Military Careers: 2023 Guide to Career Paths, Options & Salary

Military Careers: 2023 Guide to Career Paths, Options & Salary
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Joining the military as enlisted personnel and working up the ranks is a potential career pathway, but those who wish to become officers can take the faster route and get a military science degree. Getting a bachelor’s in military science immediately puts you in the rank of second lieutenant, providing you with the benefits of a college degree without delay from the branch of the military you decide to join. Aside from developing practical and tactical skills, a military science degree prepares you for a wide range of knowledge areas such as psychology, resource management, engineering, history, and negotiation.

Depending on one’s career goals and career development plan in military science, a student can either pursue a law enforcement or military career. In this, we will show you the steps you need to take toward a military career path, the range of military salary you can enjoy, the different specializations you can pursue, and how you can move up in the service.

Military Career Table of Contents

  1. Why pursue a career in the military?
  2. Military Career Outlook
  3. Required Skills for a Military Career Path
  4. How to Start Your Career in the Military Service
  5. How can I advance my career in the military?
  6. Alternative Career Options for Military Service

Why pursue a career in the military?

Military careers are not for everyone.  In fact, recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that it is not among the most popular fields of study today. However, there still remain many individuals who are drawn to this calling. Military personnel defend a country’s land, air, and sea boundaries and may be deployed overseas to advance or defend the interests of their government. Currently, there are over 1.4 million active-duty personnels in the U.S. Armed Forces (U.S. Department of Defense, 2021).

Military personnel and officers operate in an environment where conflict is present. Those desiring to join the armed forces must be physically and mentally agile, ready, and able to take part in combat or support missions that may involve risk to their lives. Depending on the branch of service, soldiers may be deployed to distant locations.

There are six branches of the armed services:

Air Force

The Air Force is responsible for military aviation—its assets, their operation, and support for other branches of the armed forces. Its mission is to achieve air and space superiority. The U.S. Air Force currently has 320,000 active personnel.


The Army is primarily land-based and responsible for operations in this terrain. Its mission is to help the country win wars by advancing through and controlling enemy lands and resources. Its military base has 472,000 active personnel.


The Navy is responsible for opposing seaborne aggression and maintaining freedom of navigation of the seas. Its aim is to control air, sea, and subsurface areas. It currently has 337,000 active personnel.

Marine Corps

The U.S. Marine Corps works closely with the Navy on missions. Its missions include:

  1. To defend its naval facilities and seize the enemy’s.
  2. To conduct asymmetrical warfare that adapts to the nature of the enemy, capable of deployment to any part of the world within days.
  3. To fulfill the orders of the president.

It currently has 182,000 active personnel.

The minor branches of the armed services would be:

Coast Guard

The Coast Guard conducts various maritime missions, such as securing ports and waterways, maintaining navigational equipment such as lighthouses and buoys, and conducting search and rescue operations. It has 42,000 active personnel.

Space Force

Space Force is the newest and smallest branch of the Armed Forces. Its mission is to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and provide joint capabilities to the joint force. It traces its history to the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). It is estimated to have between 4,000 to 6,000 service members.

The men and women of these various branches, while fulfilling their distinct roles under their branch of command, also have non-combat roles similar to those in the civilian world: accountants, human resource personnel, doctors and nurses, IT personnel, and even religious roles such as that of a chaplain. Increasingly, there is a need for highly technical specialists such as unmanned vehicle, guided missile, and drone operators; cybersecurity experts; and even behavioral scientists.

Military Career Outlook

Due to the essential nature of the armed forces to the country, the United States will always maintain a sufficiently large force. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that job prospects for the military professions will be very good through 2029 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

Entering the military profession certainly isn’t a dead-end job. Civilians might think that the military career path is only straight up (promotion, increase in rank) or straight down (demotion, decrease in rank, or dismissal from service). This is far from the truth.

One’s entry into the military is, as in other professions, just the beginning of one’s career. And for the servicemember who aspires to “be all that you can be” (as that 20-year-old Army recruitment tagline goes) and who’s willing to put in the time to acquire new knowledge and skills, this could be a self-fulfilling slogan.

Recruits Classification

Recruits fall into two categories: enlisted personnel and officers.

1. Enlisted Personnel

The majority of servicemembers join their units as enlisted personnel. They represent the rank-and-file, the general body of servicemembers (82% of the armed forces).

