Enlisted & Officer CareersUpdated: March 20, 2021
When considering a job in the United States military, new recruits can choose a path to becoming an enlisted member or to become an officer. What does it take to become a military member in either career path? As you’ll see below, there is no one road to a military career.
Defining Enlisted Members
Some don’t quite understand the hierarchy of military rank. It is easy to understand why a total outsider might assume you start out as a “Buck Private” and work your way up to General. But it doesn’t work that way–officers and enlisted members have separate career paths, starting with the basic requirements for entry.
Who Are Enlisted Military Members?
Those who join the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, or Space Force as enlisted members must have either a high school diploma or its equivalent (more on that below). An enlisted member is not required to complete four years of college, though for some applicants who did not graduate with a high school diploma but have the equivalent of it, some college may be required but not a full degree.
This is one reason why recruiters make a point to ask their high school-age clients to stay in school, earn the diploma, and seek military service after graduation. It is much easier to enter the military as an enlisted member with a diploma than with a GED or equivalent.
The specific requirements will depend greatly on the branch of service being applied for; the Air Force and the Marines don’t have identical standards or requirements for recruiting, for example.
Enlisted members generally enter military service with the rank of E-1, but each branch of service has programs that may allow a more experienced applicant to enter at a higher rank, but you aren’t allowed to enter basic training at an enlisted rank higher than what is typically labeled “junior enlisted”. Junior enlisted ranks are generally E-1 through E4.
Who Are Non-Commissioned Officers?
Non-commissioned officers, also known as NCOs for short across all branches of military service, are enlisted members. The word “officer” in this context does not mean the enlisted member has become commissioned (hence the designation Non-Commissioned Officer). Even if an enlisted member completes a four-year degree (a major requirement for officers) that does not translate into becoming an officer candidate.
A screening process is required for anyone who wants to “bootstrap” from the enlisted ranks and become an officer. We’ll cover more about that process below.
Non-Commissioned Officers are those who have completed a minimum amount of military service, have achieved the required training for leadership positions, and have passed fitness and promotion tests. NCOs are no longer considered junior enlisted but are phased into supervisory positions. They must attend professional military education courses (PME) such as an NCO Academy, Senior NCO Academy, etc. to advance.
You cannot become an NCO without the required training which actually begins consideration for the NCO ranks begin–for example, in the Air Force once junior enlisted have served a specific amount of time in uniform.
At the higher junior enlisted ranks there’s a requirement to attend Airman Leadership School, which is a precursor to the Air Force NCO Academy which is training that happens around the time the Airman becomes eligible to compete for NCO ranks through promotion testing.
Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) hold ranks from E-5 to E-9. Ranks E-5 and E-6 are mid-grade, while NCOs E-7 and higher are considered senior enlisted officers. This highest enlisted ranks usually have “Master Sergeant” and “Senior Master Sergeant” or some variation in the title.
The U.S. Navy has Master Chiefs, and other military services may customize their senior enlisted ranks to reflect service-specific titles and duties.
Non-Commissioned Officers are not required to hold four-year degrees, though continuing education and off-duty education is required in varying degrees for career progression. The NCO career path includes more professional military education at the senior level.
Moving From Enlisted To Officer
Enlisted members may be approved by their commands to attend “bootstrap” programs designed to help enlisted members transition into officers. Each branch of military service has some form of this but access to the programs depends greatly on mission requirements, troop strength goals, retention issues, etc.
All officer candidate programs require the enlisted member to have or complete a four-year degree. Some permit a service member to take a hiatus from military service to complete a four-year degree in exchange for a service commitment. Some programs require a degree prior to enlisting, while others allow completion of the degree while serving but before being accepted as an officer candidate.
Those who want to explore their commissioning options should talk with their Command Support Staff, Senior Chief, Detailer, Assignments Manager, or Personnel Office.
