Posted by: Lisa | July 10, 2012

From Military to Civilian: Translating Your Experience

When interviewing for jobs and for grad school, I faced the same challenge every service member or veteran faces: how to make a civilian understand your military experience.  When I interviewed with defense contracting firms it was easy. Many of the individuals conducting the interviews were veterans, and in several instances we had common acquaintances from our time in the military.  With ease I articulated (in military speak) the numerous roles and responsibilities I held as a junior officer. Too easy… or so I thought.

Grad school interviews were much more difficult for me because now I was speaking to individuals with little to no understanding of the military.  When chatting with prospective students before the interviews, I often received a fascinated expression when I explained that I am a veteran. Inevitably the student asked me what I did in the military, and when I delved into my experiences, the fascinated expression often turned into a blank stare, followed by a sincere, “Thank you for your service. I couldn’t have deployed to Afghanistan.”  They didn’t understand my experience, but wanted to show support nonetheless.

Then I figured it out.  I needed to anchor my experience to a context or situation which my audience would understand while avoiding military jargon or acronyms.  The most effective method I found was to use pop culture references.  During my Wharton interview when I described my responsibilities as a threat weapons and tactics instructor for a Navy squadron, I pulled out a reference the interviewer could understand:  Top Gun.  Admittedly, when I blurted out this reference I was somewhat embarrassed, but instantly I could see the interviewer connect the dots.  She could visualize my role and better understand what I was describing. Yeah, I know it seems corny, but it works! People need a way to relate.

Bottom Line: Think about how you can relate your military experience in an analogy or pop culture reference that your audience will understand. Don’t be afraid that doing so is too informal. It may actually help you to better connect you with your audience!

Please send any questions and comments to



  1. I have tried the military to civilian translation. It does not work in Illinois. Employers from civilian to state and government do not recognize military education or training. Even going to college to meet the requirement for education to a position means nothing. Best advice; DO NOT RETIRE from the military!!!!

    • OMG, I have to agree with you on that fact. I really thought that once, I retire it would be so, easy to find a position. Was I wrong!

  2. As a civilian with no military experience who has helped veterans with resumes, I sometimes say “explain what you did as if you were explaining it to your grandmother” (not to knock the grandmas of the world, haha). That tends to boil it all down to a very basic understand that we can then build off. Also, look at some civilian job postings you’d like to target and see how they describe job duties-can you describe your duties in the same language? That helps civilians understand more. Then just keep describing your experience to various civilians (family, friends, other professional people) to see if they understand what you are saying. Keep refining based on their feedback. The pop culture reference Dan notes can help too.

  3. Great post. I also want to help veterans and reservists describe the value on top of the detail. I ask questions like – if you had to describe WHY you do what you do – what would that be? Or I ask think of a time – does not matter about rank – when you did something as part of your job and the results were MUCH better than expected. How did that feel? Why were you able to do this {thing} so well? What did others say. I coach many veterans and beyond translating skills I see many who are uncomfortable shining a light on themselves. They say, “It was not special – I did what I needed to do – we were a team”. I respect this immensely – however it does not always help them write resumes or interview in a way that connects their value with those who need them.

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