Enlisted personnel will be working their way up from the bottom of the military organization, being assigned specific tasks and roles in certain offices or units in the field. For instance, they can be assigned to combat operations, humanitarian missions, maintain military equipment, construct military camps, be part of their unit’s management information system (MIS) team, drive a vehicle, operate a ballistic weapon, or look after the health of personnel. They can seek to undergo additional and specialized training in those areas as a way of improving their skills and increasing their chances for promotion.

Enlisted personnel undergo basic training or boot camp that covers physical and military skills development, as well as general orientation to the military life. This lasts from seven to 13 weeks. Following this, enlisted men may be given formal training on the role they would be assigned to, which would last from 10 to 20 weeks. Once they are assigned to a unit, servicemen may be given additional on-the-job training to help them fulfill their duties there—be it on driving a forklift, food safety training for those assigned to the cafeteria, or operating global positioning services (GPS) equipment.

Categories of Enlisted Personnel

Aside from combat roles, there are various categories of enlisted personnel:

  • Administrative personnel (finance, accounting, legal affairs, maintenance, supply, transportation)
  • Construction personnel (plumbing, electrical, water treatment)
  • Electronic and electrical repair personnel (aircraft, computers, optical, communications, weapons systems)
  • Engineering/science/technical personnel (environmental, information technology, intelligence)
  • Healthcare personnel (doctors, nurses, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, physician assistants)
  • Human resources personnel (personnel management, recruitment, training)
  • Machine operator and repair personnel (nuclear reactors, water pump, metalwork, survival gear)
  • Protective service personnel (firefighters, military police, security specialists)
  • Support service personnel (food service, religious programs)
  • Transportation and material-handling personnel (air crew, automotive and heavy equipment, heating and cooling, powerhouse)

For their acquired specialized skills, enlisted men can be promoted to the rank that corresponds to the appropriate salary band, i.e. carpenter ($39,940/year), auto mechanic ($36,610), aircraft repairer ($55,230), firefighter ($42,250), and other roles necessary for frontline and support units.

The training and skills that servicemen take with them when they exit the service make them among the most qualified workers to rejoin the private sector in whatever industry they wish.

Based on the military salary grades/bands, the salaries of an Air Force pilot, an Army mechanical engineer, a Navy nurse, a Marine electrician, and a Coast Guard truck driver would fall within the median range among all salaries in that field. This means that their salaries would be higher than 50% of all salaries in that role, whether in the public or private sector.

Source:, 2019

*For pilot, mechanical engineer and nurse roles, assume an officer with 6+ years of service (O-3 salary grade)
**For electrician and truck driver, assume enlisted men with 6+ years of service (E-6 salary grade)
*** Because of how tenure or “years of service” strongly affects the salaries of military personnel, when one factors this in, it’s possible for a servicemember with 40 years of service to earn higher than the civilian in the 90th percentile level of the surveyed salaries

2. Officers

Military officers hold leadership positions in a specific branch of service and command varying sizes of service units—larger units signifying a higher level of authority and responsibility.

In general, officers enjoy the privileges of their rank because they joined the armed forces with advanced academic credentials.

One path would be from one of the five federal service academies: Military Academy at West Point, Naval Academy at Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, the Merchant Marines Academy, and the Cost Guard Academy. Tuition at these institutions is waived in full but admission is extremely competitive and only 8 to 17% of applicants will be accepted. Every year, these schools make it to the most selective and best colleges. The few proud graduates at these prestigious military schools automatically get a commission in the armed forces.

A second path to becoming an officer would be through a Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program in high school or college. Some of these programs, which run between two to four years, offer scholarships that may include tuition, room and board, and books (Moody, 2020).

The third path towards an officer rank would be through a bachelor’s degree, such as a bachelor’s degree in military science. Whereas enlisted personnel train for specific tasks and roles, officers are given management modules and train primarily on handling the men and women under them in different scenarios.

Officers fall under three categories:

1. Commissioned officers

Commissioned officers (CO) receive a ‘commission’ and are given their rank even before they assume their posts. Because of their educational credentials and additional in-service training that the military provides, they are entrusted with the role of leading, guiding, protecting, and bringing out the best in their men.

2. Non-commissioned officers

Non-commissioned officers (NCO) are servicemen who have gained officer status by acquiring additional training. However, they have not yet received their commission or officer rank. These mid-level personnel of the armed forces typically have direct supervisory roles over enlisted men. As ‘middle executives’ in the armed services, they are expected to excel in leadership over the men assigned to them, while being prime examples to these men of obedience and submission to higher command.

