Military CareersUpdated: January 20, 2021
Those considering a career in the armed forces have a variety of military career and service choices. There is an old saying among those who serve in the United States Navy, “Choose your rate, choose your fate.” Meaning it’s important to do your homework as a new recruit when trying to decide what branch of service and what career field to pursue.
Choose Your Branch of Service Wisely
The very first choice a potential enlistee has to make is which branch of military service to approach. Even the choice of service may affect the type of career you have, where you will serve, and the intensity level of that service.
One good example? Each branch of the service has a career field commonly known as Public Affairs. Each branch may have its own unique designator for this career field.
Depending on the branch of service you join, the opportunities in this area could include something known as Combat Camera work. This is shooting video of combat training or actual operations in the field.
Working in military Public Affairs could, depending on your branch of service, also include radio and television journalism. Additionally, you could do DJ work, create videos and YouTube clips, give base tours, or set up public relations centers in the wake of plane crashes or other incidents.
You may wish to enlist as a linguist and work in the Intelligence field. Each branch of the service will have its own unique needs in this area, too. When choosing between the various branches of service, ask the recruiters from each branch you review what the options are for the specific type of job you want.
Officer or Enlisted?
One of the biggest factors once you get past the branch of service you wish to join will be whether you join as an enlisted member or an officer. Officers are required to have a Bachelor’s degree and attend an officer training school.
Enlisted members are only required to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Some enlisted recruits may be required to get some college courses in situations. This is required when ASVAB scores are lower than expected or the applicant does not have a high school diploma, but does have an equivalent. But in general, a degree is NOT required for enlisted members.
What Is The Difference Between Officer And Enlisted Service?
Officers and enlisted members can both be part of management in any unit, squadron, etc. But officers are specifically groomed from day one to be leaders and managers. Expectations are higher for officers for certain types of progress, career development, professional education, etc.
Enlisted members are basically the hands-on workforce of the military. That is NOT to say that officers don’t do similar things, but they normally do so in a more supervisory capacity. If you have an interest in doing the hands-on work of a Civil Engineer, being an enlisted member is likely the best path.
If you are more interested in the planning, development, and execution of Civil Engineering work, on the other hand, becoming an officer in that career field is the path. The degree is required and each branch of service will need different skill sets in that capacity. Much could depend on the degree you have, but a specific kind of degree is not required (in general) to become an officer.
Military Officer Commissioning Programs Will Vary Depending on The Branch of Service
The Marine Corps has three commissioning programs ”Ground,” “Aviation,” and “Law.” Air Force commissioning can involve specific recruitment for jobs in medicine, aviation, ministry, and legal. These programs aren’t the only way to become a military officer. Potential candidates can apply to a military service school such as the U.S. Naval Academy.
There are also college-based Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs that can provide a pathway to a commission while the applicant is still earning the required Bachelor’s degree.
Officer or Enlisted, What To Do When You Can’t Decide What Specific Job You Want
It’s ok to be undecided. Ask the recruiter what broader options may exist for the type of work you are considering. It’s very important to quiz these recruiters about your specific ability to get these types of jobs and what is required.
Don’t settle for a vague answer or that you should consider going into a completely different career field with an eye on retraining into a different one later. You may not be allowed to retrain when the time comes if you are steered by a recruiter into a “critical” career that needs more new recruits. These careers may have restrictions on who can train out of them and you likely won’t know that until it is too late. Choose carefully.
In some cases recruiting goals and current recruitment policy may dictate sending a certain amount of new recruits into basic training in an “open general” status. This means a career field has not been assigned to the recruit yet.
When that happens, opportunities may be available in boot camp. It’s best to see if other options are available rather than making such choices in a high-pressure environment.
Military Career Fields You May Consider
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics made a general list of military careers in 2017 that includes the following areas:
- Combat Specialty
- Electronic and Electrical Equipment Repair
- Engineering, Science, and Technical
- Human Resource Development
- Machine Operator and Production
- Media and Public Affairs
- Protective Service
- Support Service
- Transportation and Material Handling
- Vehicle and Machinery Mechanic
Career paths in these areas are incredibly diverse. In the healthcare field alone, enlisted members can apply to be dental assistants, x-ray technicians, mental health associates, work in Mortuary Affairs, flight medicine, and much more.
Officer candidates for healthcare can be surgeons, psychiatrists, hospital administrators, and much more.
“Protective Service” jobs could include Security Forces, cyber security, even the Presidential Marine protective detail in Washington D.C. for the most elite applicants.
Within the Combat Specialty area enlisted members could serve as infantry, combat controllers, battlefield communications, and much more. Officers would serve as leadership in these areas as well as logistical planners, airborne warning-and-control operators, and too many other jobs to name.
The important thing for these broad categories is to ask the recruiter for a specific list of jobs in the areas you are most interested in learning more about.
