My friend, Michael Buonocore has recently had the experience of transitioning from the Marine Corps to graduate school at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and recently to the daunting task of finding a job.
His reflections in the article below tell the good, the bad and the ugly of his road to transition.
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The prospect and process of finding a job is daunting. Trying to understand where to even begin, sorting through Internet advice columns, and putting yourself on the market like a mere commodity is difficult at best and emotionally damaging at worst. I would like to warn you, though, that if you are just beginning your job search, it will likely get worse before it gets better.
Interviews without callbacks, rejection letters, and simply not getting any response to applications you spent hours crafting will inevitably dent your pride and have you questioning your own self-worth.
Transitioning military personnel are particularly susceptible to feelings of self-doubt. After all, you commanded troops in combat, were responsible for millions of dollars worth of equipment, entrusted with national security secrets, and you did all of that really damn well. So you can’t help but wonder why a hiring manager who hasn’t had a fraction of the responsibility you’ve had won’t even respond to your application. It kills you or, if you haven’t started the job hunt, know that it will kill you. I know this pain intimately from experience and know it well.
I spent just about four years in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer. During my time I did two combat deployments (one on a MEU and one to southern Afghanistan) and managed to earn the respect of my Marines, peers, and senior officers. I had a great run and loved every minute of it but I always knew that I wanted to return to civilian life when my time was up.
I returned home from Afghanistan in June 2009 and started a Master of Public Policy program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in August of 2009. At the time, it was my dream to become a State Department diplomat so that I could help Washington sort out all of its Afghanistan problems, because I had all the answers.
I was very fortunate to land a summer stint working for Ambassador Holbrooke on the Afghanistan desk in between my two years at the Kennedy School. Unfortunately, I learned that working at the State Department, and for the federal government in general, was not what I wanted to do after I graduated.
I returned to Cambridge a little dissatisfied with the way the State Department approached problems and became very interested in how we can use the private sector and market mechanisms to solve those problems more efficiently. That is how I got involved with the Boston/Cambridge startup scene and ultimately what led me to found my own company.
I would be disingenuous, though, if I did not admit that one of the driving factors behind my decision to start my own company was that I simply could not find an interesting job. Even though I was working on my company during my second year of graduate school, I was still applying to jobs in the hopes that I could find something.
In fact, I applied for 26 open positions. Of those 26, I interviewed for two positions, received rejection letters from a handful of others, and simply heard nothing back from most. Totally dejected by the process, I set out to chart my own course.
I ran with my company as hard as I could for just over a year, but when I returned home from a month-long business stint in LA this past October I decided to seek out new opportunities. This was a hard decision for me and it was made even more difficult because my previous foray in the job market was still fresh in my mind. I didn’t know if I was ready for the doubt and humiliation that so many of us have endured before.
I had no choice, though, and so I started to send out my applications. This time I applied for a total of 13 positions over the course of two weeks, had interviews with three different companies (and even more requests), and received a job offer. Not only did I get offered a job, but I am starting at a company that I find incredibly interesting and whose mission I fully support. My job there is a significant one and the compensation is very fair. I haven’t even started yet and my colleagues have already started reaching out to me, making sure that I know that I am a part of a fantastic team. I am humbled by the opportunity and simply cannot be more excited about it.
While Serendipity was certainly on my side this time around, I also became a much better job applicant – and I hope that sharing the lessons I learned will make you a better applicant as well.
Below are some of the more important lessons I learned after applying to a total of 39 positions, listed to roughly correspond to the actual job hunting process. None of them are particularly groundbreaking but I am very confident that when I followed them, and executed them well, I became a much more compelling candidate.
The Resume: It is time-consuming and annoying, but you should have a different resume for every position. You should analyze every bullet point you have on your resume and make sure that it shows, in one way or another, how you are fit for the job and how your past experience is directly relevant.
This was certainly challenging for me as I tried to make parallels between my military experience and the positions for which I was applying. I found that it was extremely helpful to talk to someone who was in a similar position or field to help me find those parallels. I would simply talk to this person about what I had done in the past and s/he would say, “Oh, that’s just like what we do here.” I found that it was important to find those parallels and made sure to use the use the appropriate vocabulary so the hiring manager understood them immediately.
