Introduction to Military CareersUpdated: October 18, 2022
Active duty military careers involve a lot more than warfighting, deployments, and humanitarian relief operations. Did you know the military also needs enlisted and officer Public Affairs people, historians, dentists, and entomologists?
There are a wide range of military careers open depending on the branch of military service you choose, current mission requirements, and even technological advances that make new career fields possible. After all, there was no military drone program option during World War Two, the Korean War, or Vietnam. But advances in tech and aviation made that entire career field an option for the 21st century recruit.
Active Duty Military Options
There are six branches of military service;
Each branch has its own unique needs for staff, equipment, and training. The job options, requirements, and training needs will vary among the services, though some career fields including Public Affairs may have joint-service training environments that incorporate instructors and students from all branches of military service.
The Recruiter: Your Guide To Military Careers
To understand how the military career system works, you have to understand how recruiting works. Military recruiters are given goals and targets to reach for recruiting in general–how many people they help enlist, from which geographic areas, and from which American demographics in terms of education and other career-specific variables.
That could mean the basic difference between how many officers are recruited versus how many enlisted, etc.
But recruiters also have more immediate needs; many career fields in the U.S. military are understaffed. It’s the recruiter’s job to steer people toward these understaffed career fields. You may find that people with language skills are in high demand. After the terror attacks of 9/11 there was an increased effort to recruit people for linguist positions. Some who signed up for certain languages may have found themselves working as interpreters in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, or elsewhere.
The recruiter has a list of all available career fields being filled at the moment you are discussing your military options. The ones with the greatest need will be presented to you as options. You may or may not be undecided about your military career; it’s best to decide in advance of your meeting with a recruiter what you think you might like to pursue but be willing to hear other options.
If You Can’t Find The Right Job
The reason for this is that if you can’t find a job specialty to your liking, it’s possible (depending on circumstances, there are no guarantees) to enter military service with one job and “cross-train” into another one.
Ask your recruiter about this option, but remember that any career field that is short-staffed may not permit you to do so–choose your military job carefully and remember an old Navy saying that applies here: “Choose your rate, choose your fate.” In this context, “rate” means your military job, and choosing should be done with the idea that you will be in the career field you’ve selected for two years or more.
Ask About Enlistment Bonuses
Remember, critically staffed career fields may offer enlistment bonuses, reenlistment bonuses, or other perks. Be sure to ask about those when you talk to a recruiter no matter which branch of military service you are thinking about joining.
Space Force And Air Force Careers
The Air Force and Space Force are, at the time of this writing, more closely paired than the Navy and Marine Corps are. Space Force was born out of the National Defense Authorization Act 2020 and a redesignation of Air Force Space Command as U.S. Space Force.
Space Force Military Jobs
Space Force careers are tied to Air Force recruiting at the time of this writing. The sixth branch of military service does not have its own separate recruiting branch the way the Marine Corps, National Guard, and Reserve forces do, but that may change over time as the service becomes larger and more independent.
At press time, U.S. Space Force Career options include a small number of job specialties including:
- Missile and Space Facilities
- Space Systems Operations
- Missile and Space Systems Electronic Maintenance
- Missile and Space Systems Maintenance (not the same as Electronic Maintenance)
Those career fields are open to those who join the military without degrees as enlisted troops. Officer candidates may apply for the following jobs:
- Space Operations Officer
- Nuclear and Missile Operations Officer
- Munitions And Missile Maintenance Officer
You can learn more about the Space Force mission at the official site.
Browse Space Force jobs and explore Air Force career options outside of space-based missions or learn more about military careers in general.
Pro Tip: Several of the jobs listed above are not new, they were previously under Air Force jurisdiction (especially missile programs). It’s important to ask a lot of questions about Space Force jobs as it’s easy to assume that applying for an open position listed with “space” in the title might land you a slot at Space Force headquarters, put you in the U.S. space program itself, or actually have you working in outer space.
These assumptions are not safe to make and your experience will vary.
If you are interested in a specific job in the space industry, ask your recruiter how the available jobs might match up with your interests.
Air Force Military Jobs
At the time of this writing, the Air Force recruiting official site lists more than two hundred military career fields that include aviation, arts and humanities, intel, health and medicine, law enforcement, and many more.
