Careers in the Military

A guide to U.S. military career opportunities

~ 10 minute read

People join the military for all sorts of reasons — perhaps it’s a family tradition, a sense of duty, or a desire to see the world. Whatever the reason, the military offers a wide array of career opportunities and life experience that can’t be found elsewhere.

Interest in the U.S. military is strong. As of February 28, 2019, there were over one million active members of the military as well as nearly 800,000 people in the reserves. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for all branches of the military continues to look strong through 2028.

Military Career Paths

There are two options to choose from when you sign up for the military: enlisted member or officer.

Most of the military is made up of enlisted members. Enlisted members are trained for a specific role and do the bulk of the hands-on work for the military. Typically, they will sign up for four years of active duty and four years of inactive duty.

Officers manage enlisted members. They must have a college degree and most often go through specific training in order to become an officer. There are commissioned and non-commissioned officers. The biggest difference between the two is their level of authority. All commissioned officers outrank non-commissioned officers.

From there, members and officers are either on active or reserve duty. Active duty and reserve duty are akin to full-time and part-time jobs. There are benefits to each.

Active duty means being in the military full-time. These members may live on a military base and can be deployed at any time. People in active duty positions are forced to delay their civilian occupation for at least two years, but are immersed in their occupational specialty full-time and with pay. They have limited choice in where they live, and their options can depend on the needs of their military branch.

The purpose of the reserve is to have trained and qualified people available for active duty if the need should arise. Reserve members train one weekend per month and two weeks per year, in addition to their civilian occupation.

Active duty members get full medical and dental benefits, while reserve members only receive full benefits if called for active service. Both active and reserve members can retire after 20 years, active with full retirement benefits and reserve with a modified version.

U.S. Military Branches

The U.S. military consists of five main branches: the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, each with a corresponding reserve force. All branches operate under control of the Department of Defence except for the Coast Guard, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security.

There are also the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard, which fall under joint control of the federal and state governments.

Army

The Army is the oldest and largest branch of the U.S. Military. It is responsible for supporting national policies and implementing objectives by land.

Specialization areas:

  • Administrative Support
  • Intelligence & Combat Support
  • Arts & Media
  • Legal & Law Enforcement
  • Combat
  • Mechanics
  • Computers & Technology
  • Medical & Emergency
  • Construction & Engineering
  • Transportation & Aviation

Marine Corps

The Marine Corps often works directly with the Army, Navy, and Air Force. They are the military’s rapid-reaction force and are often the “first boots on the ground”.

Specializations:

  • Marine ground combat roles:
  • Marine Sniper
  • M1A1 Abrams Tank Crew Marine
  • Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) Operator
  • Mortar Marine
  • Infantry Assault Marine

Marine aviation combat roles:

  • Aircraft Maintenance Marine
  • Helicopter Mechanic
  • Aviation Ordnance Technician
  • Aviation Supply Specialist
  • Air Traffic Controller

Marine combat support roles:

  • Counterintelligence Specialist
  • Logistics Chief
  • Military Police and Corrections Marine
  • Military Working Dog Handler
  • Cyber Security Technician

The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world. The Navy serves the U.S. military not only by sea, but also by land and by air.

Specialization areas:

  • Business
  • Communications
  • Creative
  • Cyber & IT
  • Engineering
  • Health Care
  • Humanitarian Aid
  • Law & Management
  • Logistics
  • Ministry
  • Repair & Maintenance
  • Special Warfare
  • Weapons & Electronics

Locations:

  • Aviation
  • Ship
  • Submarine
  • Land

Air Force

The Air Force is the youngest branch of the U.S. military. Its purpose is to support national objectives through control and use of airspace.

Specialization areas:

  • Operations
  • Logistics
  • Support
  • Medical
  • Paralegal and Chaplain assistant
  • Contracting and Financial
  • Special Investigations
  • Special Duty Identifiers
  • Reporting Identifiers

Coast Guard

The Coast Guard is the smallest branch of the U.S. military. Its primary responsibility is to protect domestic waterways.

Specializations:

  • Aviation Maintenance Technician
  • Aviation Survival Technician
  • Avionics Electrical Technician
  • Boatswain’s Mate
  • Culinary Specialist
  • Damage Controlman
  • Electrician’s Mate
  • Electronics Technician
  • Gunner’s Mate
  • Health Services Technician
  • Information Systems Technician
  • Intelligence Specialist
  • Machinery Technician
  • Marine Science Technician
  • Maritime Enforcement Specialist
  • Operations Specialist
  • Public Affairs Specialist
  • Storekeeper
  • Yeoman

Training Requirements for U.S. Military Roles

Training for any branch of the U.S. military is both physically and mentally demanding. It is designed to turn civilians into soldiers, and the intensity of the training reflects that. Each branch of the military has their own form of basic training with slightly differing names.

Army: Basic Combat Training
Marine Corps: Recruit Training
Navy: Recruit Training
Air Force: Basic Military Training
Coast Guard: Basic Training

Army

The army has training locations in Georgia, Oklahoma, Missouri, and South Carolina.

