- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

Career Coach's Corner: Looking to get out?

by Tom Wolfe, Career Coach and Contributing Editor

Share |

Article Sponsored by:

Tom Wolfe


Everyone who enters military service does so under the influence of two types of commitment. There is the contractual one that is associated with the requirements of the agreement to enlist or the obligations of the source of commissioning. There is also the personal commitment that comes with the desire to serve one’s country. For some, the desire to serve outlives the contractual requirements and a twenty-plus year career in the military results. For others, transitioning to civilian employment becomes the preferred course before the retirement option is available. Regardless of the timing of the stay in or get out decision, it is often a difficult one to make. The following exercise might aid in that decision-making process.

The three looks
On a large sheet of paper, draw a flow chart that models the remainder of your military career between now and a viable retirement date, prior to your military-to-civilian career transition. Although there may be optional paths from which to choose, there are frequent gates through which you must pass to maintain your career path for promotions, etc. These gates come in two different forms: assignments and locations. Once you have completed this flow chart, tape it on the wall. We will come back to it later.

On a second sheet of paper, lay out a time vs. money graph. The ordinate (vertical) component will represent money and the abscissa (horizontal) component represents time. Mark the ordinate in $10,000 increments from zero to $120,000. Mark the abscissa in years from now until the year in which you would expect to retire from the military. Starting with your current annual salary, plot the curve that represents your military salary in the future.

Be sure to include all components of your military compensation, including basic and variable allowances for quarters, basic allowance for subsistence, variable housing allowance, overseas housing allowance, overseas cost-of-living adjustments, flight pay, airborne pay, dive pay, sea pay, sub pay, combat pay, and hazardous duty pay. You should also include retention bonuses, but be sure to annualize them in the process.

Due to the predictable nature of your military pay, this crystal ball exercise is relatively easy to do. You know when you are scheduled to be promoted, the odds of that happening, and the percentage increase that will accompany that promotion. You know that you will receive step increases as you go over 4, 6, 8, etc. plus an annual base pay raise of three percent on average. Post this graph on the wall next to your military career flow chart.

The first look
You are now ready to take your first of the three looks. Walk up to the career path flow chart. Study it, visualize it as reality, balance the pluses and minuses, make some educated guesses about job satisfaction, and then ask yourself this question: Is that career pleasing, acceptable or unacceptable to me? Caution: It is important to take this look from a very selfish perspective. Although you may have others to consider, we will get to them later in this exercise.

The second look
For the second of the three looks, walk up to your projected military compensation graph and, again, focusing solely on your selfish viewpoint, ask yourself the same question: pleasing, acceptable or unacceptable?

The third look
This one may be the most difficult of the three. For it to be effective, you must shed your selfish skin and assume the attitudes and emotions of your dependents and loved ones (if you are single, visualize your preferred future family situation). Once you have fully assumed their point of view, walk up to the chart and the graph and ask yourself the same question as before, but this time from their perspective: pleasing, acceptable or unacceptable?

If this exercise produced any combination of three pleasings or acceptables, there is no need to curtail your military career. Life is good! The needs of you and your family will be met and you will continue to receive both job satisfaction and the satisfaction of service. However, if the exercise produced one or more unacceptables, you may be better off pursuing a career outside the military. Someone, be it you or a loved one, is going to be unhappy sooner or later. In most cases, the transition is easier now versus later.

You have probably identified a few flaws in this exercise. One, the use of the terms pleasing, acceptable and unacceptable is only truly valid when comparisons are being made. Without concrete knowledge about alternative civilian career paths and compensation possibilities, how can you answer the test questions with certainty? Two, your tolerance of unacceptable career paths will increase as you approach eligibility for retirement. Accordingly, the value of this exercise lies not only in the outcome, but also in the food for thought that is generated by the process.

A final thought - the concept of sacrifice. Every successful career requires sacrifice in some form. Every time you take another step up the ladder, civilian or military, you will leave something in your wake. In making your decision whether or not to separate from the military, first decide how you define success and what sacrifices you are willing to make to achieve it.


Tom Wolfe, Career Coach, is a nationally recognized expert in military-to-civilian career transition and a contributing editor at Civilian Job News. He served as a surface warfare officer in the Navy and has provided career guidance to military personnel since 1978. Contact him via email at

Return to January/February 2011 Issue