Your education level is important. If you have a Bachelor’s degree or higher you may qualify for officer candidate programs that could lead to higher-paying jobs in more specifically defined career fields.
Some enlisted recruits go into maintenance, avionics, or computer security fields. Those with degrees may qualify for more highly specialized work in careers involving the law, medicine, research, public affairs, or environmental issues.
Some people aren’t sure what military career field is best for them. Recruiters understand this and there is an online tool, the Air Force Work Interest Navigator, provided by the Air Force official site. Also known as a “personal career assessment”, this tool can help you determine which of your skills are the most-military friendly and what skills you have that can translate into good careers in uniform.
Pro Tip: Some Air Force career field descriptions sound limited, but actually have a wide range of options. One good example: the Air Force career described as “Natural Science” includes Aerospace Medicine, Dental Lab Tech, and even Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) trainers under that category. It pays to look closely!
Coast Guard Careers
Active duty Coast Guard jobs include roughly 17 descriptions for enlisted members that include, but are not limited to:
- 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
The Coast Guard divides its efforts into five main missions that include:
- Maritime Security
- Maritime Mobility
- Maritime Safety
- Protection of Natural Resources
- National Defense
Within these missions, there are jobs for officers in a variety of disciplines including:
- Command, control, communications
- Computer & information technologies
For officers and enlisted members alike there are unique opportunities to serve in the Coast Guard’s medical system. According to the official site, “The Coast Guard maintains its own health care network utilizing Public Health Service (PHS) Officers to fill their medical, dental, pharmacy, environmental health, and PA positions.”
In order to qualify as a Coast Guard medical provider, you must first join the U.S. Public Health Service; follow the procedures described at the Coast Guard official site (scroll down to the medical services section) but if you are interested in becoming a physician’s assistant, you can find opportunities that do not require you to join the Public Health Service.
Learn more about Coast Guard opportunities with the Coast Guard Recruiter Finder tool.
Pro Tip: Coast Guard careers require you to take the ASVAB the same as with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Marine Corps, etc. After you take the ASVAB or its equivalent, you may have the option to serve overseas; however the Coast Guard official site advises, “Most jobs are located throughout the United States and Puerto Rico from Maine to Florida; Texas to Minnesota; and California to Hawaii.”
Be sure to ask a Coast Guard recruiter about overseas opportunities if that is what you wish to do. You may need to apply for specific career fields to serve in an overseas location depending on the needs of the service.
There are more than 30 general Army job descriptions (with many individual jobs under those descriptions) broken down into “branches,” “functional areas,” etc. in areas including, but not limited to, the following:
- Infantry Branch
- Corps of Engineers Branch
- Field Artillery Branch
- Air Defense Artillery Branch
- Aviation Branch
- Cyber Branch
- Special Forces
- Armor Branch
- Signal Corps Branch
- Information Network Engineering Functional Area
- Judge Advocate General Branch
- Information Operations Functional Area
- Military Police Branch
- Strategic Intelligence Functional Area
- Military Intelligence Branch
- Finance & Comptroller
- Psychological Operations
- Civil Affairs Branch
- Space Operations Functional Area
- 21 Adjutant General
- Public Affairs Functional Area
- Academy Professor Functional Area
- Army Acquisition Corps
- Chaplain Branch
As you can see, there is a wide range of options in this incomplete list; public affairs, cyber operations, and even finance are all areas the Army requires enlisted and officer recruits to fill jobs in.
The Army official site for recruiting has a simple, seven-step questionnaire process to help potential recruits decide if they are a good fit for Army life.
Pro Tip: Here are some questions you definitely need to ask your Army recruiter before committing to any term of military service. The answers to these questions are not set in stone; they are subject to change based on current Army enlistment goals, end strength requirements, and other needs.
You may find Army needs change often; if you asked about career field options three months ago, you will need to ask again to see if there is any new guidance issued since you last checked. That’s not just a precaution, it’s a real-world issue that can affect your enlistment.
Ask your recruiter these questions:
- How long does the first term of military service last?
- Are there enlistment programs with different lengths than the standard one?
- Can an entrant choose the military job he/she wants at this time?
- How is the Army career assignment decision made?
- Can you describe a couple of Army jobs?
- Can I volunteer to serve outside the United States?
- How much does a new recruit get paid?
- What are my promotion opportunities?
- Can I cross-train into a different career field?
