Choosing Your Civilian Career


Most people make several significant career transitions over their work life. If you are leaving the military after several tours or upon retirement, do recognize this transition will take lots of preparation and time.

Research shows that most successful transitions involve many small changes and testing of assumptions along the path to the next career move.

The first step is NOT to jump into a job search. If you are retiring from the military, you may automatically think in terms of doing what you have been, but for a different level of government or via a government contractor. Even with that plan, you need to do more to prepare yourself.

Any transitioning military member needs to consider what you want to do and how your past work achievements can be used to support your future. You need to learn enough to be realistic about the need for new skills and the possibility of lower income for a few years.

Stage 1: Self-Assessment and Career Exploration

You can create the conditions for your transition to be successful — and to make the process easier and more effective — by conducting this analysis first. Then, your “action plan” will be more effective and your transition smoother.

A. The “Blue Ocean” Exercise

Start with a blank page and write down those things you have done which you most enjoyed. Be sure to include both paid work and volunteer roles. Add in any hobbies or other interests. Add to this several times over a week or two.

Once you have a full list, look for patterns which can provide ideas for your next career step. What are some skills you really enjoy using and what other careers may call for these skills? What roles were most satisfying and how could these influence your next step? What have you wanted to learn and apply but have not?

B. Assessing Your Best Skills and Interests

How do you start to analyze and quantify skills and achievements?

Make time to remember your own successes and see what they tell you. Go through your entire work record. Look at the experiences and achievements that really meant something to you.

Build on the list of successes you started above of which you are most proud.

Then, review the common elements among these for the skills you want to continue to use. Identify, also, the ones you never want to do again.

Build-out the details of each accomplishment. As you do this, you are building a record to define your future job search.

C. Personal Career Advisors

Consider developing an advisory group to help you make good decisions. Whether you ever host them as a group or just work individually with them, having an informal set of supporters is a key to successful transitions.

Here you want people who know you fairly well. Those who will help you with your self-assessment and the process of deciding what you want to do next. Start by thinking of people you can trust to be honest with you and to give you solid advice based on their expertise. Invite them to assist you and explain the process you are using. If they agree to help, set up a few regular meetings – whether over coffee or lunch as a thanks for their support or by phone or email if distance is an issue.

These people should be non-judgmental but willing to help you understand your strengths and weaknesses. They can be family, friends, coworkers, past bosses, mentors, or other people you know and trust. Each will serve as a sounding-board during this process so that you have trusted sources to talk with about your ideas, concerns, or issues.

Consider these categories to select your advisors — pick one from each category or add your own:

  • Known for seeing the “big picture”
  • Knows your skills well
  • Knows your temperament well
  • Is very creative
  • Has private sector business experience
  • Has a broad range of experience
  • Has experience in the general career area(s) you are considering
  • A “devil’s advocate”

As you begin to clarify the picture of who you are and what future options most interest you, you will expand your discussions beyond these advisors. But keep these first advisors in the loop to help you understand and assess what you are learning from other connections.

When you are ready to expand your discussions, you will start with your existing network. Your goals are to learn more about successful transitions and to figure out what you might want to do next in more detail. Seek out:

  • Peers you worked with who can assess/recommend some of your best attributes and skills to add to your self-assessment
  • People who know you well and can assist as you debate varying career options
  • Past co-workers who have already made the transition to a new career and can tell you what they did that worked well and what mistakes they made
  • People in your community who can offer information or contacts in career fields you are assessing.

Sample Questions to Ask

Use these questions to get started collecting information:

  • Based on our work together, what do you think my best skills and interests are?
  • We worked together several times, what private sector work/new career options do you think I might want to consider?
  • We worked together several times, I am thinking of making a new move into “X” field – how did you make that transition?
  • I am thinking of making a new move into “X” field, do you know people in that field I might talk with to learn more about it?
  • You have already made this transition, what do you think was the smartest thing you did in the process?
  • Based on your transition, what would you have done earlier in the process? What did you waste time on?

Stage 2: Collect Information While Expanding Your Network

As you make progress on your self-analysis and focus on possible career choices, begin to expand your connections. Find those people who can help you understand more about the work and your target employers or how to translate your skills effectively.

Talk to a range of people at each event you attend, and learn about them. Follow-up with those who seem the best matches to your goals. As you build a relationship with each one, also ask for their recommendations on other people who might be able to help you.

  • Talk to people you know in the community.
  • Look for local groups of people in each field to meet. Some may be chapters of professional or trade associations. Others could be found searching,, and local business calendars for relevant events.
  • A local job club will offer a range of useful information and connections.

If you are not in the U.S. or are far from the location you intend to move to, you can also begin to build a network at your desired location by starting to connect using social media.

Online you can join networks on the specific field and groups on social media, such as LinkedIn. Look for the relevant professional or trade associations and their social media efforts too. Reach out to those whose advice or articles you read regularly online or in professional journals and see value in for additional information.

Stage 3: Focus on Your Best Options

All these actions will help you narrow your potential career choice down to one or two real options. This is critical so you can focus effectively on what you need to learn. As you learn more about the field and its needs and requirements, you can begin to assess the value you offer an employer in your chosen field and how you will demonstrate that value to your target employers.

Based on your network and your research, develop a list of target employers where you could successfully work in your chosen field. Then, turn your focus to your network to connect with opportunities in your target networks.

Start your job search with your network, not a job board — recent research has shown that only 15% of jobs are filled through job postings, where the competition is toughest and the options are limited. The best way to land a job is through your network. Read Shortcut to a New Job: Tap an Insider for more information.

Bottom Line

Taking the time early in your career transition process to assess your interests and to create realistic goals will help you learn how to make an effective transition. Too often, military in transition jump into the actions before they have a useful plan. This results in longer job searches or several jumps in rapid succession.

Patra FrameAbout the author…

Patra Frame has extensive experience in human capital management and career issues in large and small corporations. She is an Air Force vet and charter member of The Women In Military Service for America Memorial.  Patra speaks and writes regularly on job search and career issues through her company Strategies for Human Resources (SHRInsight) and where she blogs advice for veterans and other job seekers. Watch Patra’s job search tips videos on YouTube, and follow her on Twitter @2Patra.
More about this author

Don't forget to share this article with friends!