[ Skip Main Nav ]

Phoenix Forward

5 ways to transition to a civilian career

Moving from military life to the civilian world

Your next assignment: Selling yourself out of uniform. And while the skills you learned in the military should translate well in civilian life, it’s your responsibility to help explain what you have to offer, according to retired Col. Garland H. Williams, PhD, the associate regional vice president of the University of Phoenix Military Division.

Describe yourself in laymen’s terms.

Interviews, resumés and general conversations regarding your military skills and experience can translate well into civilian language. “There is not too much use in corporate America for someone who wields a rifle and sneaks through the woods, but it is looking for people who can lead a team in an uncertain situation when the final result is not necessarily spelled out for you,” Williams says.

The military teaches soldiers decision-making skills, discipline and timeliness, so leverage those qualities with employers, he emphasizes. For example, if the military description of your work was to issue orders, stick to your decisions, lead a small group, successfully complete a mission and be on time, the civilian description might be to craft logical solutions, resolve parameters, collaborate within a team, foster teamwork, achieve profit-motivated results and be reliable, Williams says.

Lose the acronyms.

Unless you’re working with a defense contractor or other former military, it's best to eliminate the lesser-known military acronyms from daily conversations and your resumé for civilian jobs.

Dress for success.

Williams notes that personnel should reacquaint themselves with civilian-appropriate interview and business attire, including observing colleagues, to eliminate a camouflage-only mindset.


Learn not to stand at attention.

You don’t have to stand at a modified attention to a boss, nor do you have to say “sir” or “ma’am.” Williams notes the latter may actually offend people.

Relax your conversations — and your expectations.

Williams jokes that he still consciously adds “fluff” to his written work communications, including emails, to soften the directive and “to-the-point” tone the military uses. Civilians are more receptive to pleasantries, such as “Hello, how are you?” than a flat-out directive that provides only project information and deadlines, for example.

Corporate culture is often less straightforward on many topics, which may throw a military-minded person off, Williams says. This may include understanding a less hierarchal corporate structure, accepting that employees will use handheld devices during meetings or figuring out an exercise regimen since businesses don’t incorporate that into a work schedule like the military does.