“I’m in the military and I just got my degree! Now what?”

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[Note: This reader’s question has been edited to preserve their anonymity, but the subject also applies to just about any military specialty. If you have a similar story then we’d like to read it too!]

 

A reader writes:

I stumbled on your site and was excited to read what you had to say about military retirements.

I am a 13 year active duty, enlisted, veteran. I left active duty in 2011 in pursuit of my masters in my military specialty. My intent was to commission in that specialty but without luck. Don’t fear…I didn’t lose any of my service because I joined the Reserves.

Since the commissioning in that field isn’t in the cards, I’m faced with a difficult decision. I’m blessed to say I have a few options; however, I cannot decide which is more advantageous for my family.

Options:

  1. I have a chance to return to active duty but back into the career field I loathed. I’d keep my rank and return to active duty status. I’d be six years and a few months away from retirement but really wouldn’t use my masters. I’d still be running the mission, but nothing like I’d probably do on the outside.
  2. I could cross-train back into enlisted as a contracting specialist. The two negatives I can think of are the deployments are brutal and I wouldn’t be using my degree for six years. By the time I got out, I’d have to relearn my field because things change so much.
  3. I could go the federal civil-service route and try to commission in the Reserves–which is a good possibility. This option seems right but also seems like I leave a lot of money on the table.
  4. I could go civil service and stay enlisted. If it got to this point, I would just return to active duty.
  5. I could go private sector and do Reserves but this would negate all the service time I had completed.

As you can see, I am a lucky man. I have lots of good options but cannot, for the life of me, figure out which to select and feel confident about. Yet, at the same time… it seems like I’m not living the way I should and more living for tomorrow. I’m only 34, yet it seems like I’m living with a “means to an end” attitude. That can’t be healthy. Yet, I have a family to care for and want the best for all of us.

My spouse is making good money, and we have little debt. This means I don’t have some of the same issues as my peers have when making these tough decisions.

If you were in my boat, which would you choose? I won’t hold you to anything, but I just want to know what someone who understands the system would do because I don’t understand every nuance of the federal system, nor do I have any one to ask.

Anything you could provide would be much appreciated!

 

Congratulations on your advanced degree! College was a good call– I wish I’d had the guts to pursue something similar when I was at 13 years. I think you’re ahead in the third quarter by 21 points, and now it’s just a question of how much you’re going to run up the score on your way to winning the game.

My first thought is that you should consider your response if you’re ever contacted again about that particular commission. You know better than me whether they’ll ever change their decision, but I’ve seen more surprising things happen during a drawdown. Retention plunges, policies get reviewed, and you might get another opportunity. It’s worth working through your feelings now so that you’re not ambushed by a program change later. Move on and don’t wait for the rules to change, but take a few days to think it through.

Next, I think you still have a master’s degree in “lifetime employment”. Some agency or company, somewhere, needs you to solve their problems.

Your option (1) speaks for itself. If you loathed that field before you got your degree, then you’re going to loathe it even more when you go back. Six years is an awfully long time to clench your jaw and gut it out, and in the process you’re quite likely to harm your health and your relationships with your loved ones. I doubt that you’d feel inspired to turn in the effort and performance that would get you good evaluations, let alone promotions and an eventual active-duty retirement.

Your option (2) doesn’t seem to offer many benefits either. As Malcolm Gladwell says in “Outliers“, you want to find work that’s fulfilling and complex. A degree of autonomy would be just bonus.

Let’s combine the assessment of options (3), (4), and (5). You should definitely pursue a Reserve commission in just about any field. (Consider National Guard and Air National Guard as well as the other services because they may have units closer to your home.) You already have 13 years toward a military pension, and you’ll get a lot more for that pension if you do 8-10 years of commissioned service. Even if it’s “just” a Reserve pension, it’s more than money. You’ll have an inflation-fighting annuity that will cover at least a portion of your expenses (starting at age 60 or possibly a bit earlier) and Tricare (at age 60). Inflation and healthcare are two huge concerns of every retiree, and you’ll address them both with a Reserve career.

