linda Yen, a Senior Technology Consultant based in Seattle. I left active duty as a Lieutenant in the Navy, where I served as a Nuclear Surface Warfare Officer.
Liesl Lubeck (LL): I’m Liesl Lubeck. My role at Qualtrics is Software Test Engineer, and I was in the Army for a short time, enlisted as a 35 M Human Intelligence Collector. Discharged as Private First Class in 2012. Since then I spent 18 months as a volunteer missionary for my church, graduated from Brigham Young University with a German major and Computer Science minor while working part-time jobs here and there.
What do you wish you had known about having a civilian career vs. a military career?
DD: Wow, this is the big one. This is going to be completely different, but it doesn’t have to suck. Find something that you LOVE, and find a place that will LOVE having you with them. Many veterans are sadly underemployed, meaning that they are placed at levels far below their capabilities. This is a really miserable situation to find yourself in, I can tell you from having experienced it myself! Don’t think that your extreme skill in something else will help you find this perfect job and be ready for it; you’re going to need to fight hard to learn how to write a resume, how to interview and how to adapt to your new situation. Please use our ever-expanding veteran network to ask for some guidance; many of us are too proud and too stubborn to ask for help. You wouldn’t hesitate to ask for air support when you needed it, so don’t hesitate here. Be humble in learning, but also be confident in all the things you’ve learned the hard way in the military. There ARE places that will cherish the incredibly powerful skills you can bring to the team; do NOT stop looking until you find a place you can call home. Life is too short to settle; be aggressive, and keep improving yourself every single day while you transition. Then turn around and help our brothers and sisters behind us; we need to look out for each other in this wild civilian world!
What’s the best advice you were given about the career transition process?
NL: The best advice I was given was that I needed to focus on my civilian career goals and make hard decisions accordingly. This applies to the desired role, geographic location and family needs.
CN: Decide what you want to accomplish and plan accordingly. Reach out to people who are where you want to be and ask them how they got there.
LY: To start preparing your transition plan early! I’ve had friends prepare for their transition just a couple months out from their discharge date because most companies don’t hire earlier than that. Not only did they get a job they disliked because they didn’t give themselves enough time to really think about what they wanted or vet their options, but they were under-compensated for their experience and skills. I would advise preparing a year out or more. Although that might seem really early, it does make the whole process less stressful and less rushed.
LL: Don’t hesitate to apply for the jobs you want, but don’t think you can get. Even if you get turned down, you can gather information about what skills you still need to gain, but at best you get a better job than you were planning on. I say this from the context of not really having a single solid career area that I specialized in before working at Qualtrics and not having much confidence that my experience was relevant.
Was there any advice that you found helpful, or anything advice you’d give about interviewing?
CN: Practice! Translate your resume so that someone with no military knowledge can understand what you did and how it relates to the role you’re seeking. Do the same in your interviews. Understand the STAR method and be comfortable answering behavioral questions in that format. Do practice interviews and ask for honest feedback. Use this to improve. Be ready to answer skeptics who don’t understand what you do or believe the military consists solely of yes men who never question authority and have no soft skills. Understand that you can negotiate and learn how.
NL: The responsibility to translate military experience into relevancy for a role is entirely on the veteran. This is difficult at first, but there is a large network of veterans with whom a veteran can practice and learn. An interview should not be the first time a veteran is translating their experience.
DD: Get a wingman to video you while you answer questions. This is usually incredibly uncomfortable to watch, and you’ll cringe the whole way, but the things you will catch yourself doing you can then correct. Better to know than to not know! Be persistent about asking people for advice; use our ever-expanding veteran network to find someone that can give you the very best counseling. Ask ahead of time if there are books you can read to get up to speed quickly. Balance our code of being humble about what we did, with the need to teach and explain how your extraordinary skills can make their team stronger. Focus on how you can take away pain from the employer, and what things you can do to enhance their entire operation. Be enthusiastic about meeting new people, don’t get dejected if it isn’t a good fit (this is actually a blessing when you don’t get a job you aren’t a fit for), and never stop looking for the perfect home and life for you and your family. Think big, press hard for your dreams, and leave no stone unturned because life is too short to settle. Lastly, please find one of our brothers and sisters behind us and help them in any way you can. No one is coming to save us, so we are compelled to save ourselves and leave no one behind!
