- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

Career Transition 101

by Tom Wolfe, Career Coach and Contributing Editor

Share |

Article Sponsored by: Boulder Designs

Return to September/October 2015 Issue

While rummaging through some old boxes in my attic the other day, I ran across a pile of notebooks from my college days. Among them was one labeled "Journalism 101.” Leafing through the notebook, I noticed the letters WWWWWH at the top of a page. Curious, I read my notes and was reminded of the basics of writing a good news story, particularly the importance of covering the facts surrounding the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the event. I was immediately struck by the realization that these five W’s and one H are just as important to “Career Transition 101” as they are to that basic journalism course.

Who? Specifically, who are you and what makes you tick? A high level of knowledge is critical to having a successful career transition. Before interviewing, you must have knowledge of the company, the industry and the position, but do not stop there. Self-knowledge is as important as those three combined. In order to interview successfully, you must present yourself in such a way that the interviewer will visualize you in the job, doing it well and with a smile on your face. Strong self-knowledge allows you to do this, and without it you are doomed to fail the interview.

What? What are you looking for? What kind of work do you want to do? You do not necessarily need a targeted job title, although that helps, as long as it is specific. Whereas titles like Manager or Technician or Engineer or Analyst are too vague or general to be of much use, Inventory Control Manager or Communications Technician or Operating Engineer or Systems Analyst just might do the trick. Absent a specific job title or objective, at least be able to describe the attributes of the best job for you; for example, personal interaction, teamwork, analytic, problem solving, process improvement, fast-paced, hands-on, creativity, leadership, out-and-about, customer service, variety and any others that apply to you. In addition to outlining these descriptors, make sure you have real examples that prove each of them are true and/or show how they impact your effectiveness. These illustrations enhance both your credibility and also your likelihood of being remembered - in a positive way - by the interviewer.

When? There are two categories of reasons why people fail interviews: things beyond their control and things they can control. In the case of the former, that’s called life. In the latter, that’s called neglectful. Imagine how you will feel if you are rejected because of something you could have controlled? Although when you can start work might be out of your control, how far in advance of that day you begin to interview is definitely controllable. When answering the What is your availability? question, make sure your answer causes the interviewer to smile. A lead time of 99 days or less is best for most employers. If they are interviewing for the job, they want to fill the job. If you are the best candidate, they will wait, but for only so long. No matter how well you interview, minimize the chances that they have also interviewed an equally likeable and qualified candidate who can start sooner than you can.

Where? On your list of priorities, how important is the location of the job? Maybe you are wide open for a great opportunity regardless of what town it’s in. Maybe your personal situation restricts you to a specific location. Maybe, like most people, your geographic needs fall somewhere in between those extremes. Regardless, figure it out before you begin to interview. Location is a great filter, for both you and the employer. Why should they interview you if you do not want to live in their town or would prefer to live someplace else? Why should you waste time interviewing for a job in a location where you and/or your family would not be happy? Here’s an exercise for you. Take a look at a map of the United States. Go state by state (or portions of states if that is more appropriate) and put each in one of three columns. Use Column A for places you would love to live. Column C is for locations that are completely off the list - erase them from your map. Everything else goes in Column B - places you would live if the opportunity was good enough to offset the fact that it’s not your first choice. Use this ABC list as a geographic template to make a successful career transition.

Why? People change jobs and/or careers for a variety of reasons. How about you? Why are you leaving the military? Why is your current situation changing? Why is your current position no longer good enough for you? Have you identified your motivators and are you prepared to discuss them in an interview? You have skills - things you do well, correct? Well, why are you good at these things? What are the keys for your success? Understanding the reasons behind your transition will maximize the odds that the new job will fix what was broken or missing in the last one.

How? So you have answers to the five W’s - now what? How do you go about generating the interest and interviews that will lead to that new career? Welcome to your job search! You need a plan that includes both big picture strategy and implementation tactics; preparation, execution, decision and launch; self-knowledge, research, networking and leads; personal skills inventory, resumes, wardrobe and references. Looking at all of that as a whole can be daunting. Breaking it up into steps and phases makes it easier to handle. How to get started? Three recommendations:


1. Participate in the DOL/OPM/ED/VA/SBA joint venture called Transition GPS:
2. Print out and use this combination
3. Read Out Of Uniform: Your Guide to a Successful Military-to-Civilian Career Transition (, in which all of the guidance in this column is covered in detail.

In summary, knowing your who, what, when, where, why and how will lead to a news story written by you titled My Successful Career Transition. In the interim, thanks for your service and good hunting!

Tom Wolfe is a Career Coach, Columnist, Author and Veteran and can be found at

Return to September/October 2015 Issue