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Transitioning out of the military? Education can help!

Former military service member takes a class online

By Elizabeth Exline

This article was updated on January 18, 2024.

When Antonio Dates joined the Army National Guard in 2008, it was on the heels of an unsuccessful college experience. He’d earned a music scholarship but failed to attend classes regularly.

Inevitably, he began to fail the classes themselves.

Dates was casting about for some discipline, and he found it in the military. To this day, he counts his joining up as one of the best decisions he’s ever made. But it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t always fun. His first military job while in active duty, in fact, was decidedly boring: He was responsible for pumping gas into ground vehicles.

Discover resources designed especially for military veterans at University of Phoenix. 

“And that’s as glamorous as it sounds,” Dates deadpans.

Dates’ military career would progress well beyond that first job, though. He eventually became a supply specialist, and then he worked in finance before finding his niche in contracting.

By 2020, he had a bachelor’s degree in business administration from another university, a master’s degree from University of Phoenix (UOPX) and a move into the Army Reserve under his belt. He planned to stay in the military part time, but he was ready to start focusing on his civilian career and transition out of the military and into civilian life.

That’s when things got a little challenging.

Antonio Dates

“At first, it was incredibly difficult [to find a job],” Dates says. “I had the education, but not the experience to back it up.” 

Click the image to view the full infographic.

Military outlook, by the numbers

Dates’ experience is in some ways the exception and in some ways the rule. According to The Harris Poll’s “2023 Military Transition Survey,” 78% of active-duty service members say the military has provided them with all the skills they need to be successful in the workplace. 

Even more notably, four out of five of military members think a successful transition out of military service and adapting to civilian life and workforce culture means learning a new set of skills.

These numbers “hit the nail on the head,” observes Eric Ryan, senior director of military operations at University of Phoenix.

“Your view of your military experience and how that’s going to help you in civilian life when you’re still in versus how you feel about it five minutes after you’ve made the transition and left the military is very different,” Ryan explains. “You really are smacked in the face with reality when you get out of the military.”

2. Affordability

We’ve already touched on how learning online can be less costly than traditional higher education, but even online universities can vary in terms of affordability. The cost per college credit is only part of the equation. Some online colleges charge per credit hour, some charge per course and still others charge per semester.

University of Phoenix offers fixed tuition rates for your program, which lock in your tuition rate at enrollment. This gives students peace of mind and the ability to plan ahead because they know exactly what they’ll be paying throughout the duration of their program.

3. Enhanced work–life balance

Balancing responsibilities with work and life commitments is hard enough when you’re not a student. Taking in-person classes three or more days per week can present an entirely new challenge on top of all these things.

While both online and in-person college require timely completion of assignments, the online format allows students to learn from home. This provides a flexibility to listen to lectures or review content while the kids are at soccer practice or you’re making dinner — whenever works best for you.

4. Reasonable pacing

In addition to being able to access course assignments and information on your own schedule, some online universities, like University of Phoenix, allow students to take just one class at a time. This enables you to learn at a pace that fits into the rest of your life, which can enhance your overall retention of the course’s subject matter.

Click the image above to view the full infographic.

Why is it difficult to adjust to civilian life and work?

The challenge most personnel face when making the transition out of the military to civilian life is twofold. On the one hand, the military teaches you a lot of transferable skills that need to be parlayed into a civilian context. On the other hand, extra education is vital for filling in any gaps from a military career after making the transition.

To be sure, the military is good at training its service members. Dates, remember, learned everything from finance to contracts during his military career. Ryan, meanwhile, recalls being a sergeant in the Marine Corps and responsible for supervising some 40 people and 12 multimillion-dollar aircraft all by the tender age of 24.

Eric Ryan, senior director of military operations at University of Phoenix

“It’s not uncommon in the armed forces to have an enormous amount of responsibility and an extremely high level of competence so you can handle that,” Ryan says.

As a result, military veterans often bring a repertoire of skills to the table, not the least of which are leadership, teamwork and the ability to think on one’s feet. One challenge, however, is translating skills learned in the military to skills a civilian workforce will recognize.

“After you make the transition to civilian life, you come out into the civilian workforce, and it really is a different landscape. A lot of the structure that you’re used to is immediately removed,” Ryan explains.

Where military veterans may have once had a clear path to promotion and a clear hierarchy for giving orders, the civilian workforce offers fewer absolutes. Suddenly, veterans who have made the transition to civilian life have to figure out how to communicate, how to advance and how to manage others within a whole new set of parameters. And those soft skills don’t come naturally to everyone.

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For Dates, just the process of finding a job in  his civilian life was frustrating at first. He would get offers that were either below his desired salary or in a location too far away from his children — or both.