Don’t Forget to Ask Whether There Are Vacancies in The Fields You Want to Work
Managing career fields is one of the trickiest things for military major commands. The effort to properly staff military jobs, especially critically manned career fields, requires involvement all the way from the planning stages at the command level to the individual recruiter’s office. Why?
Staffing requirements for certain short-staffed military jobs are given to recruiting commands. The recruiter must try to find people willing to work in these critical fields. For Air Force members, at one time certain linguists, long-haul communications, and pilots were in great demand. There is definitely a cycle of shortages, overages, and staffing adjustments over time.
These jobs were given priority including offering certain incentives for enlisting with a job in those areas. Enlistment bonuses are not uncommon depending on the job and funding for those bonuses.
The Army official site says of such bonuses, “Some jobs offer cash bonuses up to $40,000 for qualified applicants who enlist for a specific term of service.”
If you are looking at working in a career field that is currently over-staffed, you may be disappointed. The recruiter may try to steer you to an area that matches your skills and ASVAB scores, but isn’t exactly what you wanted from the list of available jobs.
The incentive for considering these jobs may be a bonus, similar to the Army bonus mentioned above, or there may be some other perk. Consider the implications of that career field carefully before being tempted by the enlistment bonus.
How to Choose A Military Specialty
It’s good to make a personal inventory of your skills, interests, and even a list of jobs you DO NOT WANT to do. This list will help you identify career fields from your recruiter’s list that may be within your range of interests and expertise.
In this search it is very important not to make assumptions. Some people, for example, never dreamed they could enlist in the military in order to play a musical instrument. Military career fields include Air Force and Army bands and there are other arts-related career opportunities in uniform such as the Army’s Multimedia Illustrator field.
Surprised? That’s one reason why you should ask a recruiter about any type of work you might be inclined to do. There are plenty of “best-kept-secret” jobs in all branches of military service including creative gigs.
It’s critical to remember that in all of these careers, the applicant is still a military member first. They are subject to the rigors of military life, but not every opportunity in the military involves direct participation in combat, rescue, flying, etc.
Training Is Provided
It’s never wrong to consider a job you don’t have any experience with. The military requires training for all career fields no matter how much prior experience you have or do not have.
Military broadcasters, for example, must go through training at the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Maryland. No matter if they have had prior broadcast experience or if they signed up without knowing anything about writing, editing, shooting video, etc.
How Many Career Options Are There for Officers And Enlisted Troops?
The Army alone boasts of more than 150 career paths for new recruits. Army career options include, but are not limited to work in the following branches and specialties:
- Infantry Branch
- Corps of Engineers Branch
- Field Artillery Branch
- Air Defense Artillery Branch
- Aviation Branch
- Cyber Branch
- Special Forces
- Armor Branch
- Signal Corps Branch
- Judge Advocate General Branch
- Information Operations Functional Area
- Military Police Branch
- Strategic Intelligence Functional Area
- Military Intelligence Branch
- Financial Management Branch
- Psychological Operations Branch
- Civil Affairs Branch
- Space Operations Functional Area
- Adjutant General Branch
- Public Affairs Functional Area
- Academy Professor Functional Area
- Foreign Area Officer Functional Area
- Operations Research/Systems Analysis Functional Area
- Force Management Functional Area
- Army Acquisition Corps
- Chaplain Branch
- Medical Branches
- Medical Corps Branch
- Dental Corps Branch
- Veterinary Corps Branch
- Medical Specialist Corps Branch
- Nurse Corps Branch
- Medical Service Corps Branch
- Health Services
- Laboratory Sciences
- Preventive Medicine Sciences
- Behavioral Sciences
- Chemical Corps
- Logistics Corps
This list is specific to the U.S. Army, but other branches will have their own versions of these careers and much more. It is good to narrow down your job choices and approach recruiters with specific questions about your areas of interest.
Questions to Ask A Recruiter About Your Military Career Field Options
Here is a list of questions to ask a recruiter about any military job or career option.
- What training is required for this career field aside from boot camp?
- How long is the training process for this job?
- Is the training all on-the-job (OJT) or will I get training at a schoolhouse first?
- What is the pass/fail rate for this training? How hard is the school?
- Is this a critically manned career field and will I have trouble training into another area if I realize the job is not for me?
- Where do people in this career field work? Do they work mostly overseas, stateside, or combination of both?
- What special requirements does this career field require? (Pilots, for example, must meet minimum vision requirements to fly aircraft, where crew chiefs on the same aircraft are not held to that standard.)
- What is the civilian equivalent for this job, where applicable?
- What kinds of military assignments can I expect in this career field? Are there frequent deployments? Overseas duty of two years or longer? Frequent Temporary Duty (TDY) travel?
- Are there enlistment or re-enlistment bonuses for this job?
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News