I also found that I had a better response rate to my resume when I put a very brief summary (two punchy sentences) at the top of my resume. This summary gave me the opportunity to properly frame my experience before the hiring manager started to look over it. The hiring managers whom I dealt with did not have military experience and (I’m guessing) that it is hard for people who don’t have military experience to conceptualize how your military experience is at all relevant to whatever field they are in.
The Cover Letter: I found that the response rate to my cover letters went significantly up when I sacrificed a bit of formality for direct language. The internet is littered with examples of ineffective cover letters, but because there are very few examples of good ones, there is little reliable guidance available for people like us.
I actually stumbled upon this lesson by accident. After not getting any responses to my cover letters, I kind of adopted this “I don’t care, I’m going to say it like it is” attitude. I dropped some of the formality (blandness) and wrote exactly what I could do for the company and why I thought I could do it. Of course I did so in a respectful manner but I did my best to ensure that the hiring manager had no questions as to why I thought I was great for the job. To my surprise, I started getting calls.
The Interview: As I mentioned earlier, this time around I interviewed with three different companies before receiving the offer I wanted – and I certainly got better with each successive interview.
Preparation is the key to success and by the time my last interview rolled around, I had spent a full day and a half preparing for it. I thought through the questions I knew would come up (tell me a little about yourself; why do you want to work at this company/in this position; talk about a time you failed; what’s your biggest weakness; etc.) but I went beyond that.
I first researched everyone who I was going to be interviewing with. A simple Google search will often times tell you how old someone is, where s/he went to school, if/how s/he is involved in the community, and the person’s work history. They have your resume so I think it’s helpful to have theirs, just so you know where the person is coming from and what their interests might be.
I also wrote down exactly what I would do during my first week on the job. Having this prepared not only provides answers to potential interview questions, but I think it shows that you are forward thinking and ready to hit the ground running; I think it demonstrates that you don’t need explicit direction to get started, which, in turn, shows that you really are qualified for the job.
The last, but probably the most important, aspect of interview preparation comes in the form of choosing and rehearsing your life stories that illustrate who you are personally and professionally. I received this piece of advice from Dr. Chase and I am very confident that it enabled me to effectively communicate the skills and ethos I proclaim to have.
For example, I have a 5-principle leadership philosophy that I strive to adhere to in any work environment. Principle 1 is “Lead from the front.” For us military folks, that is a familiar phrase and we know what that means in principle and in practice. But for someone who has never heard it before, it sounds interesting but the meaning is still kind of abstract.
Instead of trying to talk through the meaning of this principle, I prepared a story that demonstrated it. I had told this story to Dr. Chase a couple of days before my last interview as funny anecdote and he immediately told me that I need to work it into my interview because the story reveals more about me than I could otherwise explain.
The short version of the story is that after Hurricane Katrina hit, I went down to Louisiana and worked as a Red Cross shelter manager. People often forget that another hurricane, Rita, forced all of the Katrina victims who had fled to the coast of Texas to come back inland. This pushed our shelter to more than double our normal operating capacity.
One contingency that no one foresaw was that Rita would knock out our power and water. We had over 800 people and a total of 16 toilets, none of which were working for about two days. People had their needs, though, and they continued to use the toilets. Needless to say, after two days we had some cleaning up to do – and I was willing to lead the charge.
I made this story light and it really is kind of funny in retrospect, and it accomplished two very important interview goals. First, it effectively communicated what I mean when I say that I lead from the front. Second, when I walked out of my first round interview I overheard some people talking about it, which meant that I had left a lasting impression.
The story was effective because it eliminated the ambiguity of a concept that I was trying to communicate. In the military, we tell war stories for many reasons but it is rare that we use them as a way to explain our personal competency or our success. It is unnatural, and almost feels exploitative, to tell our stories in the pursuit of personal gain, but stories are more captivating, interesting, memorable, and revelatory than just about any other communicative device. Your stories are yours and they are, in large part, what has shaped and defined you – and there is no disservice in telling them when motivations are genuine.
These are only some of the lessons I learned during my job search but I am optimistic that they might help you. Transitioning from the military to civilian employment can be brutal, and that is what you should expect. Handshakes and pats on the back are plentiful when you get out but favors are few and far between. I firmly believe that my job search success was due to equal parts luck, determination, and applying the lessons learned from each failed application or interview to the next one.
The road ahead will likely be full of bumps, potholes, and a couple of accidents. But we’ve all experienced challenging times in the past and, like those, you will overcome these hard times as well.