Military Benefits

6 tricks for veterans transitioning from college to the workplace

You’ve already made one major transition, learning to undo your military mindset and getting into the collegiate brain space. It can be a tough transition, finding a way to engage in the informal culture that drives academia.

Now you’ve got to switch gears again, putting aside your student self as you brace to enter the world of work. It can be a long and challenging road from campus to corporate life.

"I came walking into work on the first day in shorts and a T-shirt, and I realized pretty quickly that it needed to be khakis and a polo," said Peter Chong, a former Army sergeant first class who graduated from Penn State Abington and took a job in the philanthropic community.

The dress code is just the beginning. The world of work is a long way from the hallowed halls. Want to get through the transition intact? Here are six rookie mistakes to avoid:

1. Don't isolate yourself

These days it’s easy to turn campus into a kind of veterans-only club. Do that, and it's that much harder to make the leap to the working world.

"There has been an effort in the higher education community to build in veteran-specific spaces. We want to have vet centers on campus, we want veterans to have a space where they can be in a cohort of other veterans," said Marc Barker, current manager of military and veteran programs and director of the Adult Learner and Veteran Services office at Colorado State University.

That's a good thing, but overdo it and you run the risk of losing touch with the rhythms that govern interactions in the wider world.

"You want to be in student vet clubs that are engaged with other clubs, where their programming is integrated into all student affairs programs. Veterans on campus can be embedded in diversity efforts, they can be embedded in career clubs, they can have a space in the campus newspaper," Barker said. To prepare for a transition to a diverse workplace, "you want to be integrated across the total campus culture."

2. Keep steady hours

Campus is anything but a 9-to-5 operation: Students work when they can, and when they feel like. Take that mindset to the workplace, and you'll run into trouble.

"While you may be able to take work home, employers like to see employees in the office whenever possible, working together collaboratively," said Carolyn Thompson, a recruiter and coach with The Merito Group. "While you may have the flexibility to set your schedule, if you work too far outside of your company's core business hours, you may isolate yourself rather than set yourself up for promotion."

3. Keep an eye on money

Heck, you may never have worried about money before. First you had your parents, then you lived on base, and in school the GI Bill picked up a lot of the tab. Well, that changes when you enter the workforce.

"When you get into the corporate world, you [have to] budget your money, concern yourself with bills such as rent and utilities, and you have to learn this while performing well in your professional life," said James O'Flaherty, vice president of operations for JDog Junk Removal & Hauling and a former Marine captain. "One tip to help this transition is that veterans should live off campus during their time in school, get a part-time job, and practice budgeting, planning, and saving." It will make the transition from school to work that much easier.

4. Research employers

You can learn a lot about a company before signing on. Skip this step at your own peril. "Each company is different, just like there is a difference in the culture of each branch of service or the style of the commanding officer," said Northwood University's Mike Anguiano. "The main difference is that you get to choose who to dedicate your talent and value to, so do some research on what it's like to work for a particular company."

5. Be seen as a problem solver

In college, success was personal. You stood or fell on your own best efforts. Take that attitude to work, and you may end up out on a limb. "The highest performing corporations are those where there is a shared workspace, a sense of collaboration: That is where the value is. It is no longer just me as the individual. It's me as part of a group — it's my ability to help move this group forward," Barker said. "You want to be seen as a problem solver, not just as a task manager."

6. Hit your deadlines

In school, deadlines tend to be approximate. Not so at work. That has made a differen

ce for Peter Chong. "After four tours, I have

issues sleeping, and when I was in school, there was some flexibility. Classes might be in the afternoon or the evening. There could always be exceptions to deadlines," he said. "At work, the deadlines are real. You need to get it done when it's due. There are real consequences."

Chong has made big adjustments in order to cross that chasm. Because of his post-deployment sleeping problems, he pays an extra $800 a month to live in a downtown Washington, D.C., apartment virtually across the street from work. He can be up and dressed and at his desk in 10 minutes, if he has to be.

On the positive side, leaving campus for life in the workplace has placed him squarely back among the grownups.

"In school, I saw students who seemed to think they were more important than the teacher. There would be side conversations going on in class. Students weren't pushing themselves to be better. They would hand in work late and make excuses," he said. As a 32-year-old father and a veteran of the military experience, it rankled.

So while it isn't easy to cross from college to work, you might like it better in the end. "In the workplace there is a much higher level of professionalism," Chong said. "There is courtesy and respect that I didn't see in school."

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