Many people pursue a college degree because it’s widely understood to be a pathway to promising career opportunities.
While an undergraduate degree holds the promise of opening doors to employment, it is up to you to discover what they are and to walk through them.
This is no easy task.
The process of looking for work can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming: How do I balance a job search with my studies? How do I know if I’m making the right decision? Where do I start? And self-doubt may creep in when you hear about the millions of unemployed college graduates; you may be afraid that perhaps you won’t find a job (or not the right one).
The challenges you are facing — operating in a high-stakes environment, making decisions amidst uncertainty, staying motivated in spite of setbacks and fear — are all factors service members regularly contend with. If you don’t know where to begin or are feeling lost as you navigate this transition, follow these four lessons from the military to achieve mission success.
1. Strategic Goal-Setting
If you’re frustrated with your job hunt or feeling uncertain about how to spend your time, stop what you’re doing, take a step back, and define your strategic goals. The military relies on such planning to define its vision for what is needed to keep our country safe into the future. This future-oriented thinking drives decisions and informs investments that are critical to achieving success.
Beginning your job hunt by defining your personal strategic goals enables you to visualize your future and the results you want to achieve. Taking this step will give you a framework with which to assess your current and future actions. It will also determine whether your actions align with your end goals, and inform your decisions about how best to invest your time and energy. Without a strategy, in fact, it can take longer to find a job or one that’s the right fit for you. And be sure to revisit your strategy periodically so you can update it as you learn more about your needs and preferences.
While you develop your personal strategy, think about the following criteria and your preferences, and consider how the jobs you pursue align with them:
Be sure your career salary goals match your expectations about your standard of living. Do your homework and research typical earnings ranges for your career path on sites like GlassDoor. Keep in mind that salary can vary based on the cost of living in particular communities.
Understand what type of work/life balance you need to be happy, and choose a career and company that will enable you to achieve that aim. You can begin by asking, for example, if your career goals take priority over all else. Or is spending time on a hobby or with family and friends essential to your happiness? Does predictability matter to you? Some jobs require employees to work late or over a weekend with little notice, or may necessitate canceling a personal trip at the last minute, and these positions are unlikely to be a good fit if you prefer a routine schedule.
Once you’ve clarified your priorities, do your homework to make sure your career goals align with these aims. Talk to employees in your industry, intended profession, or target companies to learn what sort of balance they sought and how successfully they have been able to achieve it.
You may have your heart set on living in a particular city, but does it offer career opportunities that interest you? Are you willing to relocate if opportunities are limited there? Consider which factor — career or location — is more important, and set your plans accordingly.
Don’t underestimate the importance of finding a work environment and culture you feel comfortable in, as these can vary greatly by industry and company. Check out sites like The Muse, or speak with current and former employees in your network to get the inside scoop on companies or industries you’re investigating.
2. Organized and Disciplined Execution
Job searches are time-consuming and involve many different tasks — researching industries and companies, finding interesting and fulfilling positions, tailoring résumés and cover letters for particular roles, and interviewing. Job-hunt overload can easily lead to procrastination as you avoid dealing with an endless to-do list.
Being organized and disciplined will help you work smarter and keep up a positive outlook. In the military, service members have consistent routines and maintain the discipline necessary to complete tasks in spite of challenges they may face along the way. Dividing your goals into smaller, short-term tasks and committing to a schedule can help make an otherwise daunting process seem manageable.
Objectives and Supporting Tasks
Think about the overarching objectives (e.g., create a résumé, prep for interviews, apply for jobs based on preferences previously defined) required to achieve your goals. Then, break each objective down into supporting tasks. Create a reasonable schedule to focus on these tasks and stick to it!
The college-to-career journey can be filled with setbacks. The key to sustaining momentum is establishing weekly goals to get you in a positive frame of mind, help you make incremental progress, and ultimately achieve success.
When you achieve a goal, treat yourself or celebrate. Don’t trivialize the small wins.
3. Semper Gumby
Remember Gumby, the green and incredibly flexible claymation cartoon character? Believe it or not, “Semper Gumby” is an unofficial motto for the Marine Corps and other military communities. It means “always flexible” and is a reminder to service members that when the unexpected inevitably happens, they must adapt and roll with the changes.
Your job search will undoubtedly include unforeseen challenges, and remaining “Semper Gumby” will help you as you adapt and change your plan as needed. You may have to reassess your criteria and preferences. You may need to develop weaker parts of your candidate profile (e.g., résumé, cover letter, or interview). It may even mean broadening your search — the job type or geographic area — learning new skills, or being open to jobs and companies you originally hadn’t considered. Maintaining a Gumby-like mindset will help you stay positive and keep up momentum when facing unanticipated obstacles or changes.
4. Lessons Learned
Continuous improvement, or lessons learned, is deeply ingrained in the military’s culture. Whether it’s the completion of military drills, an exercise, or a flight, there is always a debrief — a chance to reflect openly and honestly upon what went well, what could have gone better, and why. This is not an exercise in self-criticism or blame, but rather a positive opportunity for self-improvement.
It’s very easy to get so wrapped up in what lies ahead that we forget to reflect on what we could have done differently in previous efforts. Or, maybe we land our dream job and don’t stop to think about what steps helped us achieve that goal!
Instead, after submitting an application or participating in an interview, take time to reflect upon what went well, what you would change next time, and why. Remember to embrace any failures or shortfalls as learning opportunities.
Input From Others
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your network of friends, family, and professors to talk about what they’ve learned from their personal experiences. Mentors in your preferred industry are also a great resource for job-search insights.
Looking for employment is time-consuming, challenging, and often includes a lot of rejections before you find the opportunity you’re seeking. But these four college-to-career bootcamp basics will equip you with strategies to face hurdles on your path to a rewarding career.
This article was written in collaboration with Dan Pick, who is a U.S. Navy veteran and management consultant specializing in strategic planning and mergers and acquisition activity. He holds a bachelor's in mathematics from Penn State and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.