How to Avoid Cannibals During Military Transition

cannibal with head on copier
(Adobe stock image)

Transition from the military to a civilian job seems like it should be relatively easy and cannibal-free. You put together your resume. Join a program. Apply. Interview. Sign on the dotted line. Easy.

Yet for so many service members and spouses, that journey is fraught with peril. Yes, fraught.

As the transition master coach of's Veteran Employment Project, I am perplexed when smart, earnest, ambitious people seem to veer off course during their transition. It is like you all head off with the transition version of the infamous Donner Party -- only to wake up in the middle of winter frozen, starving and surrounded by cannibals who want to eat your liver. Preferably with fava beans and a nice chianti.

You know you are off course and at risk of cannibals when your transition seems to be taking much longer than those of your peers.

How can you avoid the Transition Donner Party and get back on course with your next high-impact career? The solution depends on how you got off course in the first place. Often, I see how certain perils are directly related to your career level. (Check out all our strategies for your career level in our FREE Video Library.)

Senior Enlisted

You have had an amazing career full of huge responsibility and a knack for making things happen. Well done. You join the Donner Party, though, when you don't get one-on-one coaching help with your resume. (I don't mean just paying for any resume. I mean getting one-on-one coaching, narrowing your focus and making your checklist resume correspond to a specific job.)

I know it is hard for a self-starter like you to ask for help. Yet more than any other group, you can keep the cannibals at bay with this kind of coaching. It will help you make your work experience make sense to a hiring agent -- and can even qualify you as a subject matter expert.

Officers -- Especially 05s and 06s

Senior leaders get membership into the Donner Party when you get hung up on your job title. You think you need to see the word "director" or "vice president" in your defense job, or it is all a waste of your time.

This attitude can alienate the people who are trying to help you. It can demonstrate you don't quite understand how these businesses operate. And cannibals do think of a VP liver as the tastiest morsel on Earth.

It is true these roles might very well be available to you through smaller contractors, depending on your work experience. If you want to break into one of the Defense Primes -- the big five defense contractors -- or private industry, think about taking a role that gets you on the team so you can learn the business, prove yourself quickly and move into the role you want.

For Junior Officers with a STEM Degree

You graduated six years ago with a degree in science, technology, engineering or math. Yay, you. Then you went right into the military where you may have done absolutely everything assigned to you -- and absolutely nothing with that degree.

The people you know in the military are probably telling you that your degree is too old, and no one will want you on the outside. This illustrates one of my favorite concepts: Never take transition advice from your military peers -- or cannibals.

You will be surprised to find that often a four-year degree in a STEM major is just a gate for certain jobs. If you have the degree, you have passed the first gate. The next gate is getting your checklist resume to match the job you want as much as possible. The third gate is reaching out to the veteran employment team at your goal company.

They will probably show you how your STEM degree, plus your security clearance, offers you a straight path into the defense industry. Even if you do not want to stay in defense forever, job experience reactivates your degree.

There are a lot of ways people get off track and make their transitions take much longer than they should. Stay on track by watching out for the pitfalls associated with your career level.

Learn More About the Veteran Employment Project

To get more tips on how to make a successful military transition, sign up for one of our FREE Military Transition Master Classes today. You can view previous classes in our video library. Questions for Jacey? Visit our Facebook page.

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