Thinking Beyond MOS: How to Translate Military Experience into a Civilian Career (PodCast)

Military Resumes vs Civilian: What’s the Difference?

As you served our country, you put in some work. Hard work. But it doesn’t always translate well to the civilian world. Now that you’re thinking about your next MOS—i.e. joining the civilian workforce—how do you make sure the work you’ve done in service to our country is adequately reflected in the civilian resume you put together.

At Grantham University, we have a few ideas.

“The purpose of a resume,” says Raylein Jones, Grantham University Career Services Coordinator, “is to get an interview. A lot of our military folks have an issue condensing their federal resume to a civilian one.”

Doug Dimler, Grantham University Career Services Coordinator, agrees. You need to make sure your resume has everything you need, but isn’t filled with all the things, the pages and pages of things, you would normally put on a military resume.

“Make it short, succinct, to the point,” says Dimler.

What Recruiter’s Want

Look at it from the recruiter’s side of things. They may see 30, 50, 100, 200 or more resumes per job posting. They have mastered the art of scanning resumes at very fast speeds. There are seriously looking for a resume that stands out from the crowd.

“They know what they’re looking for,” says Dimler. “They want it to be consistent, so use clear, defined headings and sub-headings. Put in some white space so they can easily jump from one section to the other.”

“Remember, they may get hundreds or thousands of resumes for a handful of positions,” says Jeremy Bell, Grantham University Associate Director of Talent Development and Career Services. “They scan them quickly. We hear anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds is going to be the amount of time they’ll take scanning through your resume, so you want to make sure key information is easy to find and easy to read.”

Relevance is also high on the list of things that get noticed on resumes, according to Bell.

“We see this a lot on resume first drafts from our military graduates: Job descriptions really tend to be a list of duties and responsibilities. ‘I was responsible for this. I was responsible for that.’ What recruiters are really wanting to see is how you can highlight those skills as they relate to their upcoming opportunities.”

Before Your Put Pen to Paper

The first thing you want to do when you start developing your civilian resume is think about what your career goals and interests are. What kind of positions are you looking to apply for as you transition? That is going to take a little bit of self-assessment, a little more thinking about your overall objective. For some, that’s pretty easy to determine. Others need a little help.

“One of the things we offer here at Grantham through Career Services,” says Bell, “is the opportunity to talk to our Career Services coordinators to really get a better idea of what that will look like. We offer assessments, like our predictive index assessment, to help get an idea of what their career goals are.”

“Exploring who you are,” says Dimler, “it’s best to talk with somebody about that. They can pull out some key things that might be very important to some type of civilian position, so always try to use the resources around you.”

Then, you need to examine your goals in light of what you’ve accomplished within the history of your military service or any other work experience that you’ve done that can help you attain that position.

“What kind of experience have you had up to this point that’s going to make you more marketable?” asks Bell. “Think about what you’ve done in the military during your career. What titles have you had? What duties have you been responsible for? What tasks have you accomplished, and try to relate those to your overall career target? That’s really going to be what makes a difference between getting an interview and not getting an interview.”

Online Skills Translators

“I think a really big part of the resume as you’re transitioning is knowing where you want to go,” says Jones, “because you need to customize that resume to that career path.”

Fortunately, there are a number of online skills translators that can help you assess your military experience in terms of civilian expertise.

“Online skills translators,” says Bell, “are a great tool for our folks in the military and our veterans. Use them to think about your history in the military and the work that you’ve done and how that can be easily translated into work in the civilian sector.” Military.com, O*Net, Jobscan, Vets.gov are just a few of the sites that can provide insight into the type of careers available to you once you transition.

Terminology—Not Everyone Speaks Acronym

Another thing Grantham’s Career Service department encounters on a regular basis, particularly with a military resume, is the sheer number of acronyms and jargon that may not be easily understood by someone outside the military.

“It’s really important to scan those resumes,” says Bell, “and ask yourself, ‘Will this be understood by anyone other than the folks that I work with right now? Can I translate it into something that’s going to be more easily understood? Is this something that really needs to be in my resume?’”

You need to consider relevant civilian terminology as you’re developing the resume. You want civilian recruiters to intuitively understand the work you’ve done and how it relates to their opportunities. Make sure your qualifications and skills are on target with the opportunity at hand, so your resume is clear and easy to understand on that first read.

