Guide to Military Careers

Today, there are many career opportunities for service members and civilians. Discover military careers that offer valuable experience after college.

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by Staff Writers

Updated March 18, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Michael J. Kirchner

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Guide to Military Careers

Enlisting in the military can be a great option for individuals who want to gain specialized skills and leadership experiences that prepare them for a complex, globalized economy. These skills can also prepare active-duty members and student veterans for military careers after college.

This guide outlines each branch of the military and various career opportunities available for active-duty students and veterans to gain valuable professional experience.

What Are the Different Branches of the Military?

Today, the U.S. armed forces includes the Army, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Marine Corps, all of which operate under the direction of the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard receives commands from the Department of Homeland Security. The National Guard usually receives its directives from state leaders.

Air Force

Before the implementation of the 1947 National Security Act, U.S. military aviation was the joint responsibility of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The act created the National Military Establishment (later renamed the Department of Defense) and established the U.S. Air Force as a distinct branch of the military.

The Air Force currently has over 330,000 active personnel, making it the largest air force in the world.

You may enlist with the Air Force full time or part time with Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. Advantages include on-the-job training, full college tuition reimbursement, housing allowances, and retirement benefits.

Army

The U.S. Army was established by the Second Congressional Congress in 1775. The Army's mission is to help the U.S. win wars through sustained dominance by seizing and controlling adversaries' land and resources.

Joining the Army can lead to a variety of well-paying, in-demand occupations such as construction engineer, fire control enhanced operator, and air defense system specialist. You can also work as a communications operator who holds important conversations through multichannel transmission systems.

Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard traces its history back to 1790, when it was established as the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Today, the Coast Guard works under the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime and operates as part of the Navy upon congressional declaration of war.

The Coast Guard currently employs 42,000 active personnel, with additional career opportunities available in reserve positions.

Marine Corps

Established on Nov. 10, 1775, the U.S. Marine Corps operates under the command of the Department of Defense. The Marine Corps works closely with naval forces to conduct expeditionary missions.

Marines operate by an exceedingly rigorous code of conduct and possess a resilience that can help them adapt to — and overcome — challenges. Outside of military conflict, the Marine Corps contributes to disaster relief missions and other humanitarian efforts.

The Marine Corps also operates the oldest military band. The band performs at over 500 official state functions each year.

Navy

In terms of sheer tonnage, the U.S. Navy is the largest navy in the world. The Navy currently boasts 290 deployable combat vessels and more than 3,700 operational aircraft.

Over 347,000 active personnel work for the Navy, and 101,500 additional service members stand by in the Ready Reserve.

As a member of the Navy, you will foster global collaboration by training with foreign navies. General missions center on regional security and may include at-sea rescues and environmental cleanups. Advanced Navy personnel also conduct reconnaissance and intelligence operations.

The National Guard

The U.S National Guard traces its origins back to the first militia regiments formed in the early 1600s. Today, this branch of the armed forces consists of units from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

Many personnel hold full-time civilian jobs and serve part time as National Guard airmen and soldiers. They receive support from a full-time cadre of active Guard and Reserve members.

By joining the National Guard, you receive pay and benefits for every day you serve, including training, weekend drills, and deployment. Time in service, enlisted or officer role, and pay grades are determining factors in wages. education level and job function. Opportunities run the gamut and usually include administrative positions, STEM careers, and special forces occupations that may enable you to become a Green Beret.

What Are the Different Jobs in the Military?

The U.S. military divides its employees into two categories: enlisted personnel and military officers.

Enlisted service members represent most of the military workforce and carry out day-to-day tasks like operating equipment and participating in combat operations. They may also build airfields and bridges or repair buildings and water purification systems.

Not all military careers involve combat or its collaterals. You can find a variety of noncombat occupations, including administrative jobs in accounting and human resources. Support services are another popular field of work. Those in positions such as military chaplain and dining hall chef play crucial roles in each branch or unit.

Explore the different opportunities you can take advantage of when you pursue a career in the military.

Air Force

By enlisting with the Air Force, you gain access to the largest community college in the United States. This opportunity provides relevant technical skills and college-eligible credits as you progress in expertise and rank. To join the Air Force, you must meet and stay in compliance with minimum requirements. These include a height and weight index, an eye-refraction level of no worse than +/- 8.0, and U.S. citizenship or eligible noncitizenship.

Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Specialist

Some of the most in-demand members of the Air Force, SERE specialists train aviation personnel to survive the most hostile climates and conditions. These elite instructors coordinate training programs in advanced parachuting and survival for eight geographic disciplines.

Minimum Education: High school diploma


Aerospace Medical Service Technician

These specialists assist doctors by preparing patients for surgery and conducting postoperative monitoring. They help with aeromedical evacuations and perform dental, medical, and emergency procedures. Medical service technicians also administer medications and operate hospital equipment.