3. Warrant officers

Warrant officers are trained to become technical and tactical experts who ensure that a unit’s combat systems and networks are at maximum capability. Functioning as combat leaders, advisers, or trainers, they are qualified to serve in any of the 14 military branches. Warrant officers are enlisted men who have reached staff sergeant rank and are classified under E-6 salary band (or higher), and who made it through Warrant Officer Candidate School. They can continue on to attend Warrant Officer Flight Training to become combat-ready airplane or helicopter pilots. Warrant officers can even move into leadership roles that oversee commissioned officers.

Basic Pay

One major difference between civilian jobs and the military profession is its salary structure. Across all the armed services, basic pay is based on two factors: rank and time in service. There is a big difference between the salaries of rank-and-file enlisted men vs. the supervisor/management-level officers. For instance, an E1 (enlisted man, salary band 1 – i.e. an Army or Marine private, Navy seaman recruit, or Airman basic) will have a starting annual salary of $21,420 whereas the lowest commissioned officer rank, an 01 (commissioned officer, salary band 1 – i.e. an Army, Navy or Air Force second lieutenant, or Navy ensign) will start at $40,620—almost twice the enlisted man’s salary.

At the same time, tenure is a major factor in increasing all personnel’s salaries. For instance, an O2 (first lieutenant) with two years of service will earn just $46,884 while an E9 (Army or Marine sergeant major, master chief petty officer of the Navy, or chief master sergeant of the Air Force) with 32 years of service will earn more than twice the officer at $95,224 per year. This is just the way the armed forces place value on a soldier’s loyalty and time in the service.

But the officer’s distinct advantage is that the salary increase he enjoys per additional year of service increases at a much faster rate than the enlisted man. This, on the other hand, is how the Armed Forces seek to attract highly skilled and educated young men to become part of the nation’s fighting force.

The following are the salary bands for enlisted men:

Annual Salary Bands for Enlisted Men in the 4 Major Services

(less than 2 years to 40+ years of service)
Private Seaman RecruitPrivateAirman, Basic
(less than 2 years to 40+ years of service)
Private Seaman ApprenticePrivate First ClassAirman
(less than 2 years to 40+ years of service)
$25,247 - $28,462
Private First ClassSeamanLance CorporalAirman, First Class
(less than 2 years to 40+ years of service)
$27,965 - $33,948
Corporal or SpecialistPetty Officer, 3rd ClassCorporalSenior Airman
(less than 2 years to 40+ years of service)
$30,499 - $43,283
SergeantPetty Officer, 2nd ClassSergeantStaff Sergeant
(less than 2 years to 40+ years of service)
$33,293 - $51,566
Staff SergeantPetty Officer, 1st ClassStaff SergeantTechnical Sergeant
(less than 2 years to 40+ years of service)
$38,491 - $69,185
Platoon Sergeant or Sergeant First ClassChief Petty OfficerGunnery SergeantMaster Sergeant
(over 8 to 40+years of service)
$55,375 - $78,976
First Sergeant or Master SergeantSenior Chief Petty OfficerFirst Sergeant or Master SergeantSenior Master Sergeant
(over 10 years to 40+ years of service)
$67,644 - $105,030
Command Sergeant Major or Sergeant MajorMaster Chief Petty OfficerSergeant Major or Master Gunnery SergeantChief Master Sergeant
(over 10 years to 40+ years of service)
$67,644 - $105,030
Sergeant Major of the ArmyMaster Chief Petty Officer of the NavySergeant Major of the Marine CorpsChief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

Notice that for the first two categories (E1 and E2), basic pay is flat. For enlisted personnel to attain the benefits of an increased rank and salary grade, they need to acquire more training.

The salary bands for officers begin at a much higher level and increases at a faster pace over the years. The pinnacle of an officer’s career, of course, would be to achieve the coveted rank of general.

Required Skills for a Military Career Path

It takes more than an ability to grunt loudly and shout hooah back at your training instructor to make it in the armed forces. The professional soldiers of today are technologically agile and well-rounded. In fact, out of the more than 1.4 million people on active duty in the U.S. armed forces, at least 200,000 perform science, engineering, and technical roles. There are other roles and specializations in the military, however, that would require a bachelor’s degree (i.e. in biological sciences), a master’s degree (i.e. in a STEM discipline), or even a doctorate degree (i.e. as judge advocate or military doctor). Depending on what branch of service one is planning to join and the specialized role one wants to assume, there are certain traits and skills that one must possess. There are also some indispensable general skills that would apply across all armed service branches.

