Sep 11

Thinking About Teaching as a Post-Military Career?

Wolgast_Kelly-photoHave you considered teaching as a post-military career? How do you know if you have the academic credentials needed to be competitive?

I asked Dr. Kelly Wolgast to share her perspectives on this issue. Dr. Wolgast is a retired Army Colonel currently serving as Program Director and Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University in the Health Systems Management program.

VSB: How did you decide to go into teaching following your military career?

Wolgast: The decision to transition into teaching emerged from a networking opportunity while I was still on Active Duty. I was fortunate to have established and maintained communication over the past 20 years with leaders of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing (VUSN). As a VUSN master of science program graduate, I joined the Alumni Association and kept in contact with my academic advisor as well as the Dean and Associate Dean. When several of the VUSN leaders were visiting my duty location in the spring of 2011, we reconnected and discussed opportunities in nursing education and my future plans. I was enticed by their offer to visit Nashville and Vanderbilt again and to explore the opportunity of a faculty role. After those meetings, my transition plan began to take shape. It was great timing for me to make a change, both personally and professionally. Now I am here in Nashville in a role that I love because of the relationships that I established and nurtured over the past 20 years with nursing colleagues and friends at Vanderbilt.

VSB: What advice would you give to senior leaders contemplating a teaching career following retirement from military service?


  • Focus on the talents (knowledge, skills and abilities) you believe you bring to an academic environment.
  • Do some research on programs that may be a good match to your talents.
  • It is imperative that you have a current curriculum vitae (CV) prepared and ready to share. While a resume is good, the CV is the document of choice in academia, as it contains more extensive history of your accomplishments. It is a portfolio of your work and contributions.
  • If you are not connected with your various alma maters, then reconnecting is also a good strategy in order to explore opportunities. When was the last time you contacted your former Dean or attended an Alumni event?
  • Consider becoming adjunct faculty, a guest lecturer, or a visiting professor. These are academic arrangements that are generally established for a limited period of time, but offer you an opportunity to enter the academic environment in order to see how well you fit and enjoy academia. If this would be of interest to you, then you would need to contact the academic institution directly.

The role of professor generally will require additional education at the doctoral level. While this may seem daunting, it is very doable once you consider how many hours you will have available for schooling after you depart your very rigorous military job. The return to academia to obtain your doctorate degree is a tremendous way to gain timely and relevant knowledge in your field of interest; it also allows you to compare and contrast the information you currently know, based on what you learned in the military, to what is currently happening in the civilian world. I believe that going back to school can help ease your transition and provide time for self-reflection and improvement.

VSB: How would you describe your transition into academia after a long career in the military? What do you see as the greatest cultural challenges?

Wolgast: Transitioning after a long career is difficult, but does not have to be debilitating. The process involves planning and decision-making that must be done while you are still wrapping up your extensive responsibilities in the military. That duality implies that you dedicate a portion of your planning to the details of leaving the military and that can be difficult.

  • The essentials include ensuring that your healthcare (to include your entry into the VA system), dental care, financial portfolio, and administrative portfolio, are all up to date.
  • I can’t stress enough how important it is to take the time to attend your transition briefings, even if you can only get to a few of them.
  • It is also important to remember that you don’t take along your administrative assistants or aide-de-camps with you when you retire. It will be up to you to track your calendar and your paperwork.
  • The greatest cultural challenges are varied, but those that jump out include the change in pace after the military and the fact that you will very likely not be the boss of everyone and everything in your new role.
  • If you truly exit the military/government culture, there will be differences in how business is conducted, how meetings are held, how emails are addressed and answered, how people communicate with each other, and how work is done.
  • You may enter into a setting in which the pace is much slower than you are used to or an organizational setting that flies at warp speed. One way or the other, the pace will not be like the one you kept in the military.
  • Organizational behaviors are different and it will take time to grow accustomed to those differences. One of the challenges for those of us who are used to leading is that not all opportunities in the civilian world require you to jump out in front to lead. It is our natural tendency to take charge, so learning how to assess the situation and ease into the team is a cultural challenge.
  • It is equally important to understand and take into account that your family is also transitioning with you. They will each have different reactions to transition. In my case, my high school aged children were sad that I was going to leave the military because they had grown accustomed to the lifestyle and to moving to exciting places every one to two years. That was their identity and it was changing. I needed to take that into consideration, so I tried very hard to welcome their opinions into the decision-making process. Giving choices to family members helped ease their transition. I am happy to report that both are thriving post-military and that they still keep in contact with their military friends through social media. We make it part of our vacation plans to meet up with military friends whenever possible.

VSB: In addition to teaching, I understand you are also serving as a mentor and coach to veterans and military spouses pursuing advanced degrees at Vanderbilt University. Are there common misperceptions you encounter in your work with members of the military community?

Wolgast: I have not found that veterans or military members have many misperceptions about going back to school. From my experience, I have found that current and former members of the military and family members have very distinct plans for their future education and understand the commitment required. When they contact me about Vanderbilt, they demonstrate a focused desire to attend Nursing school and to become an Advanced Practice Nurse. Some have questions about how their GI Bill benefits apply at Vanderbilt and how our Yellow Ribbon program works. Some also want to discuss previous college work and how that may transition to academic credit at Vanderbilt. Most also inquire about admissions requirements and program start dates. Some simply want to know that there is someone at Vanderbilt that understands what they have gone through and can be a resource for them during school.

As a veteran myself, I am honored and pleased to serve in this role. We tailored our Vanderbilt School of Nursing website ( http://www.nursing.vanderbilt.edu/va/index.html ) for our prospective veteran and military students; we want to attract this talented group to Vanderbilt. Without exception, students with a military background excel in our programs and are tremendous ambassadors for Vanderbilt after graduation.

VSB: Any other advice you’d like to offer to senior military leaders approaching career transition?

Wolgast: If at all possible, please try to take time off after you retire to reconnect with your family, travel, attend to your health and wellness, rediscover your hobbies, and simply have unscheduled time. I was not able to take time off due to my circumstances, but would have certainly liked that operational pause.

It is a reality that, when you slow down after the military, you then realize just how hard you have been working. Your mind, body, and spirit need rest and relaxation. Once you have that time away from the structure and high op-tempo, you will notice that your calendar will begin to fill up again with your new life choices. With rest, I am certain you will have the energy, strength and desire to climb that next mountain.


Prior to arriving at Vanderbilt University in 2011, Dr. Wolgast served 26 years on active duty as a U.S. Army Nurse. She earned the Bronze Star for combat experience as Deputy Commander and Chief Nurse in Afghanistan. Dr. Wolgast also deployed in support of Hurricane Katrina relief operations, serving as a Hospital Commander and as Senior Nurse Executive of the U.S. Army Medical Command.

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