Every year, about 200,000 Americans make the transition from military to civilian life. The military is a great launching pad for a meaningful career. It teaches leadership, strength under pressure, commitment and a wide range of competencies. And yet, many veterans struggle with making the leap from highly structured military life to a comparatively loose life as a civilian. About half of post-9/11 veterans say that the transition to civilian life was difficult. Factors such as exposure to trauma, injury in combat and a relationship with someone who was killed or injured can increase the difficulties of the transition.
As many as 85% of job seekers find their jobs through networking. A strong professional network is your ally in the transition from the military into the working world.
A network can’t be built overnight or with a few requests to meet for coffee. The strongest networks are built on mutual trust, meaningful relationships and understanding. Here’s how to begin building yours.
The Benefits of a Strong Professional Network
In the military, talking about networking is uncommon, thanks in part to stereotypes that networking is for people who want to use others or get ahead politically. But networking is just about making human connections, then using those connections to help others and ask for help.
Ideally, soldiers should begin networking in and out of the military at least a few years before they leave the military.
Networking is more than just a career afterthought. It should be a key professional goal in every stage of your working life. The benefits of a strong professional network are immense, including:
Many jobs are never publicly listed. And even when they are, employers have to have some way of screening applicants. One way is based on the recommendations of people they trust. Your professional network can vouch for you, help you get your foot in the door with unlisted jobs and maybe even hire you or go into business with you.
The right professional opportunities — such as a speaking engagement in a college class, a chance to share at a professional seminar or a byline on a whitepaper — elevate your profile, potentially opening new career doors. The more close professional connections you have, the more likely you are to access these opportunities.
Insights into Industry Norms
What do you do when you have a problem at work? Your network can help you. For many workers, the first step is to consult their professional network, who can help you with workplace challenges, inform you of differing norms in various industries and let you know if you’re underpaid. In the military, this is about leaning on mentors. Outside of the service, it may involve asking for help from colleagues, friends, or career coaches.
No one understands workplace pressure quite like the people who work in the same industry. Blow off steam, talk about industry challenges and share industry news with a professional network that truly gets it.
Relationships give life a sense of purpose and meaning. We spend a significant portion of our lives at work, so cultivating meaningful work relationships can make your work more enjoyable, enrich your life with human connections and imbue your career with a deeper sense of purpose.
Your Civilian Professional Network
If you served honorably, you probably built a deep network of friends and colleagues who would quite literally take a bullet for you. They know you and your work and may have seen you shine in some of the highest stakes settings in the world. So it can come as quite a shock when you enter the professional world with a weak network. Yet, for many veterans, this is reality. You may lose touch with military colleagues or find that their word doesn't get you nearly as far as it did when you were in the service.
This doesn’t mean you should leave your military colleagues behind, of course. They can continue to be a source of fellowship and can help you find and keep a job. But you will need to expand your group to include civilians, especially if you’re entering a field in which civilians dominate.
For many people — especially introverts and those with limited networking experience — the very thought of networking is daunting. But it doesn’t have to be! Professional networking is not separate from your education or your professional life. It should ideally be integrated into both — something you do every day.
What Meaningful Networking Looks Like
Some people think networking is about making a quick connection, such as adding someone on LinkedIn, inviting someone you respect out for coffee, or contacting an industry leader to see if they know of any available internships. Although these tactics can potentially move you closer to a professional network, they are not enough on their own. Real networking is about building a rich, deep network of people who trust and like you. Critically, this requires you to give at least as much as you take.
Building Your Professional Network
Although it’s fine to invite someone you admire out for coffee, there are plenty of other ways to gain people’s trust and build your network.
Get to know students in your class.
This is a valuable opportunity to invest deeply in others and encourage them to do the same for you. Your cohort is a great ready-made network. Work together by providing study guides and mutual support.
Volunteer in your field.
Sometimes, before you can do something for pay, you have to do it for free. Volunteering helps you build valuable connections and sharpen your skills.
Make yourself useful.
Is there a way you can help someone in your field? If so, do it — without being condescending or intrusive. For example, you might stay late at an internship to reorganize files or volunteer to work on the website your coordinator keeps vowing to fix.
Attend professional events.
To meaningfully network, you have to meet people. Join a professional organization. Show up for seminars and educational opportunities. And when you do, be nice. It’s important to be kind even when people can't do anything for you, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because power is always shifting.
Do great work.
Nothing else matters if you don’t do good work, if you mistreat people or if you break trust. Give your professional network positive things to say so your good reputation precedes you.
Use your military experience.
Reach out to your colleagues to find out how they are doing. Offer support and mutual assistance. And don’t shy away from networking and career development events designed for soldiers. When you show up, you will likely meet a wide range of people who understand and value your experience.
Resources for Veterans Building a Professional Network
Not sure where to begin your professional networking? Here are some great places to start:
- SNU VETS Center. Run by veterans, for veterans, our VETS Center is just one of 13 universities in the nation recognized by the Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success.
- The US Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA offers a wide range of employment support and civilian entry programs.
- Professional organizations. Consider joining a professional organization in your field to attend continuing education seminars and career events.
- Veterans’ Employment and Training Service. Run by the Department of Labor, this program can connect you to numerous employment opportunities.
- Volunteer work. Volunteering is a great way to get your foot in the door, gain valuable skills and give back. Consider working with other veterans.
- Toastmasters. Need to master public speaking and networking? Toastmasters can help you get over your anxiety and meet like-minded people.
- Local Chamber of Commerce. Chamber of Commerce chapters across the nation help people nurture new job skills and learn about running businesses.
How SNU Can Help
At SNU, your education is just the beginning. We believe in real-world training that equips you for a lucrative career. That’s why we offer an extensive roster of veteran-centered services at our VETS Center, including career counseling. We also help you build your professional network from day one with our innovative cohort model and professors who are true industry leaders.
Want to learn more about returning to civilian life and successfully beginning a new career? Check out our comprehensive guide, Life After the Military: How to Plan Your Next Step and Assimilate to Civilian Life.