General Qualifications

Unlike civilian roles that are focused on specific skill sets, joining the armed services will require one to meet a number of general qualifications before one’s specific qualifications or skills come into play.

Being primarily a combat organization with the role of defending a country or occupying enemy territory, the military relies primarily on the standard makeup and superiority of the men and women who comprise it.

The basic qualifying attributes that all the branches of service look for in applicants are the following:

  • Age limit – The applicant should not be younger than 17 years old and not older than the prescribed maximum age for specific branches of service (Army, 34; Navy, 39; Marines, 28; Air Force, 39; Space Force, 39).
  • Citizenship – The applicant must be an American citizen or Green Card holder (permanent resident card) currently living in the U.S.
  • Educational and Testing Requirements – The applicant must have taken the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and passed the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) derived from subtests of the ASVAB, particularly in Arithmetic Reasoning, Mathematics Knowledge, Paragraph Comprehension, and Word Knowledge.
  • Health and Fitness – Applicants must pass the military entrance medical exams that include a physical exam, a hearing test, a vision test, muscle and joint capabilities, height/weight measurements, and other specialized tests. Some branches have special fitness/skill requirements related to their primary mission or for other reasons. The U.S. Navy, for instance, requires all recruits to pass the Navy Third Class Swim Test. The Army requires that recruits must have no more than two dependents. The Air Force has stringent physical requirements; anything that could compromise flight safety (poor vision, conditions that cause sudden incapacitation, stability under stressful aviation environment, requirements of regular tests or medical procedures, genetic heart ailments, lung problems, sinus issues, etc.) will be cause for one’s disqualification or suspension to fly as a pilot

Essential Skills for a Military Career Path

Requirements for specific skills will come into play when applying for specific roles within the military. For instance, if one wants to become an Air Force, Navy, or Marines pilot, one must first hold a bachelor’s degree, preferably in the sciences (physics, aerospace engineering, computer science, chemistry). Following this, he or she must undergo and pass a rigorous Class 1 Flying Physical, complete an Officer Commissioning course through a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, Branch Officer School, or through the Air Force Academy. A dental hygienist must have at least an associate’s degree and should be licensed in the state where he or she is practicing. Firefighters need only a high school (or equivalent) diploma.

Fundamental and Crucial Skills

Over and above these skills, some traits might be considered essential for those aspiring to become members of the armed forces:

  • Mental Fitness – Perhaps no other profession exposes one to the highest levels of mental and environmental stress that typically occurs during military operations. Soldiers must be able to stay in charge of their mental faculties and manage themselves so they can stay effective even during these times.  A study by Partners for Recovery and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration explains the never-ceasing weight of alertness upon servicemen. “The physical strain is not the only thing that affects the ability of troops to function in a combat zone. There is a constant tactical awareness that keeps service members on edge and hypervigilant at all times,”(Halvorson, Whitter, and Taitt, 2010). This is because the modern battlefield has blurred the line between the battlefront and the soldier’s daily habitat, even his home. And this, in turn, adds to the stress of cyclical separation and reunion within his/her home.
  • Leadership and Team Spirit – Members of the armed forces will always work in teams. They must be able to work effectively with others and when called upon, lead their team to accomplish their assigned task or mission.

science and engineering roles in the U.S. armed forces

How to Start Your Career in Military Service

There are many ways to enter the military service, as earlier mentioned. But a college degree in military science is a cost-effective career path that will put you in command of the military career you are aspiring for.

What can I do with an associate’s degree in military science?

After earning one’s associate’s degree in military science, one can continue studying to earn a bachelor’s degree in military science in order to get a commission to the armed forces and join the service with a rank of 2nd lieutenant (or equivalent).

In many cases, an associate’s degree in military science can serve as the ‘basic’ portion of the ROTC program, which is the second route to earning a commission to the armed forces. One can enroll in a college that offers ROTC to take the ‘advanced’ portion. Once this has been completed, one qualifies for a commission in the armed services.

Police Officer

An associate’s degree in military science is an excellent choice for those who have an eye on the military service but want to keep their options open. Because the curriculum is diverse, an associate’s degree in military science will give one a good foundation on military subjects while introducing civilian law enforcement topics as well.

