Saturday, April 27, 2013

Afraid of getting out of the military?

April 8th, Monday, 3:15pm.  Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego.

My cell phone vibrates; caller ID shows the number of a Marine buddy recently returned from Afghanistan.

Dude, tell me everything you know about resigning your commission! And hurry, I need to submit this within the hour”, says the frantic voice on my cell phone.

My friend’s hurried panic is the result of self-designed predicament.  Since returning from deployment, he’s had several second round interviews with Fortune 100 companies in which he’s promised them that he can start working by June 15th.  The job search has gone exceedingly well, relatively quickly and he’s on the verge of receiving a job offer, if not several.  Problem: he has yet to submit his Marine Corps resignation, which is due a minimum of four months prior to leaving the service, or in his case, February 15th at the latest.

These are days of our lives in the Miramar Transitioning Junior Officer Support Group.  No such group actually exists, but that’s what we’re loosely calling our band of brothers and sisters who are approaching the end of our initial aviation contracts, after nine years of service.  Perhaps, not unlike other career fields, this is a natural transition point in the military, where officers either leave the service or stay in, essentially committing to serve another 11 years to earn a generous retirement package (currently valued at over $2 million).

Over the two years leading up to this point, I’ve seen many different approaches and outcomes to this major life decision point.

On one end of the continuum are those motivated to continue their military service.  Their reasons and rationales come in a variety of flavors, some more honorable than others, but they, by and large, are not concerned about transitioning.

On the polar, opposite end of the continuum are those officers committed to transitioning from active duty to enter either a graduate degree program or the work force.    And within our “support group” of those that fall into this latter category, we’ve experienced overwhelming success.  Several have been admitted into top 10 b-schools (HBS, Tuck), and have had second and third round interviews with myriad of successful and exciting companies (Facebook, ExxonMobil).

Everyone else pretty falls into the middle.  And that’s the group, about which I’m most concerned; the group that is unsure if they should continue to serve or if they should transition out of the military.  There is nothing wrong with being in this group.  I once was, as I’m sure many of you were/are.  This is, after all, a major decision that will have second and third order effects that could last a lifetime.
There is, however, something wrong with making this decision based on misinformation.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, one of our greatest thinkers, details how susceptible we all are to cognitive biases and errors of judgment and choice.  Some errors are based on our own experiences, but some of are based on commonly accepted misinformation, of which there is plenty.

Oh man, you don’t want to leave the military now.  The economy is in the tank.  There are no jobs”, I overheard one senior military officer advise a junior officer facing this decision.  I’m not sure how actively this 18-year career military officer searches the civilian job market (my bet is not very actively since he later asked me to help set up his LinkedIn profile), but his language is widely imprecise and largely inaccurate.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 3.8%. Furthermore, as a military officer (or NCO) with an academic degree, you bring much more to the table than the average college graduate. You also probably went to a better than average school in the first place.

Then, there's always...

You’ll never get into that graduate school.  You’re competing with everyone else looking to hide out in grad school because the economy is terrible.  Even if you do get in, you won’t be able to afford it…

This is just another example of misinformation that makes my blood boil.  Plenty of people get accepted to top programs... why shouldn't you? While graduate schools tend to offer class profile data by career field, they seldom offer granular data on their entire applicant pool.  That said, I can’t offer specific data that shows how wildly inaccurate this statement is, but there is ample anecdotal evidence to this end.

These widely spread doses of folklore are quickly and irresponsibly dispensed, and only serve to confuse and scare those that can least afford to be anything but clear headed.  Over the past two years, this same friend and I had countless conversations sharing our perspectives concerning this decision.  And though he always leaned toward leaving the military, he was fearful of the unknown, and until recently, he did little to arm himself with ground truth.  When he finally did pursue civilian employment, he was overwhelmed with positive responses from multiple firms, but he had already applied for and was accepted to serve in a prestigious and elite military unit.  Now he’s in a difficult position, which will likely stress both of his professional relationships.

This isn't an article encouraging anyone to get out of the military. However, it does encourage everyone to make the best decision based on informed views, not out of fear. So let’s do this, together. 
  1. If you hear anyone dispensing any form of misinformation, challenge them.  Push back!  Ask for data to support blanket statements. Ask for evidence... not stories about "this guy" or "that guy I know."
  2. More importantly, don’t heed the folklore.  This is a time when you should make an open-eyed, clear-headed, pure-hearted major career decision.  
  3. If you are still in this undecided group, aggressively pursue both outcomes. Continue to do well on the job you currently occupy, and curiously explore a life beyond the military.  Visit graduate schools, study for and take entrance exams, and attend job conferences. And do so, long before the actual decision point (2-3 years prior). The journey will stir interests within you, revealing several of the “unknown unknowns”, and when it does, you’ll have the time to pivot, unlike my frantic friend.

Written by Ahron (, a transitioning Marine Officer starting HBS in the Fall of 2013