Should I Join the Military to Advance My Career?
Chef’s Table is a new section on Ramen IR that provides readers insight into various professions related to international affairs and foreign policy. Authors share their experiences, offering an inside perspective of their respective fields. Ultimately, the mission of Chef’s Table is to better equip young professionals and students to break into the field of international affairs through lessons learned, career testimonies, and advice from experienced practitioners.
Well past the gluttonous years of Iraq and Afghanistan, countless young graduates in the field of security studies struggle to break into an ever-shrinking, exclusive job market. Internships are routinely unpaid and don’t lead to full-time jobs, a constant merry-go-round of exploitative labor. Meanwhile, debt-laden graduates desperately compete for “entry-level” jobs, which demand they already possess “Top Secret” or “Secret” security clearances and have two to three years of experience – an unrealistic and unreasonable bar for entry into the job market. As if the process wasn’t hard enough, the recruitment and application process for the majority of the Intelligence Community is opaque and incomprehensibly long, some spanning months, if not years. Meanwhile, USAJobs, the government website used to apply to most US government positions, quickly becomes a black hole for your resumes and cover letters with little to no hope of getting a job through its byzantine system.
Unsurprisingly, many young students and professionals ask me, “Should I join the military to advance my career? Will it help?” Even as a six-year veteran of the Marine Corps, leaving as a Sergeant squad leader in the infantry, there is no easy answer to that question. The honest and often disappointing answer is – it depends.
Military service, whether officer or enlisted, is not for everyone, nor should it. But, for those considering military service to advance your careers in the security/intelligence/policy field, I offer you three pieces of advice.
- Your life will fundamentally change.
Unlike other jobs, military service consumes one’s life – personal and professional – in a way very few other jobs do. The military will dictate where you are stationed, what you do in the military (except for the lucky few who get to choose), how you dress, and even when and where you can go on holiday. For instance, the average serviceman and servicewoman changes duty stations every two to three years. This is a grand adventure for the young, single eighteen-year-old, but for those who have significant others or families, uprooting your life to some unfamiliar destination is not an easy reality to swallow.
My Platoon Sergeant, a gruff bear of a man, put it best, “The Corps is your first wife, and everyone else and everything else is your mistress. The Corps will come first, whether you like it or not.”
And one cannot speak of military service without discussing war. You may or may not go to war, or even experience combat, but you better be ready for war if you don the uniform. Fighting wars is the business of the military. This is an indisputable fact. Thus, take careful measure of what the uniform truly entails for it is both an honor and cruel burden. Sacrifice is not an empty word, and those who wear the uniform have all sacrificed in one form or another.
- Strive for a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) that translates into the civilian sector later.
I joined the infantry because my younger and more idealistic self believed he could change the world with his rifle. I subsequently spent six years honing infantry skills like calling for air strikes, leading counterinsurgency operations, and mastering a plethora of weapons. Yet, when I left the Corps, I found there was very little demand for my infantry skill set beyond private military contractors. If I wanted a career of dodging bullets for a living, I would have stayed in the Corps.
The common rebuttal to my skill set not being in demand is that the military provided me with invaluable leadership skills, those precious intangibles, insert flag-waving patriotism, etc. However, those intangibles carry little water when a government contractor requires you to have experience in business development. No matter how good of a leader the military may have made you, you still need the specific skill sets employers are looking for. And that may be intelligence experience or interagency credentials or combat.
So for those who want to use the military as a stepping stone, pursue a MOS that translates into a useful skill set beyond your days in uniform. For instance, experienced and talented logistics chiefs find themselves in high demand with companies like Amazon and FedEx. And within the security field, officers, particularly those in strategic planning or intelligence, are prized commodities. The hard truth is that officers largely dominate the security/policy field. They often have the specific skill set and experience most civilian agencies and consulting firms desire, especially a valid security clearance. And, of course, you will find the occasional Special Operator in some form (Navy Seal, Ranger, Green Beret) running around the field because – let’s admit it – who doesn’t love Special Operators?
So as an enlisted Sergeant infantry squad leader, I was all tactical experience, no security clearance, and no strategic operations exposure. Consequently, I found myself as vanilla as they come in an ice cream store chalk full of Rocky Roads, Cookie Dough, and Butter Pecans.
- Everyone loves veterans, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to hire you.
The veteran advantage is always touted on blogs, casual conversations, and professional development workshops – how veterans get governmental preference (ranging from 0-10) on USAJobs or how military service sets you apart from the herd. Employers will always, without fail, declare how much they are committed to helping veterans and hiring them for their companies.
This is true, but also a complete farce.
Yes, military service gives you a maximum of ten points of preference (if you have a service related disability or received a Purple Heart) when applying through USAJobs. Yet, this doesn’t guarantee you a job or even a substantial advantage in the job market. You will find that after nearly 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are thousands of highly educated, highly credentialed veterans searching for work, especially in the security/intelligence field. And you will find yourself just another Sergeant squad leader with combat experience trying to be an FBI agent or another transitioning Surface Warfare Officer looking for that federal consulting career.
Military service is not the golden ticket to civilian sector success many advocates and employers would have you believe – nor should it. Military service is fundamentally a public service for the greater good. That’s the ideal, at least. Undoubtedly, there are thousands of homeless and unemployed veterans who need help transitioning into civilian lives. For instance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates roughly “49,933 veterans are homeless on any given night.” However, if you’re considering a career in government or consulting, armed with advanced degrees, you’re probably not one of them.
In the end, military service is often a tempting Plan B for graduates and young professionals who find themselves unceremoniously kicked in the face by real life. But unlike hiding out in graduate school for two years in an attempt to find your way, military service is a four to six year commitment that will affect every aspect of your life. It is not a decision to be taken lightly.
And in all honestly, if the military is your Plan B, you either have better options to pursue or your heart isn’t really in it. And no one wants a half-hearted or accidental war fighter watching his or her back when the bullets start flying.
Sebastian Bae served six years in the United States Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. His views are solely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the military, Ramen IR, other authors, or any of their organizations or affiliations.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Corporal James Green (public domain)