He reached out to UOPX’s Career Services for help. Within a month of working with a career advisor to review his resumé and discuss interviewing techniques and job search strategies, Dates’ transition into a more compelling civilian career yielded real results.

“I have started a dream job that allows me to meet and greatly exceed my salary requirement and be there for my young children,” Dates says. “I am in a good place!”

The threat of underemployment

Dates’ success is specific to him and his military experience, but there are common threads in his story. Ryan, for example, encountered a similar situation when he made the transition out of the Marines. While he’d been supervising teams, training people and overseeing the maintenance of sophisticated aircraft in the armed forces, he didn’t know how to turn that into a civilian role. So, he took a job installing luxury closets.

“It was tough,” he says. “You have to make money. You can’t just sit around and look for the perfect thing, because your paychecks are over. You know where you’re at in terms of your skills and level of responsibility and leadership capability … but how do you communicate all of that military jargon into civilian terms? That is a skill in and of itself.”

Underemployment, in fact, is one of the biggest challenges military veterans encounter when making the transition to civilian life, according to UOPX career advisor Greg Lewis. He explains that nearly one-third of transitioning veterans are considered underemployed, despite their extensive experience and skills.

The “2023 Military Transition Survey Results” report paints an even darker picture: Nearly half of employed, non-active military respondents felt like they were underemployed.

“Underemployment for transitioning military is real,” Lewis says. “However, it can be avoided with proper planning, an evaluation of your transferable skills and a proactive approach to networking.” 

How do you transition from military to civilian life and work?

Lewis says the first step in a successful transition to civilian life is asking yourself one key question: Do you want to do something similar to your MOS (there’s that jargon again!), which is a military occupational specialty?

If yes, then it’s a matter of translating your skills into a readable format, both in terms of a resumé and interviewing skills.

If no, then you may need to explore which skills are necessary for the role you do want. According to the “2023 Military Transition Survey,” military personnel consider computer software skills to be the most vital for transitioning to a civilian career.   

In fact, 76% of respondents in that same survey said they were interested in continuing their education, with 83% of those interested in earning a college degree.

“I think you can probably get into a pretty good situation with the skills you have coming out of the military,” Ryan says. “You could probably begin a career, but I think the education piece has to be brought in. It would be a rare circumstance where somebody would be able to really advance and fulfill their potential without [getting an education].”

Explore your resources

Veterans looking to transition to civilian life and work have a number of resources available to them.

To begin, Lewis recommends some self-reflection and checking out, which helps military-to-civilian populations figure out a pathway to the right career.

From there, he advises contemplating the following questions:

1.    What type of income do I need to offset my new expenses?

2.    What type of work will provide meaning and purpose?

3.    What type of work matches my skills?

4.    Where do I want to live?

5.    What type of organization do I want to work for?

While each university is different in its approach to military students, UOPX strives to remove as many barriers to higher education as possible. In addition to waiving certain fees and offering reduced tuition for those currently serving, as well as offering extensive veteran resources for those who have completed their time in service, UOPX has developed alliances with the following organizations:

  • American Corporate Partners: This mentorship program matches military service members and veterans with mentors from Fortune 500 companies.
  • CCAF General Education Mobile program: UOPX offers general education courses approved by the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF), which can be applied toward earning an Associate in Applied Science degree.
  • Give an Hour® organization: This nonprofit organization offers complimentary mental health care for eligible populations.

Market yourself

As you acquire more experience and education, it’s important to communicate your wins clearly and effectively. Whether you need to figure out simple translations for military titles and terms or collaborate with a career advisor the way Dates did to revamp your marketing collateral, the investment of time is important.


“When we ask service members about their existing network, a common response is they don’t know too many people outside other military members and their families,” Lewis says. “True or not, that is a good place to start!”

Networking is almost as important as education. Mentorship programs like American Corporate Partners and professional networking sites can make a significant impact on your job search. They provide insight to career trends, Lewis notes, and reveal job opportunities you might not otherwise learn about.

Start now

Knowing you have skill gaps is half the battle. But perhaps just as pivotal is taking the first step to remediate those gaps.

“Don’t wait for later,” Ryan advises. He regrets not having started his education while still in the military, pointing to the “money left on the table” he lost by waiting. “There’s never going to be a good time. It’s always inconvenient. Education is hard. Just do it while you’re in the military.”

At the end of the day, finding the sort of success you trained for in the military may require some adjustment. It may take a degree and a new resumé. It may take a certain degree of discomfort. But the payoff makes it worth it. 

Helping veterans and active-duty service members become a civilian goes beyond finding a good job. Learn what UOPX alumnus Jake Clark is doing through Save A Warrior™ to mitigate the trauma faced by military personnel

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