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What to Do After the Military; Preparing for Civilian Jobs

The military is a world unto itself. If you’ve been wondering what to do after the military and how to prepare for a civilian job, you’re not alone. We have some advice to help you in your next endeavor.

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Depending on what your military career trajectory has been, you may have interviewed for jobs before. If you joined the armed forces right after highschool or college, you may have no experience with interviews at all, military or civilian.

Whatever your experience level, there are some differences between interviewing in the military and interviewing for civilian jobs.

Once you have decided what to do after the military and have chosen a civilian career path, you’ll need to prepare to interview for civilian jobs. This guide is to show you how.

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Chapter 1

The Difference Between Military and Civilian Jobs

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Chapter 2

How to Decide What to Do After the Military

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Chapter 3

How to Prepare for a Civilian Job Interview

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Chapter 4

Common Job Challenges for Veterans

Chapter 1:

The Difference Between Military and Civilian Jobs

There are some differences between working as a member of the military and joining the workforce as a civilian.

These differences can affect how you approach the workforce once you’ve decided what to do after the military.

If you’re not prepared for them, they can feel disconcerting and destabilizing.

Let’s take a look at some of the differences and what to expect once you leave the military.

You are now an individual

One of the first adjustments you had to make when you joined the military was no longer seeing yourself as just an individual, but primarily a member of a collective.

Each branch of the military has its own set of principles and values that it is governed by, and as a member of that specific group, you become grafted onto the ideals of the collective.

You do your job in the military not just because it’s your job, but because it is a part of a joint mission. You are doing your part so that your comrades can do their part and together you can accomplish very big, often dangerous things.

In the civilian world, the stakes are seldom very high and most people show up at work for a paycheck. While many civilians have friends at work, it can be rare to find a team that works well together and sees the success of the group as a greater good than the achievements of the individual.

If you are a more individualistic person, this may be a welcome change.

However, if you’ve been in the military for a long time and/or have never had a civilian job, it can take some getting used to.

You may find yourself frustrated at the lack of teamwork or leadership in your new job or start to feel aimless and adrift if you can’t see how your job is contributing to a greater purpose.

When you’re deciding what to do after the military, you may want to take this into consideration.

If working closely with others towards a common good is important to you in a job, consider establishing your civilian career in a field that will allow you to do these things.

There’s not always a direct ladder to climb

In the military, the path to success is clearly defined for you. You know exactly what you need to do and achieve before you can advance to the next rank. There is no gray area.

In the civilian world, it works much differently.

Many corporations and organizations do have a system for promotions, but the metrics used for evaluation can be fuzzy and the direct path unclear.

In many cases, you still have to take the initiative to fight for a raise, promotion, or recognition. You can’t assume that your work will speak for itself or that you’ll be rewarded for a job well done.

You’ll also be competing with your coworkers for promotions, which can work against the whole idea of camaraderie and teamwork.

There’s an element of feeling like you have to outpace your competition instead of simply hitting all the predetermined qualifications for a rise in rank in the military.

Everything is on you

The military offers a huge network of support to its members that makes handling the everyday errands of life easier.

If you lived on base, everything you needed was already located near you on the military installation. You didn’t have to deal with long commutes, 30-mile drives across town to get groceries or a haircut, or figure out transportation to and from work.

Additionally, most military members are given a tax-free housing allowance as a part of their pay that makes the housing burden lighter.

In the civilian world, you are often commuting hours every day and bearing the expense of vehicle upkeep or public transit yourself.

If you want to run errands, you have to take time off to do so, or wait until the weekend when everyone else is also doing their errands so everywhere is overcrowded.

To complicate matters, many institutions such as banks, doctors offices, and post offices are only open during working hours Monday-Friday, making it harder to get the annoying errands of life taken care of.

Housing is also up to you to secure and pay for and jobs are very hard to get without permanent housing in place first, which can create a vicious cycle.

Looking for a Civilian Job?

There are some specific differences between civilian and military jobs and the interviews it takes to get them. That’s why we’ve created a curriculum specifically for those transitioning from the military. Don’t get caught by surprise, show up prepared.
Get Instant Access

If you’ve grown used to the military securing your every need, the civilian working world may come as a cold shock.

There is less support

While disciplinary action absolutely exists in the military, there are also generally support systems in place to help you if you are struggling in your life.

For instance, your branch of the military may send you to rehab if you are struggling with substance issues, supply you with therapy for mental health concerns, or anger management classes if you struggle with emotional regulation.

In the civilian world, employers very seldom offer this kind of support. If the struggles you are having in your private life leak over into your working life, you’re much more likely to simply be fired without any offers of help, support, or understanding.

Ready to land your Dream job?

Chapter 2:

How to Decide What to Do After the Military

Leaving the military will be a change, there’s no doubt about it.

It may be scary for you to contemplate a life without the kind of structure you’re used to, but it may also feel tremendously liberating to be completely calling your own shots from here on out.

Most likely, you will experience both as you begin your civilian job search.

Choosing a career path

Choosing a career path is a big decision for anyone. There’s a lot to consider. You have the advantage of already having tried (possibly a large variety) of things.

