Many professionals find themselves in search of a change at some point during their careers. No matter the reason for the change, mustering the courage to step into a new career path can be a challenging proposition.

When changing careers, you need to balance the demands of your current role with key job search tasks, such as preparing your resume and cover letter, and networking with people in the industry you want to transition to. While this can seem daunting, it shouldn’t stop you from pursuing a career change.

For military members looking to take on a civilian career, certain factors can make the transition more intimidating. You may wonder how your experience in the service translates to the business world, or if your skills are even transferable to a “real world” setting. But there are steps you can take to prepare yourself for your new career and ease the transition.

Below, Harvard Business School Online Executive Director Patrick Mullane shares his experience transitioning from the military to a successful civilian career. Along the way, he provides four key pieces of advice that can apply not only to servicemembers, but career changers in any situation.

Career Change Advice: Patrick Mullane’s Transition From the Military to Civilian Workforce

Back in the waning days of the Cold War, I entered the US Air Force as a newly minted second lieutenant out of the University of Notre Dame’s ROTC program with a degree in mathematics. I was assigned to an intelligence-related unit in California and served for a little over four years, loving every minute of my time.

When the time came to explore the world beyond the military, I found myself well-prepared in some ways, but underprepared in other ways. During my time in the US Air Force, I managed a team of around 20 contractors and military personnel operating satellite systems, getting fantastic leadership experience while being entrusted with more than a billion dollars of hardware that informed senior decision-makers in Washington on a daily basis.

With 25 years of general management experience behind me, I've often said that I had more responsibility during those four years than I’ve had since. The US military’s trust in young men and women is unsurpassed and, in virtually all cases, that trust is well placed. Officers and troops often succeed in ways that belie their experience.

My Search for a Soft Landing

As a junior military officer (JMO) exiting the service at 27 years old, I was terrified of how my military skills would (or, more fearfully, would not) translate to the private sector. But like all of those separating from the service, the time came to make the leap and I took a job at an auto parts manufacturing and distribution company, managing a location in Omaha, Nebraska where I quickly realized that in so many ways, I was much better prepared than I thought.

Leadership aspects of the job came naturally to me as did decision-making. But I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that I was missing some key skills and so began considering returning to school. I researched what an MBA was and ultimately decided that business school was likely the best path for me.

Photo of Patrick Mullane in military uniform

So apply I did, to several MBA programs. To my surprise, I was accepted at the Harvard Business School (HBS) and spent two years there from 1997 to 1999 getting my MBA. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, truly transformative.

If I was afraid of how competitive I’d be in the private sector coming out of the military, I was even more afraid of the rigors of an MBA program.

I prepared as best I could, taking an accounting course at the University of Nebraska in the months leading up to my matriculation at Harvard. I was also required by HBS (as were many others from non-business backgrounds) to complete some work before beginning the program that ostensibly got me to a level of expertise that would put me, if not on par, close to on par with my classmates who would be coming out of banking and consulting. The extra preparation helped and, two years later, I had my MBA and was ready to dive back into the private sector pool.

After stints in a startup and as the CEO of a manufacturing company (among other things), I am now the Executive Director of HBS Online, the Harvard Business School’s digital education initiative. I often think back on my days as a JMO worrying about how to best have a “soft landing” in the private sector. Specifically, I think of how much easier it is today to prepare for that landing in an age of online offerings that aim to educate people from all walks of life.

Here are four tips on how to prepare for your own career transitions, be it from the military to civilian life, or from school to the "real world."

Tip 1: Brush Up on Business Fundamentals

Massive Open Online Courses(MOOCs), such as EdEx and Coursera, offer courses that teach an array of business disciplines. They can be a good option for getting some fundamentals down and showing potential employers your seriousness and intellectual curiosity. Some of these courses are offered at no charge but provide for the option to receive a “verified certificate” upon completion of the class for a nominal fee. Others charge when you register.

The quality and depth of courses can vary substantially so it’s worth studying the syllabus and, to the extent possible, sampling the course to be sure it will meet your needs.

At HBS Online, our Credential of Readiness (CORe) program is another fantastic option to learn the language of business in one, integrated program. The course covers three fundamental disciplines: Economics for Managers, Business Analytics, and Financial Accounting. While the practices learned are important, perhaps more impactful is how students say that the course gave them confidence and a language they never had before.

As HBS has done for more than a century, instruction in CORe is accomplished through the case method of study. This pedagogy relies on real-world issues addressed by real-world managers (we call them protagonists since they're central figures in a story) that require the student to learn by discovery in concert with his or her peers.

Just as in the HBS classroom, students learn from others who have different experiences and expertise through an online peer help function. Unlike MOOCs, which are generally a standard platform that content “slots” into, HBS Online is a platform custom-built to facilitate the case method and community necessary to make such a method of teaching effective.

