I’ve been thinking of writing a post highlighting some “lessons learned/tips & tricks” that I wish I would have known after graduating the Air Force Academy. Even though all AFSCs and Air Force Bases will be a little bit different, the following should give graduating cadets a head-start:
1. Contact your base if you don’t hear from someone by mid-June. You will likely be assigned a sponsor; however, some bases may not get all the information they need about you from the Academy. You will attend Air and Space Basic Course (ASBC) and your AFSC specific training within the first year. Contacting your base will ensure they know about you and get you signed up for these courses. I didn’t want to be “that-guy” who bothered my incoming base, but the reality is that it would have made things easier for both parties.
2. Volunteer early in your career. You’re going to do nothing but get busier as time goes by, so seek volunteer opportunities early in your career. There are an incredible amount of volunteer opportunities if you’re willing to “step-up” and get involved. However, don’t view these opportunities as a way to get a bullet for an OPR or to make yourself look good—do things because you want to do them. Be humble in everything you do and let your performance do the talking. Don’t forget: Someone is always watching you!
3. Be humble in person but blunt on paper. The caveat to remaining humble is that nobody cares about your career more than you do, so be sure to take no prisoners when writing your OPR. The new OPR gives you roughly ten bullet statements that should tell a story about you for an entire year, so make sure there is significant impact in your bullets! Writing an OPR is an art and can be mind numbing, so be sure and have your mentors/peers help you.
4. Keep a running log of every important thing you’ve done throughout the year. Maintain an easy to locate document on your computer at work that includes the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of everything you’ve done throughout the year. It is challenging enough to write an OPR, and even more challenging if you don’t remember what you’ve done for the past year.
5. Fully fund your Roth IRA before putting any money into the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). I’m not sure what the confusion is between these investment vehicles, but most people don’t understand the difference. A passively managed low cost index fund is still significantly better than an actively managed mutual fund in the long run. Put as much money as you can into a Roth IRA by dollar-cost averaging in low-cost index funds—NOT mutual funds! The military TSP operates much like a Traditional IRA because it offers tax-deferred contributions—meaning you’ll pay taxes on your money when you want it later in life. You will pay taxes on your Roth IRA contributions going in, but your money will grow tax free. There are situations (if you deploy) where the TSP can be better, so be sure to review your options. In addition, if the military TSP ever begins “matching” contributions, re-visit the idea at that time.
6. Have a basic understanding of ALL costs associated with buying a home. The basic rule of thumb says not to buy a home unless you plan to live there for five years or more. Obviously, there are instances where it works out, but make sure you understand all costs/risks. In addition, the housing market will rise and fall, so make sure you know what you can afford. Some things to consider: mortgage rate, taxes, utilities, HOA fees or other expenses, etc. If you do choose to buy a home, get a fixed-rate mortgage—NOT an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM). With the recent credit crunch, there are numerous horror stories of people that used builder incentives to get great mortgage rates (ARMs) without fully understanding the risk-reward trade-off.
7. You graduated, but you didn't retire. Don’t get me wrong here, graduation day is/was/will be one of the greatest days of your life, so enjoy it! However, the mentality of some recent graduates is that you’ve conquered the world and have earned retirement. The bottom line is that you start over, which is good for some people and bad for some people. If you’ve had a less than stellar cadet career, you get a clean slate. If you did very well as a cadet, nobody cares— you still have to perform every day. Use your free time to study for graduate school exams. Get involved in your local community. Try new things that may interest you. You’ve had your whole life programmed for four years, so it may take some time to adjust to your new surroundings. In addition, you may have to “re-learn” things about yourself and what you truly like to do in your free time.
8. Continue networking with your fellow graduates/alumni. There are some amazing graduates doing some amazing things both in and out of the military. The best part is that they are usually more than willing to help you out if you take the initiative. Seek them out as mentors and ask for their advice—don’t forget it’s still a “who you know” world.
Final thoughts: The Air Force Academy has prepared you in ways you won’t fully understand or appreciate until you leave. Take advantage of this. Be your own person and figure out your own leadership style, not somebody else's. Whatever you are, be a good one. Feel free to contact me if you have additional questions at: breese27(at)yahoo.com or find me on my blog at http://www.brianreeseblogs.com/