Gap Year: Do You Need A Year Off After Military Service?

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Do you need a gap year after your military service? As the Transition Master Coach for Military.com’s Veteran Talent Pool, I often hear transitioning service members claim they need a whole year off between the military and civilian life.

Some of them are senior military, just fantasizing about a beach chair overlooking the Pacific. Some are junior officers or young enlisted who want to max out their freedom. Others are seriously burnt out. And some have taken the gap year and lived to tell the tale.

A gap year does sound good, doesn’t it? After all, you spent years in the military getting up at oh-dark-thirty, living on a ship circling the Persian Gulf, sleeping in a tent in Poland in winter, or trudging through the endless halls of the Pentagon. You midlevel pros have not had a vacation that did not involve your mother-in-law in at least a decade. Don’t you deserve something for yourself?

Maybe an adult gap year is exactly what you need to make a full transition from military life to the civilian work world.

Or maybe it is a recipe for disaster, especially if what you want to do is lie on your mom’s couch, drink Mountain Dew, and tease the dog with your sock. That’s hard on your mom. And the sock.

Whether you want to take off a whole year, a few weeks or a couple of months, how you shape the experience makes a world of difference to your employability. Give yourself room to consider the possibility of a vacation that lasts more than a couple of days with these coaching questions:

What Can I Afford to Do?

Let’s get the mom question out of the way right up front: What can you afford to do? Despite what the rest of the world thinks, only 17% of those who join the military actually get retirement pay. They may have the wiggle room for some time off, depending on their mortgage payment. If you are in your 20s and separating from the military, the likelihood that you are living paycheck to paycheck is pretty high. Even though a private island in the Seychelles may be out for now, you can still get the break you need. Read on for ideas.

How Can I Organize My Endgame to Maximize Vacation Days?

The secret to getting time off after the military can be as simple as setting the date for your transition at the right time. If you just want a few stress-free weeks to yourself, plan your transition for late July or late November to take advantage of the ebb and flow of the hiring process. August and December are notoriously slow months when it comes to hiring. If you are a family guy, take those four weeks completely off and then bring your job hunt back up to full speed.

Can You Negotiate a Break?

If you are mid-career and aren't sure whether you want to leave the military permanently, and/or you want to take a year off for a particular project or pressing need, your branch of the service may have a program that will allow you to take a sabbatical. The Coast Guard offers its Temporary Separation Program. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps offer a Career Intermission Program where you can take up to three years off to pursue a goal.

How Will You Describe That Time to a Prospective Employer?

If you have a long gap between military service and a civilian job, an employer likes to know why. If you spent your gap year traveling to places renowned for drugs and partying, you know this is going to be a hard sell. If you spent your gap time building houses for the poor, completing part of your education or training, taking care of a family member, or investing in an internship studying erosion patterns or geodesic domes, you are just that much more interesting. A long period away from work makes sense when you can frame it with meaning.

How Much Will You Tell?

When I coach military clients through their interview questions, I notice how they cannot resist telling the whole story, including the unflattering bits. Honesty is a great quality, but during the job hunt process, the hiring manager does not need to know your every thought, mistake or justification. When you are talking to employers about time between jobs, know that they mostly want to be assured you are responsible, reliable and qualified for the job at hand.

How Much Time Is Too Much?

The idea of spending a year backpacking through the Andes or hiking from Provence to Prague is aspirational. But 12 months without a schedule could be a long, long time. Make the most of your dream by reaching out and talking to people who have done the same thing. Some veterans report that the total lack of structure post-military can be a lot to take. Others have no problem with it. The more firsthand accounts you get from people you know, the better prepared you will be to pick. Send me the pictures!

Is a Change as Good as a Rest?

Sometimes, the kind of break you need after military service does not include months on a beach. Sometimes, you long for that gap year because you really need to take a break from the grind of the military, government or defense industry. If you are feeling burnt out when you transition, arrange a break. A couple of months spent fishing, camping or road-tripping can do you a world of good. If you need more than that, look for a job that is a clear change -- maybe a nonprofit or a small business. Can you take the kind of job where you have to sell something or build something? Or is now the time to go get your MBA, Bachelor’s degree or IT certification, or to do entrepreneurial studies? As long as you can explain it, you can probably do it with confidence.

There is no law that says you have to jump from military service straight into the next job. In fact, 23% of post-9/11 enlisted veterans told the Pew Research Center they looked for a job -- but not right away. With a little forethought and financial planning, you can take that rest you need and then come back fresh to the world of work.

What’s Next in Your Career Journey? Find out with our FREE Employment Master Classes at your Career Level.

Find out the secrets to getting a civilian hiring manager to see your true value. We teach you proven career-level strategies to help you obtain your next, high-impact job. Our next offering is the Junior Officer Master Class on June 24. Sign up today.

Jacey Eckhart is Military.com’s Transition Master Coach. She is a Certified Professional Career Coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Talent Pool and on her website SeniorMilitaryTransition.com. Reach her at Jacey.Eckhart@Monster.com.

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