Military Officer Career Paths
Unlike enlisted members, officers are required to enter military service with a four-year degree. Not all who want to become officers hold a Bachelor’s degree yet–these applicants may choose to earn one on a military scholarship (think ROTC) in exchange for a military service commitment, or apply to attend a military service academy such as West Point.
There are also officer commissioning programs such as the Air Force Academy, Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, etc. Some branches of military service don’t require you have the four-year degree before you start certain commissioning programs, but you’ll be admitted under the condition that your degree is completed by a certain date or milestone in that program.
Options For Becoming Commissioned
Becoming a commissioned officer means you have successfully completed the requirements for the officer candidate program of your choice, you have been formally commissioned in a ceremony that includes taking an oath, and you have met the basic initial requirements for entry including the initial officer candidate training provided by your branch of service.
As mentioned above, there are multiple ways to achieve a commission. They include:
- Attend a senior military college
- Attend a military service academy
- Enroll at a traditional college or university via an ROTC program
- Attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) after graduating from college
- Receive a direct commission after earning a professional degree
- Join as an enlisted member and apply to attend officer training
Unlike the enlisted recruiting process, more emphasis is put in grades, how and when you earned them, and related factors.
Those who want to become officers must prepare for a four year education program post-high school, and plan to do well in their classes. Becoming an officer requires a serious mind and a dedication to your college career. It’s not for everyone, but for those who have the discipline, the career path is worth the effort.
How Officer Jobs Differ From Enlisted Jobs
There is a misconception in popular culture that officers generally do the desk work and enlisted members do the “grunt” work. And it would be very easy to make that assumption using what you see as an outsider to the military.
But spend five minutes on a military base and you will find officers getting their literal and figurative hands dirty as surgeons, dentists, environmental biologists, civil engineers, cargo pilots, and too many other jobs to mention. The real difference between officers and enlisted (pay and education issues aside) has more to do with the degree of specialization in some cases, and the degree of responsibility in others.
The lowest junior enlisted position is E-1; the lowest officer position is O-1. The difference between the E-1 and the O-1 in many cases has to do with the level of expectation. The E-1 might be made responsible for maintaining the physical security of the front gate, or may serve as an assistant to a medical professional (just to name two, there are too many more scenarios to list). But the O-1 might be put in charge of that E-1 and several others on the same team.
The O-1 is expected to–with the same general amount of time in uniform–be the leader in that situation, where the E-1 is meant to be the follower.
How To Become A Military Officer
We’ve mentioned above the level of education and training required to enter military service with a commission or the promise of one. You may find that some charged with recruiting for a specific branch of service handle both enlisted and officer candidates while other recruiting offices may specialize.
There are some Army offices, for example, that specialize in ROTC partnerships with local colleges. Finding the right person to help you might start with the same local person or team responsible for enlisted recruiting.
Enlisted members usually start their military journey with a local recruiter. Those who want to become officers may also utilize the local recruiting office but don’t rule out contacting a local college ROTC program, or contact the admissions department of a military service academy.
How Long It Takes
Assume that a four-year degree commitment is required; however some complete their schooling faster than four years through summer coursework and other means. The degree you earn is the important thing, not the length of time it took to graduate.
Each branch of military service has its own timelines, deadlines, and requirements for officer candidate programs. Using the Army as an example, we learn from the Army Recruiting official site that anyone who successfully applies with a four-year degree automatically earn officer rank upon signing the contract.
That does not mean you will not attend officer training school in the Army, it just means you have earned the basic officer O-1 rank. Your Army training will be your first step in your officer career.
The following options and time frames for completion for officer candidates according to the Army official site includes:
- Those who go to college via the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) or the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, “you will become an Officer after completing four years of college.”
- Those who attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) are commissioned as an Army Second Lieutenant (a 12-week course), “but you still must have earned a four-year degree from an accredited university.”
- If you apply via direct commission, applicants are “automatically an Officer when you enter the Army, but your commission may still hinge upon other requirements” and it will be necessary to discuss your circumstances with a recruiter.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News