How to Map Out Your Military Career: 5 Steps for Success

In today’s post, I’d like to teach you how to map out your military career. While the information is specifically for National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers, this information will benefit any service member.

Career success does not happen by accident. Write that down and remember it. The people who have the most successful military careers are deliberate and intentional. They know what they want, they have a game-plan to get there, and they follow their game-plan day in and day out. They are proactive about their career and they understand that no one else cares about their own career as much as they do!

Furthermore, if you don’t know what you want to achieve in your military career, it’s almost impossible to achieve it. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t go after it, and in most cases, you will be stuck with whatever you are given.

If you want a fulfilling and rewarding military career, you should follow the advice I’m about to share with you.

how to map out your military career

How to Map Out Your Military Career

In the rest of this article, I’m going to share my simple five step process to map out your military career. I used this process during my military career, and it helped me immensely.

Step # 1: Decide What You Want

If you want to map out your military career, the first step in the process is to decide what you want. You should spend spend two or three hours somewhere quiet and think about your career. Write down everything you want to achieve while you are in the Army.

Try to come up with five goals you want to achieve in the next 10-20 years and five goals you want to achieve in the next 12 to 36-months.

Example short-term (12 to 36-months), military career goals might include:

Example long-term (10-20 years), military career goals might be:

  • Serve 24-years and retire at age 42
  • Retire as a First Sergeant
  • Have a $3,000 monthly pension
  • Travel to 10 countries

Write down everything that comes to mind. Do a brain dump. After you write everything down, organize and prioritize your list so you have 3-7 goals for the short-term and 3-7 goals for the long-term.

When you are finished, take your long-term goals and create a “mission statement” for your military career. Here is an example mission statement:

I want to retire as a Lieutenant Colonel with 24-years of service. I want to graduate the Army War College. In my last assignment, I want to be an Infantry Battalion Commander. When I retire, I want to have accumulated 3,000 retirement points, so I have a pension of $5k per month when I am 60. 

Do you see how specific that is? That’s what you want to do for yourself. The more specific you can get the better.

Step # 2: Identify Your Critical Tasks

Now that you have an idea as to what you want to accomplish in your military career, you need to create a list of the “critical tasks” you must complete in the years to come. This would be schools, assignments, promotions, etc.  Write down everything you can think of in reverse order. Here is an example list for someone who is currently a Captain, serving as a Company Commander:

  • Retire as LTC with 24-years of service
  • Finish Battalion Command
  • Get Selected for Battalion Command
  • Graduate Army War College
  • Enroll in Army War College
  • Serve as Brigade XO
  • Get Promoted to LTC
  • Graduate ILE
  • Spend time as Battalion S3 and Battalion XO
  • Get Promoted to Major
  • Finished Company Command

With this example, I started at the end point, and just made a list of “critical tasks” and objectives in reverse order. Does that make sense?

no one cares about your career as much as you do

Step # 3: Develop Your Road Map to Success

Once you have your mission statement for your career, and your list of critical tasks, you want to draft up an action plan on what you need to do to get there. On your action plan, you take your starting point (where you are at right now) and your end point. You make a column on your piece of paper for each year you have left in your military career and you identify what you must do in each one of those years to reach your final goals. This will be your road map.

For example, if you have 10-years left until you retire, you would have a piece of paper with 10 columns on it. The last column would be your final year in service. In that column you write down your end of career goals. From there, you do your backwards planning for the prior 10-years identifying what needs to be done each year to get you where you want to be. Basically, you would take the critical tasks you identified in step two and plug them in where they belong.

Step # 4: Evaluate Your Progress

The fourth step in how to map out your military career is to evaluate your progress. Each month, on the first of the month, spend one-hour and analyze the prior month. What went right? What went wrong? Did you do your critical activities for the month? If not, what do you need to do the upcoming month to make up for it?

In addition, at the end of each year, repeat this process on January 1st. Review your progress for the past year and determine your goals and action plan for the upcoming year.

Step # 5: Make Adjustments as Needed

Let’s face it; we all get off track sometimes. Goals can change. When necessary, make adjustments to your career goals as needed. Your goals aren’t set in stone. Minimum once a year, look at your one-year, five-year, and career military goals and evaluate them. Are they still relevant? If not, make the required changes and modify your action plan as needed.

failing to plan is planning to fail

One Final Tip

I’ll close out this article with some career advice I found online.

From the moment you sign on the dotted line,  you’re taking an oath to uphold your branch’s reputation. By starting your career with a positive, can-do attitude,  you’re bound to make better decisions as a service member.

Those decisions ultimately influence your career trajectory, too.

Remember that your decisions impact yourself, but also others in your division, command, or platoon. Sometimes, extremely poor decision-making can cost you your career.

With every choice you make, you’re sculpting your future. If you plan to make the military a lifelong career, step carefully with your choices.  When in doubt, ask for guidance from wise counsel, including leaders you respect. ~

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, don’t place your military career in someone else’s hands. Map out your own military career. Decide what you want, set some written goals, develop an action plan, and get to work! For someone who is self-motivated, competent, and hard working, the sky really is the limit in the military. Just remember that no one cares about your military career as much as you do. Be proactive and take the bull by the horns.

What are your thoughts about how to map out your military career? Do you agree or disagree with me? Leave a comment below to tell me what you think. I look forward to hearing from you.

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chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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8 thoughts on “How to Map Out Your Military Career: 5 Steps for Success”

  1. I think that mapping out your career and planning for the future are two of the most important things for anyone to do. By having a plan, you can both track your progress (and, unfortunately for some, regress) and see where you stand in relation to your plan and adjust accordingly. Having a plan is a necessity, and by identifying what you need to do to accomplish that plan is equally important.

  2. It never occurred to me that you had a choice in mapping out an Army career but I guess that is ridiculous thinking! My boys are getting ready to take the ASVAB. As their mother I know what they’re good at, where they thrive and where they need work. I do my best to be objective (they aren’t without their faults!) Letting them know that they have some semblance of control might ease whatever reservations they have and thrive in a military career. Thank you for posting this! It is very helpful.

    1. You have a lot of control over your own military career. There are many different MOSs, branches, and career fields. You can even pick some of your assignments. Of course, not everything is in your control, but a lot is.

  3. Candace Ginestar

    Chuck, this article is great. It should be used as OPD/NCODP everywhere. Soldiers should be taught this at basic training, a lot of us have no clue as to what we want to do with our careers when we join. I know for me, my plans took shape the more time I spent in.

    1. Even when you don’t know what you want with your career, you still need goals. You can always change them later on down the road. It’s better to have a goal and change it than not have a goal at all. Most young people don’t know what they want, and that’s one of the reasons most people have average careers. Ultimately, you have to decide what you want, come up with a game plan for it, and press forward with it.

      1. Candace Ginestar

        I agree, Chuck! And even if we change our goals, we usually learn something important in the process. This is an important part of self development and will make us better leaders in the end.

      2. Great post Chuck. With everything in life, we need to set goals. I believe you touched on it, but to reiterate, we need to also have objectives. The objectives are the little steps we need to make to reach our goals. A good example would be: I want to be able to run ten miles at the end of this year. The first objective may be 1 mile at the end of the week. Two miles at the end of next month. Three the next month, so on and so forth. As you said, we can make adjustments at any time, but by putting the goals and objectives in writing, we will try harder to reach them.

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