5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Separate

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(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Sara Keller)

As your separation date nears, you're likely flooded with more questions than answers: Where will we live? What work will I do? Will I bond with my new community? How will I access medical benefits? And more.

Your military Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, class will help you navigate many of the questions that will arise, but here are five important questions to consider before you exit the military and begin your civilian career:

  1. What do I want? This simple question is often not easy to answer. You might think a correct response is, "I want a job," but that's not necessarily the right way to think about it. Instead, ask yourself what kind of work would bring you what you need to provide for yourself and your family, make you feel happy and fulfilled, and allow you to build a career long term. A job may just pay the bills, be short-term and check a box on your transition checklist. A career you're passionate about might direct you to pursue advanced education, provide a vision for your future, and give you meaningful work to do for a long time.  
  2. How do I want to be remembered? In answering this tricky question, resist the urge to focus on successes and accomplishments that show up as awards and trophies. Instead, consider the feelings and perceptions you want people to have of you. What difference will you make for those closest to you? How do you want them to remember you and your life? How did you serve and impact the people you cared about? The answers to these questions will design your legacy and give you the structure through which to evaluate options and make decisions. When a job offer seems a bit fishy and you're not sure whether you should accept it, you can remember that you set out to be remembered as someone who lived a life of integrity, for example, and realize it's not a good job for you.  
  3. Who do I know?

    Relationships and networking will be a big part of your transition and civilian career. As your separation date nears, focus on the people you know who can refer you to opportunities, endorse you and your skills, and introduce you to others. This is the network of contacts you'll continue to build in the next chapter of your career and should be filled with people who are influential, inspiring and impactful. They also need to know who you are and what you stand for (and can offer). Focus on building up your network and then nurturing the relationships to ensure they serve both of you.  

  4. Am I positioned to get noticed?

    Yes, self-promotion will be part of your transition plan and next career. It's very hard to advance a career if no one knows who you are, what you can offer and what you've done. Starting with your resume, consider whether you've listed every single thing you did in the military and every piece of recognition you received. If so, your resume might be 10 pages long and ineffective. Instead, create a more modular resume that can be tailored to the opportunity you're pursuing. Similarly, look at your online profiles. Have you carefully built out your LinkedIn profile to highlight your successes, offer and values? Are you connected to people who can help advance you? Are you promoting your skills and experiences to a target audience of employers who might want to hire you?  

  5. How will I measure "success"?

    We can all define success for ourselves. You might say that finding a career path in your desired industry in a location where you want to raise a family is success. Someone else might say a six-figure salary means success. And so on. Ask yourself what metrics of success you'll use to evaluate opportunities and milestones in your transition and next career. Then, look for those metrics and celebrate when you meet them. If you fall short, assess what happened and re-group. Success can be a fluid understanding of goals or it can be a dollar amount. The point is that you get to decide that for yourself.

Transitioning out of the military will likely bring up more questions than answers initially. Lean on mentors, allies and colleagues who are ready to help, guide and support you to get to your next career with confidence and clarity.

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