There are more than 90 Navy career options, all in a diverse range of specialties from jobs on board a nuclear submarine to aircraft carrier operations. The Navy Careers page on the official recruiting site breaks the jobs list down into basic categories including:
- Cyber & IT
- Health Care
- Humanitarian Aid
- Law & Management
- Repair & Maintenance
- Special Warfare
- Weapons & Electronics
These areas, open to officers and enlisted depending on the program, the job, and the expertise required, have varying levels of need for new sailors. You will need to ask your recruiter which jobs are currently critically staffed, which ones might offer bonuses for enlisting and signing up for, etc. At the time of this writing, in-demand jobs include opportunities in the medical field, nuclear operations, crypto, and rescue just to name a few.
The Navy is particularly proud of its enlistment bonuses, featuring them on a page with other perks and options. The Navy isn’t the only branch of service to advertise its enlistment bonuses, but this page lays the numbers out in a particularly enticing way. Here’s a very short list of examples of current bonuses for enlisting in the following Navy careers:
- Air Rescue Swimmer (AIRR-ATF) — $36,000
- Cryptologic Technician Interpretive (CTI-ATF) — $25,000
- Explosive Ordnance (EOD-ATF) — $36,000
- Hospital Corpsman (HM-ATF) — $25,000
- Information Systems Technician (IT-SG) — $10,000
- Information Systems Technician Submarines (ITS-ATF) — $15,000
- Machinist’s Mate Submarines (MMS-5YO) — $10,000
- Missile Technician (MT-AEF) — $15,000
- Navy Diver (ND-ATF) — $36,000
- Nuclear Field (NUC-NF) — $38,000
Did you know as a Navy recruit you may be eligible for a bonus based on your education level alone? You can learn more about the Navy’s current enlistment bonus structure and view current payment rates.
Pro Tip: Navy careers typically include some at-sea time. It’s likely considered to be an exception (depending greatly on the career field, not all Navy jobs specifically require sea duty). If you have concerns about serving on board a ship (one that may or may not be underway or at sea at assignment time) be sure to talk to your Navy recruiter about specific concerns over sea duty. Don’t expect to join the Navy without having to confront the sea duty issue at some stage in your career. Choose your rate, choose your fate!
Marine Corps Careers
The Navy and Marine Corps have ties, but the Marines do their own recruiting and they have a specific career structure that includes (but is not limited to) the following specialties:
- Personnel and Administration
- Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) plans
- Field Artillery
- Engineer, Construction, Facilities and Equipment
- Tank and Assault Amphibious Vehicle
- Ground Ordnance Maintenance
- Ammunition and Explosive Ordnance Disposal
- Signals Intelligence/Ground Electronic Warfare
- Ground Electronics Maintenance
- Supply Administration and Operations
- Traffic Management
- Food Service
- Financial Management
The Marine Corps is, like the Army, a combat-centric military service in terms of training, philosophy, and lifestyle. In the same spirit of the U.S. Army’s “Soldiers First” motto (meaning all recruits identify first as soldiers, THEN whatever career field they have chosen for themselves) the operating word for those who join the Marines is “combat.”
It is entirely possible to join certain branches of the military and never see combat operations, never be required to fire a weapon in a real-world situation, or even be associated with combat.
But not with the Marines. Their official site pulls no punches, leading with reminders on the official site of who the Corps is and what it represents. “While there are many important aspects to being a Marine, holding a high standard of physical USMC fitness is one of the many requirements necessary to be ready for battle.”
Those who want a military career that is not associated directly with first-responder type training and commitments should consider other branches of military service first. Those who are interested in combat operations and their associated requirements should discuss their interests with a Marine Corps recruiter by following the contact instructions at the official site.
Pro Tip: There is a saying on the Marine Corps recruiting site; “You don’t join the Marines, you become one.” If you are considering applying with a Marine Corps recruiter, assess your own physical fitness (it’s best to see a doctor do this–explain what you are doing and why) and ask the recruiter to help you do a pre-enlistment physical fitness program to get you ready for the demands of boot camp.
This is a great idea for joining any branch of service, but for the Marines it’s practically a necessity. If your recruiter already has a program for you to follow, that’s a great start, but be sure to consult with a doctor before starting any serious exercise regimen and especially if you are not provided with one from a Marine Recruiter.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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