Basic Combat Training (BCT) has three phases and last about 10 weeks. In the first phase, recruits are under “Total Control”, meaning all of their time is monitored by drill sergeants.

In the second phase, recruits become familiar with weaponry and continue to work on drill and ceremony training that they started in phase one.

The third phase is a culmination of everything recruits have learned. They are required to pass fitness tests and other challenging training exercises.

After Basic Combat Training, recruits go to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) to learn the specific skills for their chosen Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). An MOS is a nine-character code that is used in the Army to identify a specific job.

After completing AIT, they are considered MOS Qualified, or MOSQ, and are often given 10 days leave before being assigned to their unit and starting their service.

Marine Corps

Marine Corps training is in California and South Carolina. The structure of Marine Corps Recruit Training (MCRT) is similar to that of the U.S. Army, but with three phases over 13 weeks, it is the longest basic training in the U.S. Military.

The first phase is largely dedicated to learning Marine protocol and way of life, involving physical training, drilling, a confidence course test, and for those training in California, a swimming test.

The second phase familiarizes recruits with their weapons and equipment. Those in South Carolina do the swimming test in phase two as well. They also spend time in the field learning things like team formations and navigation.

Phase three hones skills and includes fitness tests that recruits are required to pass.

After recruit training, recruits go for further training at the School of Infantry (SOI). Non-infantry recruits go to Marine Combat Training Battalion (MCT) before going on to their MOS-specific school.

Once they have completed their training, Marines are assigned to a Permanent Duty Station (PDS) and start their service.

The Navy’s training takes place in Illinois. Training lasts for eight weeks and is not divided into sections like the Army and Marines.

Much of the training is comparable to other military basic training, including things like protocol, drills, physical training and tests, and weapon training. There is also a final exercise called “Battle Stations” that is 12 hours long and throws 12 different scenarios at recruits to test their abilities.

After recruit training, sailors go on to A School (Accession Training) to receive technical training for their selected MOS. A position in the Navy is referred to as a rating. A Schools have multiple locations, and the length of training will depend on the chosen rating.

Similarly to the Army, Navy A School graduates are typically given 10 days leave before being assigned to their unit and going to their first duty station.

Air Force

Basic Military Training (BMT) for the Air Force is in Texas, and is eight and a half weeks long. It covers things like protocol, academic classes, field training, weapon training.

After BMT, trainees go to technical school to learn specific skills for their Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC). Tech School can last anywhere from six to 72 weeks long depending on the specialty chosen.

After completing tech school, airmen are traditionally given 10 days leave before being assigned to their permanent duty station.

Coast Guard

Coast Guard training is located in New Jersey and last for eight weeks.

The purpose and content of basic training is similar to that of other military branches, but due to the nature of the Coast Guard’s duty its recruits are held to a higher standard of physical fitness. The Coast Guard is also generally more selective when it comes to recruiting for this reason.

Unlike other branches, Coast Guard recruits must wait before proceeding to A School to receive specific training for their MOS, or rating. Graduates do not select a rating right away and spend time in the fleet as non-rate seamen. Non-rate means that a member of the Coast Guard has completed basic training but has not yet gone to A School and doesn’t have a specialization (rating) yet.

Benefits of Life in the Military

Members of the military enjoy a variety of benefits like a guaranteed income, cash bonuses, and plenty of opportunity for advancement. Some positions include additional special pay for things like hazardous duty.

The military can help pay for college or pay off existing student loans. Through the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), most members are eligible for up to 100% paid tuition for vocational, technical, undergraduate, and graduate programs.

While on active duty, the military pays for room and board, including meals. New recruits live on base but as members move up in rank, their housing options expand. The military also pays relocation expenses for members of the military and their families.

The federal government and most states also offer programs like the VA Guaranteed Home Loan Program, which makes it easier for veterans to get a home loan when they return to civilian life. They also get things like access to small business loans and health and dental care.

Many people join the military to see the world, both in active duty and during their time on leave. Active members get 30 days off a year, and access to “space available” military flights that cost little or no money, as well as available lodging at any military base. There are also world-class resorts around the world available only to military personnel.

Joining Restrictions

To be eligible to join the U.S. military, you need to either be a citizen or a permanent resident. The minimum age requirement to enlist in any branch of the military is 17 years old with parental consent, or 18 without. Each branch has a maximum registration age as well:

Army: 34
Marine Corps: 28
Navy: 39
Air Force: 39
Coast Guard: 31

The minimum education required is a high school diploma or a GED. However, only having a GED can restrict the number of jobs you can apply for.

Everyone has to take the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). This determines which branches and jobs you can apply for. All applicants must also meet branch-specific weight and fitness standards.

Further Reading

There is no optimal personality type for the military, but there are some qualities that predict success. A yearning for adventure, an instinct to protect others, and overall adaptability are all strong traits for someone on this career path.

Want to learn more? Check out some of our military careers, our military degrees, and take our career assessment to see if you’d be a good match for a career in the military.

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