There are many, many different types of jobs in the military and you have no doubt held some positions you loved and some you hated during your military career.

Use these things as a guide.

Did you absolutely love the camaraderie and teamwork, or did you find that you prefer working alone?

Did you enjoy fast-paced, high-stakes work, or would you rather do something quiet away from so much chaos?

Do you enjoy physical work that pushes your body’s limits, or do you prefer working at a desk?

Would you rather be intellectually stimulated or have the opportunity to work with your hands?

All of these questions will help you determine what your next career decision should be.

Take advantage of your training

You may have had some formal training in certain areas during your military service or maybe you primarily learned on the job, but either way, every bit of experience you gained in the military is relevant.

Even if you don’t see how your experience directly applies to the civilian world, there will be some correlation, even if it’s just in broad competencies such as conflict resolution skills, leadership, or the ability to follow orders to the letter.

Don’t sell yourself short by assuming your experience or training isn’t going to matter simply because you gained it in the military. It absolutely does.

Think through your history when researching jobs you may want to apply to and be sure not to discount any duties that may not have been a part of your everyday life that you nevertheless participated in, or volunteer work you really enjoyed.

All experience can be relevant experience in your job search.

Potential career paths for veterans

You do not have to limit your future career path to the roles you had in the military. However, your experience serving may give you a leg up in some industries.

Here are some ideas to consider if you are thinking about what to do after the military:

Government jobs – the U.S. government is currently the largest employer in the country. The job opportunities available are too numerous and varied to list, but chances are, there’s a good fit for you somewhere in the options. The government currently has about 10,000 jobs open on any given day, and is particularly interested in employing veterans.

Skilled Trades – many veterans leave the military with a valuable trade skill set. Though there are lots of these types of civilian jobs available, many require certain training or certifications to qualify.

The military may not require the same certifications as civilian jobs do (and perhaps none at all) so be sure to research the requirements for the trade you are interested in and factor that into your civilian job search.

Security – Security can mean anything from working for a private security firm, to guarding prisons, to cyber security. There are many varied career paths you could take in the security industry that can utilize your military experience.

Technology – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the tech industry is booming and only projected to grow. There are innumerable job opportunities in tech, and your military experience may perfectly align with a lucrative new career in technology.

Engineering – many military jobs (depending on the branch) include some type of engineering. If this was the case for you during your service, a career in the field of engineering may be a perfect fit for you.

These are just a handful of industries you may already have a leg-up in depending on your experience.

If you don’t want to do anything that is related to your military experience, you can do that too!

It’s never too late to try something new.

If you’re looking to do something completely different, we’ve written a guide on how to choose a new career that may interest you.

Ready to land your Dream job?

Chapter 3:

How to Prepare For a Civilian Job Interview

Though there are many types of interviews a job seeker may find themselves in, most interviews are structured more or less the same. This means elements of any interview are predictable. And the best news of all, this means you can accurately prepare for them.

As someone who has had a military career, you are going to be in a different position than a person who has been in the civilian workforce all of their life.

Looking for a Civilian Job?

There are some specific differences between civilian and military jobs and the interviews it takes to get them. That’s why we’ve created a curriculum specifically for those transitioning from the military. Don’t get caught by surprise, show up prepared.
Get Instant Access

Your experiences are different, the vocabulary you use to describe them are different, and in general your work life will have been structured very differently.

This does not mean that you are at any sort of disadvantage, but it does mean you will need to prepare with your differences in mind in order to perform well.

Below is some guidance on how you’ll want to prepare for your civilian job interviews.

Understand your transferable skills

Unless your interviewer is also a veteran, there’s a good chance they will not understand the scope of your military experience and what it took to succeed in the various roles of your work history.

You may take for granted that these things will be understood, since you are coming from an environment where it is common knowledge.

However, it’s essential that you have evaluated your transferable skills beforehand and know how they relate to the open job.

Don’t assume that your military background will mean that your interviewer knows you have the right qualifications.

Learn the lingo

The military has its own vocabulary and ways of saying things that will be completely foreign to your civilian interviewer.

Spend some time before your interview researching civilian terminology for military terms and be sure to use civilian vocabulary in your interview.

This goes for titles, ranks, role, project specifications, tools used and skills learned, anything that is “military speak” that a civilian would not have experience with.

Remember, communicating clearly is the name of the game. If you are the most qualified candidate imaginable but can’t communicate your qualifications in a way your hiring manager can understand, it will do nothing for you.

Read the job description

As a part of “learning the lingo,” read the job description carefully. In fact, it is a good idea to read many job descriptions for the same kind of job you are applying for to get a feel for how civilians describe skills and responsibilities.

For instance, perhaps “mission planning” becomes “project management” as you notice those words coming up again and again in job descriptions.

When it comes to your interview, make sure you are reading the job description for the job you are applying to specifically, as it is a blueprint for what they are looking for.

Don’t be overly candid

In almost every interview you have you will be asked to describe a weakness or failure. This sounds like a negative question, but it is asked for important reasons.

The hiring manager wants to know how you handled failure in the past and whether or not you take a proactive approach to strengthening your own shortcomings.