Elements of a Civilian Resume: Summary Statement

Let’s get into your resume format. Start with a summary or objective statement.

“The idea,” says Jones, “is to represent in a broad stroke, in a clear and condensed manner, the reason why you’re the best candidate for the interview. And then you go in detail further of your experience and accomplishments in the interview. That first step needs to be a very brief overview of your accomplishments.”

“A summary statement at the beginning,” says Bell, “shows the recruiter who you are and what you bring to the table. No matter what work you’re looking to do, this is something that needs to be clear, short and information-packed. You need to show you have the skills to meet their needs.”

Hard skills, soft skills, relevant skills—whether it’s project management or a specific computer language you know, as long as it pertains to the job at hand, get it into the summary. Right from the start, they will know you’re qualified.

The summary of your resume doesn’t need to be super long. Far from it. Four to five lines of content should be the maximum, and only that long if the information is very concrete and targeted to your career objective or the objective of the position.

Elements of a Civilian Resume: Education Section

What is the best way to put together the education section?

“It’s pretty straightforward when it comes to the information you should include,” says Bell. “You want to include succinct, factual descriptions of your educational credentials, certifications and any specific, relevant training.”

Begin by listing your academic degrees. Include any two-year associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Be sure to include the course of study, the institution and the completion dates. Include each distinction, even if you haven’t completed your degree program yet.

“And if you’re still working on your degree program,” says Bell, “it’s perfectly okay to list it as ‘Expected completion Spring of 2019.’ You still want to include your degree. You just need to let them know when you expect to complete it.”

One other caution, when it comes to something like putting in the acronym “MBA,” most people are going to know what that means when they read it.

“But if the job description says Master of Business Administration or Bachelor of Science and it’s looking for those words,” says Jones, “I would add them in. It’s possible that an applicant tracking system—which is the software that automatically scans your resume—might not read ‘B.S’ if it’s looking for Bachelor of Science. I would just include both.”

Elements of a Civilian Resume: Work Experience

The experience section of your resume is one of the most difficult sections to complete. It’s hard to write down what you’ve been doing on a daily basis and it’s even harder to pull out the relevant information versus the day-to-day duties that may not mean as much for that next position.

As difficult as it can be, it is arguably the most important section of your resume. It’s the part that will qualify you for that next position. Again, getting help from the Career Services department is a great way to make this section—and your resume as a whole—as polished as possible.

The first thing to consider in this section is the format you should use.

“There are several formats to list your experience,” says Jones. “A very common one is chronological.”

The Chronological format lists jobs in reverse chronological order so the job you’re currently in is listed at the top. The job before that is next. And and so on.

“Another format for listing work experience in a resume is called a Functional format,” says Jones. “This has you list all your skills at the top of the section. Say you’ve received a promotion, but there’s a major overlap in your daily duties. Instead of repeating that under both job titles, you do a giant skills section and list those skills and/or duties together with sub-heads. Later, you briefly mention the job title and position.”

“The Functional resume probably isn’t the best choice for our military students,” says Bell. “But it may come in handy for those who have garnered a lot of skills but may not have garnered as much experience.”

A third format is the Combination resume format. “This is the one,” says Jones, “that I use a lot with my transitioning military students just because it gives a really distinct view of the skills you’ve earned at each position.”

The Combination format has you list jobs separately and then, in a bulleted section, you group skills together under subheads.

“If you’re having difficulties putting that down on paper,” says Jones, “we do this every day. We would love to look at your resume and give you our advice on that.”

Elements of a Civilian Resume: Last Thoughts

“The information you put in the work section should be results-oriented,” says Jones. “It should be measurable. It should have plenty of numbers to really solidify your qualification, your experience.”

“Consider using a typestyle other than Times New Roman,” says Dimler. “Calibri is popular now. Arial. Verdana. Those are easily readable, easily scanned.”

Now that you’ve had a taste, take 20 minutes out of your day to listen in as Bell, Dimler and Jones offer their professional insights in this podcast.

About The Author

Brandon Swenson, Senior Communications Specialist, is on Grantham's editorial board. He understands the benefits of educationally-oriented programs such as the Post 9/11 GI Bill having earned his Bachelor's degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City toward the end of his nearly two decades of service in the United States Marine Corp.