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Tip 2: Get Your Resume Ready For Prime Time

If you're just getting out of the military, it’s likely been a while since you created a resume. Take the time to do it well. Besides the usual advice to ensure you have correct grammar and spelling, there are several other things that JMOs (and anybody else for that matter) should keep in mind given the mistakes I’ve seen people make when I was the hiring manager.

Tailor Your Personal Statement

If you use a personal or “objective” statement of some kind at the top of your resume, ensure that it’s about the employer and not about you. Having an objective statement that says: “To find a job that allows me to further develop my leadership skills and one day become a senior manager in a manufacturing firm” is much less appealing to an employer than: "To use my leadership skills to build, train and drive a high-performance manufacturing team that delivers on time and on budget." The first statement is about what you want. The second is about what you can do to help your future employer.

Keep It Short

In general, no matter how many great things you have to say about yourself, if it takes too much room to say them, people will lose interest. For most JMO’s, I’d argue that your resume shouldn’t be more than one page if you’re exiting the service as a 26-year-old Captain (O3). Of course, if you have more experience, dipping into two pages is fine but beyond that, I think little is gained and you risk turning off the reader.

Remove the Jargon

Spend time taking the jargon out of your resume. This also applies to people changing industries. Thinking back to my military experience, a government description of my duty would have been something like “I managed a team operating national security assets providing 24/7 intelligence coverage used to inform the national command authority.” While accurate, much will be lost on somebody who has not served. Saying that “I operated satellites that gathered intelligence used to inform the President daily” was much shorter, simpler, and impactful.

Tip 3: Network, Network, Network

Technology not only helps educate you but can build a network that connects you with others.

HBS Online has built peer help features into its platform and uses closed Facebook pages to foster cooperation, communication, and networking, so connecting to others happens while you're learning.

LinkedIn is another critical tool. Next to the magnifying glass icon at the top of the LinkedIn home page is the word “advanced.” Click on this and you're given the power to search the larger network with precision. Use the search area on the left side of the screen to find people who share common experiences with you. Typing my alma mater’s name into the “school” field and the abbreviation “Lt.” in the “title” block yields 80 graduates of Notre Dame that were some sort of Lieutenant during their career.

You can do the same for job titles, locations, and the like. If you're transitioning out of the military, sending a note to fellow alums through LinkedIn explaining that you're a veteran leaving the service and are looking for introductions into a certain industry or region can be very, very effective. You may have to pay a monthly subscription to get some of the messaging features on LinkedIn, but they're well worth it to expand your network and gain the help and trust of others.

Tip 4: Don’t Forget About Your Alma Mater

Most colleges and universities maintain a webpage where recruiters can post jobs, and Alumni usually have access to these postings. Don’t be shy about calling the career development office of your undergraduate institution to see what sort of services they offer. If there is a strong alumni club in the area where you live or will be moving to, think about joining that as well.

When finishing a meeting with alumni, ask them, “Who else would you suggest I speak with to learn more about [fill in your industry or career interest].” Phrasing the request this way has a way of keeping the conversation moving forward and increases the likelihood that you will leverage one meeting into others.

And always follow up with a thank you note. While hand-written is always a nice touch, email works as well. But just be sure you do it!

Final Thoughts

There will always be trepidation when making a change. Moving from one career to another can, at first glance, look daunting. But rest assured that your transferable skills can help you make the transition.

Brushing up on business fundamentals, preparing your resume, networking, and using your alma mater are not exhaustive steps to take in an effort to land on your feet in the civilian world, but they're foundational in many respects. Working on them while seeking the diverse opinions of others who have gone before you will increase the chances that things go smoothly.

It’s been 20 years since I left the Air Force and, during that time, I have called on my experiences as a JMO in jobs that were in sectors about as diverse as you can fathom: distribution, manufacturing, software, internet, for-profit education, nonprofit education, and telecom.

In all cases, the foundation the military gave me was instrumental in making the right decision. Rest assured, the same will be true for you.

Making the Transition

While Mullane’s experiences explore the transition from the military to a civilian career, his advice can resonate with career changers in any industry. Brushing up on your business skills can go a long way, no matter the field you hope to enter, and building up your professional network can help you get your foot in the door at a new organization.

Do you want to expand your business skills to prepare for a career change? Explore our online Credential of Readiness (CORe) program and find out how you can take your career to the next level.

(This post was updated on April 29, 2020. It was originally published on June 30, 2016.)

Patrick Mullane

About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of Harvard Business School Online and is responsible for managing HBS Online’s growth and long-term success. A military veteran and alumnus of Harvard Business School, Patrick is passionate about finding ways to use technology to enhance the mission of the School—to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.