It’s not intended for you to be down on yourself, and it’s extremely easy to inadvertently raise red flags about yourself when asked questions like this.

The stakes in military jobs are usually quite high, and you have likely been in very tense, possibly life threatening situations with a lot on the line.

It’s okay to be honest about your experiences, but don’t be overly candid.

In a job interview, some diplomacy is called for.

You never want to speak negatively about a former superior (even if they truly were a nightmare to work under) and you never want to be self-deprecating.

As you can imagine, it will take some thinking and some practice to be able to talk about negative or unpleasant experiences in a neutral way, but you want to paint yourself in the best light possible and not give the impression that you generally have a negative attitude, victim complex, or other issues.

(Big Interview takes a specific approach to preparing you to answer questions about weaknesses and failure. Find out more here.)

Demonstrate your adaptability

Leaving the military is making a career change, and anyone who is making a career change needs to demonstrate their adaptability in job interviews.

There will be a learning curve, and your interviewer knows this, so be prepared to answer questions about how you will handle new situations, work expectations, systems, and management styles.

Some interviewers may have preconceived notions about what it means to be in the military. They may assume that you will be rigid, set in your ways, and not able to take initiative since you are used to taking orders.

You will want to look for opportunities during the interview to talk about your flexibility, how you have adapted easily to new things in the past, that you learn quickly, and are resourceful.


The number one indicator of interview success is practice. Even if you’ve memorized all of our advice above, if you walk into your first civilian interview without having practiced what you’re going to say, your chances of failure are much higher.

We have seen time and time again many talented, qualified candidates tank interview after interview and it always boils down to not practicing.

Good practice doesn’t mean simply reading some advice and making a mental note of about it.

Real, effective practice must be done aloud, preferably with a way to record yourself and play it back.

This way, you can see for yourself what impression you are giving, where your weak spots are, and how to improve.

Think of it as bootcamp. You are training for a special mission. The goal is to win the job. Therefore you want to utilize every tool at your disposal to prepare yourself to be successful in this mission.

Big Interview was designed specifically to offer this kind of job interview training.

We have created a Mock Interview practice tool that simulates an interview in real-time, so you can make all of your mistakes in practice and not ruin a job opportunity once you’re in the actual interview.

We have practice modules specifically for candidates transitioning from the military and into civilian jobs, so you may want to check it out and see if it’s right for you.

Ready to land your Dream job?

Chapter 4:

Common Job Challenges for Veterans

In our work with veterans we’ve seen some specific job challenges come up again and again.

Depending on your circumstances, you may encounter some of these job challenges too.

Different job titles

It can be difficult to understand how your military background translates into the civilian world.

Military jobs have particular classifications and ranks for all duties performed in every branch. These classifications are unique to the military and can’t be found in the civilian workforce.

Instead, the civilian workforce is classified by industry and you have a job title within that industry.

It will take some research to discover how your military title and rank translates to the civilian world.

Mental or physical disabilities

You may have sustained injuries during your service that resulted in physical disabilities or struggles with mental health.

Navigating the interview process and workforce with a physical or mental disability can add an extra layer of complexity to landing a job.

Whether or not to disclose your disability to potential employers is often the first hurdle to overcome, as there are pros and cons both ways.

Because it can be so tricky, we’ve written about approaching a job interview with a disability in detail in this article.

Securing medical care

Speaking of having physical or mental challenges, in the military, your medical needs were taken care of by the government.

As a civilian, your insurance is now tied to your employment, and to be unemployed often means you will be without insurance too, which can make securing the care you need that much harder.

Looking for a Civilian Job?

There are some specific differences between civilian and military jobs and the interviews it takes to get them. That’s why we’ve created a curriculum specifically for those transitioning from the military. Don’t get caught by surprise, show up prepared.
Get Instant Access

Needing health insurance to provide medical care for yourself can add an extra layer of stress to the job search, especially if you have dependents who also need consistent care.

Selling Yourself

Self-promotion is not encouraged in the military. Many vets learn a team-first mentality that is very hard to shake. It may feel unnatural or even wrong to brag a little about your accomplishments, but selling your strengths is the entire goal of the interview.

The fact is you have accomplished all of these things and you do have all of these skills. In fact, you may be the perfect candidate! Why on earth would you want to hide that?

You’ll be helping your hiring manager out too, because if you are the perfect fit, her job is over. She’ll be rooting for you too.

You have nothing to lose by being honest about your amazing selling points. On the flip side, you have a whole lot to lose if you remain too timid about selling yourself.

(This is another reason good practice is so essential — selling yourself will feel unnatural until you’re used to speaking about your strengths again and again and again.)

So join Big Interview, or start using some other tool to help you prepare and start practicing!

We can guarantee you’ll see the difference. Make your next interview your last.

Ready to land your Dream job?

Looking for a Civilian Job?

There are some specific differences between civilian and military jobs and the interviews it takes to get them. That’s why we’ve created a curriculum specifically for those transitioning from the military. Don’t get caught by surprise, show up prepared.
I’m Ready to Land a Job

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