YL: Remove all military jargon and practice interviews! Ask someone who has done interviews in the industry you want to join to help you practice. It doesn’t feel like you will ever get over the nervous tick or awkward moments during practice, but it honestly does make you much more confident in your real interviews.
LL: Basic idea, but worth mentioning: Having an entry about your military background on your resume can be valuable even if you’re applying for a job that is not immediately related. I say this from the context of having a career history mixed with the military, volunteer and civilian work/school. Military-friendly companies/recruiters will appreciate your service.
It can be really valuable to find a mentor who has the job you want, and ask their advice on how to interview for that particular job. It can be different for different industries, so try to find out if there is a standard for your particular target field. Ask your mentor to help with interview practice, and ask them what their day-to-day is like. To make it worth their while, try to give them the incentive to help you (buy them lunch, let them refer you, help them with something etc). That way their help is more genuine and you can make a real connection.
Find out about your target company and role as much as you can, so that 1) you can better understand if it’s a good investment to work there, and 2) you can demonstrate knowledge about the company/role to recruiters.
Developing a career outside of the military can be very different. What points are similar/what points are different?
CN: The basics are the same. A civilian career path has much more room for variance. You don’t need to have your twenty year plan mapped out. Explore the options available and ensure you are always in a role that forces you to grow.
NL: The basic fundamentals are the same: emphasis on results and performance, teamwork, and incremental responsibility increase based on prior performance. In the military, an established career path and milestones are normal, whereas a civilian career path is much more self-driven.
DD: Each role and each company is so different that a specific answer is probably useless. The main thing I would love every veteran to learn is that you will need to learn a new language because civilians have a peculiar way of communicating with each other. The things we loved in the military might be actually perceived negatively by some people, so instead of shunning them, seek to understand their perspective and teach them the positive things about your culture. You can still keep your core values intact while aggressively changing the way you express those values; adapt quickly to your new situation by being curious and humble, while also maintaining your self-esteem and pride of where you came from. You have a LOT to add to your new team – ensure your great ideas are heard by first extending respect and love to all of your teammates. Understand WHY they do things the way they do, then you’re in a better place to give helpful innovative ideas. Most of all, find a place where YOU are respected and loved in return; some companies just don’t get it. That’s ok, come join our team where we are aggressively looking for awesome veterans just like you; then we can rock it out and have more fun than ever!
LL: I would encourage people to be creative and take initiative at their civilian jobs, especially if the company is growing and/or doesn’t have a lot of red-tape. But this advice does work in other companies, especially when you have supportive leadership/co-workers. In addition to performing your duties, if there is something you’re interested in doing to help the company perform better, then suggest the idea to managers. Demonstrate the willingness to help solve problems that your managers are trying to solve, with the aim to make their jobs easier (not to directly compete with them). You don’t have to be confined to only thinking about your job description. At the very least, managers will see that you’re thinking outside the box. At best, you can expand your field of influence or explore new skills. Working at Qualtrics has provided great opportunities for this in my experience.
If you’re in the Reserves, what advice would you share about actively managing both of your careers?
CN: Be proactive.
Anything else you want to share?
LL: In my mind, a valuable skill that people can learn in the military is adaptability. From a civilian career perspective, this can be translated to the ability to learn new skills efficiently. Others that come to mind: Dependability = willingness to get the job done consistently. Discipline = willingness to deal with physically or mentally taxing job situations and see them through to the end, and excelling.
In life I’ve often had to answer to other people even outside the military. Nowadays at work, this mindset translates to feeling the need to explain myself more than normal in little ways, like why I’m taking a sick day. Forcing myself to not give into this mindset has made a huge difference. I need to feel accountable to myself first and foremost, and working at my current job (Qualtrics) has encouraged this. The alternative is being accountable to the wrong person for the wrong things. It can seem easy to just take orders from someone and not take responsibility for myself. But this puts me in an inferior position and wrongfully gives someone power over me. Conversely, choosing to be accountable to myself first, helps me to make fewer meaningless excuses, to be on equal footing with coworkers, and to progress as an employee and as a person.
The Q-Salute group at Qualtrics is made up of veterans, current National Guard and Reserve members, military partners, and supporters who are aligned by the mission to create a sanctuary of camaraderie, connection and mentoring for all veterans (both at Q and at large…) to ensure that we all have the resources to find success in the civilian world. The work of Q-Salute has earned Qualtrics recognition by Military Friendly as a Best Employer for Veterans and Military Partners.
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