A student, therefore, has the option to pursue a career in law enforcement upon receiving one’s associate degree in military science. Since most police departments have the same minimum requirements of a high school diploma or GED, having an associate’s degree should put one in competitive standing among other applicants to the police force.

Entry-level police officer base salary:  $40,000/year

Enlisted Personnel in the Military Services

Should one decide to pursue one’s career goals in military science, someone with an associate’s degree in military science will be exceeding the minimum academic requirement of a high school diploma or GED.

Entry-level enlisted personnel will receive a salary of $47,407/year.

Once enlisted in the armed forces, one can make his associate’s degree the foundation stone on which to build his or her military career by taking in-service training in specific areas. For instance, one can take information technology classes to eventually become an information technology specialist who can earn an annual salary of $48,900/year. Or better still, one can pursue a bachelor’s degree while in-service—something that thousands of servicemen do, taking advantage of military tuition assistance they are entitled to, military financial aid offered at military-friendly colleges, as well as benefits provided by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

What can I do with a bachelor’s degree in military science?

A bachelor’s degree in military science will be more than sufficient to comply with the requirements for a commission to the armed forces and the officer’s rank that comes with it. The armed forces will accept bachelor’s degrees in any field as the basis for giving a commission. But a bachelor’s degree in military science gives a new recruit an advantage over other applicants. Having taken military subjects, he or she can proceed to more advanced training or be given choice positions over others with more generic college degrees. They will also have a huge initial advantage in terms of starting salary, which will proportionally increase per additional year of service. An O-1 second lieutenant or ensign fresh from college will earn an annual salary of $40,630—twice what his contemporaries, who will be entering the military service as enlisted men, would earn.

Can you get a military job with just a certificate?

Yes, one can be accepted into the military as enlisted personnel on the basis of a General Educational Development Test Certificate, in lieu of a high school diploma.

Understanding the Military: The Institution, the Culture, and the People (2010)

**For Civilian youth (18 to 24 years old), only 80% had a high school diploma or equivalent

How can I advance my career in the military?

A bachelor’s degree in military science will give one an excellent start in the service but it need not be the end of one’s upward movement in the military organization of choice. The military places importance on the continuing education of its personnel and provides postgraduate education free of charge to exemplary officers in the service. The Naval Postgraduate School and the Air Force Institute of Technology, for instance, support the best of their men and women in earning their master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering, acoustics, nanomaterials, oceanography, space systems, climate, laser technology, and other advanced fields. Like their enlisted men counterparts, officers can also take advantage of tuition fee assistance from their branch of service, military financial aid offered at military-friendly colleges, as well as benefits provided by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Those with masters and doctoral degrees can assume important roles within their military units, such as information security manager (up to $130,000 per annum), intelligence officer (up to $152,000 per annum), or aerospace engineer (up to $176,000 per annum).

U.S. military veterans who benefited from GI Bill post-9-11

Alternative Career Options for Military Service

Others choose a diagonal career path and move out of active military service for a period of time to work in government research facilities like the Army Research Laboratory or the Naval Research Laboratory. These well-funded scientific enterprises are the tip of the spear in innovative technologies that benefit not just the military but society at large as well.

Those who have invested in themselves and studied to increase their knowledge and skills during their years of military service can confidently rejoin the private sector should they choose to. Many of the specialized skills taught in the military are applicable to private industries and civilian life as well.

Still, others, after completing their military service contracts, or after retirement, pursue other areas of study and enroll in their new fields of interest prior to rejoining the private sector. Much of the in-service training they received can be credited at other institutions of learning as well, especially those that are military-friendly.

The Military Have a Life, and There is Life after Military Service

The world is being reshaped by technology and by the knowledge economy. And so is the battleground on which military organizations operate and where wars are fought. The creation of Space Force attests to the reality of these new frontiers. Rather than confining their men to barracks, military organizations are now strongly supporting the aspirations of their best men and women in various technical, technological, and scientific fields. This seems to be a recognition by the military organization that after requiring our young men and women in uniform to give the best years of their lives to the service, the institution also has a responsibility to return them to society as productive citizens, not as battered veterans. After all, military recruiters did promise to empower them so they can “be all that they can be.” One’s aspirations of joining the military service well-prepared for its challenges can best be met by taking an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in military science. It also positions one for an upwardly mobile career that will be both fulfilling and well-compensated. But through programs for the continuing education of men and women in uniform, the armed forces are able to give back to families by facilitating the re-entry of these same men and women into society as better, more highly skilled specialists than when they enlisted for service.



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