Whatever field you commission in, explore your choices for active duty. I know many servicemembers who’ve left active duty for the Reserves (most of whom have earned a commission in the process) and they’ve taken control of jump-starting their own careers. If you return to active duty then you’ll earn an officer’s military salary & benefits as well as a pile of Reserve retirement points. If you manage to get to 18 years of active-duty service on a set of Reserve active-duty orders then you’ll enter “sanctuary” and you’ll be eligible for an active-duty retirement. It’s rare but it could happen. Sanctuary would be great, but the real Reserve/Guard rewards come from the possible promotions (along with the wages & benefits) along the way to the Reserve/Guard pension.

While you’re pursuing a Reserve commission, continue your career search in both the private and federal civil-service sectors. Civil service may be a lower salary but it’s a higher degree of job security and (in many cases) a much higher quality of life. Civil service also offers you a better chance of balancing Reserve duty and they’ll treat you better when you’re mobilized. If you’re interested, I know a military retiree in the VA who would be happy to discuss your options with that agency.

But if you feel that the GS option gives up too much potential earnings (and savings) then you should pursue a civilian career. You can always strive for balance with the Reserves (whether that’s a mobilization or going IRR) and your military experience will serve you well on the civilian side.

If it turns out to be too difficult to balance civilian or civil service work with the Reserves/Guard, another option would be a GS job where you could “buy” more of your civil-service pension with your military service credit. It’s generally a good financial deal, but this takes a significant chunk of your money. You can read more about federal civil-service rules and Reserve duty at GubMints.com, whose owner is a Navy veteran in the federal civil service.

Providing for your family can seem like a heavy burden, but kids don’t understand that until they’re nearly adults themselves. It’s also great that your spouse can help carry the financial load. If you had a choice of “more money” or “more family”, then I’d spend more time with family. Kids don’t need more of your money (despite their protests), but they appreciate having more of your time.

So… go Reserve or Guard and get a commission from whoever will give you one. While you’re doing that, get a job with whatever seems like a good work/life balance. Don’t just leap on the first offer but rather consider the quality of life and the benefits as well as the salary. Use your professional & military networks as well as your Linkedin contacts. Show your employers how you can solve their problems while enjoying what you do.

And please let us know what you decide to do!

 

 

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Related articles:
Starting your bridge career after the military
Guest Post Wednesday: “My Road to a Reserve Retirement”
The transition to a bridge career
Military experience to civilian careers
Should you start a civil service bridge career after the military?
5 Ways to Ease the Transition from Military to Civilian Career
Guest Post Wednesday: From Battlefield to Boss– MBAs for Ex-Military Personnel

 

 

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

2 Comments
  1. Reply
    Kent Goldings July 11, 2013 at 9:14 AM

    I’m a little confused.
    Loathed the career field, but went for an advanced degree in it?
    Sounds to me as if someone hasn’t ever sat down and taken a good look at how they would like their life to turn out. Looking for options, but they seem more random than focused.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman July 11, 2013 at 10:52 AM

      That one’s on me for trying to preserve the reader’s anonymity. They’re in a fairly small field and could hypothetically be identified by discussing its details.

      Their old career field was one of the reasons they left active duty for the Reserves, and their degree is in a more attractive aspect of the same specialty. Their intended commissioning program didn’t work out as planned, probably due to force structure changes caused by the drawdown. Now they’re trying to choose among all of the other possibilities.

      It’s the classic situation of wanting to leverage all of that military service for a pension, yet having advanced skills which could earn quite a bit more salary as a civil servant or a civilian.

      When I was at that age and years of service, and then had a curve ball thrown at me, I was too darn exhausted with juggling family & military workload to be able to sit down and take a good look at how I’d like my life to turn out.

      The good news is that this reader has Reserve income (with the potential for more), a chance at a commission, a few different career options, and enough financial stability to be able to make a smart choice.

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