Minimum Education: High school diploma or the equivalent


Behavioral Sciences and Human Factors Scientist

As applied researchers, behavioral scientists examine the human dynamics of Air Force activities and missions. They also act as technical consultants and use findings to improve organizational efficiency and bolster the quality of life for aviation personnel and their families.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree in behavioral sciences, psychology, or another related field


Air Battle Manager

Battle managers oversee every aspect of air combat, applying their knowledge and experiences with weapons, aircraft, and surveillance strategies. They also develop and conduct air-training simulations and evaluate units for effectiveness and improvements.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree


Space Operations Officer

These leaders enhance the Air Force's communication and tracking capabilities through satellite systems. They formulate space operations policy and train enlisted personnel according to established performance standards. Space operations officers also conduct research and development projects on future technologies.

Minimum Education: Bachelor or master of science degree

Army

As the largest branch of the U.S. armed forces, the Army provides ample career opportunities to enlisted and reserve service members. To access training and benefits, you must meet general requirements that include U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status.

You also need to be a high school graduate or equivalent and achieve a minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. The Army provides four ways for you to become an officer, such as the ROTC route and Officer Candidate School.

Allied Trade Specialist

These Army professionals operate specialized machinery such as drill presses, grinders, and lathes. They supervise the fabrication and repair of metallic and nonmetallic parts. Allied trade specialists also conduct training sessions and safety demonstrations.

Minimum Education: High school diploma


Cryptologic Linguist

These service members use signal equipment to identify foreign communications. They translate and analyze these conversations, alerting the appropriate authorities as necessary. Cryptologic linguists also create transcriptions and translations for international correspondence.

Minimum Education: Some college may be required/preferred


Environmental Science/Engineering Officer

As leaders in the Army health team, these professionals conduct research on environmental sustainability and industrial safety. They establish and assess standards for weapons, tactical gear, and uniforms. Engineering officers also help contain health hazards.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree


Judge Advocate

Army lawyers provide legal support during military operations, which can include prosecuting criminal cases and offering ethics opinions to commanders and their staff. Judge advocates also assist service members and their families. They provide legal advice and represent soldiers before administrative separation boards.

Minimum Education: Juris doctor


Dental Corps Officer

These military leaders oversee Dental Corps units during medical situations and coordinate employment among enlisted members. Dental Corps officers see to the dental health of soldiers, their families, and all individuals eligible for care. Specialization options include orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, and oral surgery.

Minimum Education: Doctoral degree in dentistry with unrestricted license

Coast Guard

If you want to train and work near your community, then the Coast Guard is a great option. The majority of careers are located in the country and, with opportunities available through the Reserve, you can maintain a full-time civilian job while completing your service duties.

Basic enlistment qualifications include U.S. citizenship or resident alien status and a high school diploma. You cannot have more than three dependents and, if pursuing an active-duty position, must be between 17 and 35 years old.

Electronics Technician

These professionals install, repair, and update sophisticated electronic equipment, including shipboard weapons, navigation equipment, and data and voice-encryption systems. Electronics technicians work in diverse environments, like small Coast Guard stations known as electronic systems support detachment details.

Minimum Education: High school diploma


Public Affairs Specialist

Known as PAs, these enlisted professionals oversee communications for the Coast Guard. PAs write news releases and feature articles and produce videos for official websites and social media channels. They also act as official spokespersons to raise awareness of pertinent issues.

Minimum Education: Some college may be required, and an associate degree is preferred


Intelligence Specialist

Intelligence specialists collect, analyze, and process crucial information that supports Coast Guard operational missions. These professionals also disseminate the information through official reports and mission debriefings. They work from Intelligence Coordination Centers and cryptologic units across the country.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree


Direct Commission Engineer

As part of their initial assignment, direct commission engineers can work for civil engineering, naval engineering, or specialized C51 communities. Naval engineering opportunities include industrial operations, in which engineers manage the repair of surface vessels. After initial assignments, these professionals advance in rank and gain the opportunity to attend graduate school.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree in a STEM discipline


Clinical and Rehabilitation Therapist

These military officers specialize in physical therapy and treat service members at Coast Guard accession sites. Clinical and rehabilitation therapists also work as part of the government public health effort and educate recruits and cadets on how to lead more active and productive lifestyles.

Minimum Education: Master's degree in physical therapy may be required

Marine Corps

Because the Marine Corps receives noncombat support from the Navy, the majority of Marine Corps careers center on combat and its strategic/logistical components. However, due to the changing needs of the U.S. military and evolving combat tactics, the Marine Corps prioritizes the development of technical skills.

Careers within this branch subdivide into Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) categories. To become an enlisted member of the Marines, you must meet initial requirements that include legal residency and physical performance. Prospective Marine officers undergo a separate training process.

Infantry Unit Leader

As a noncommissioned officer, the infantry unit leader assists commanders with training and deployment of weapons like the LAR battle rifle. They also oversee platoons during combat, establish unit command posts, and coordinate fire and movement between tactical units.

Minimum Education: High school diploma


Imagery Analysis Specialist

Working as part of the Marine Corps intelligence network, imagery analysis specialists process and analyze images gathered from various sensor platforms. They help commanders with target acquisition and planning reconnaissance missions. Applicants must be eligible for top-secret security clearance.

Minimum Education: Some college may be required (preferably with coursework in geographic information systems)


Counterintelligence/Human Intelligence Specialist

These specialists work closely with other military intelligence assets to identify and de-escalate threats from hostile combatants and organizations. They may go undercover to discover sensitive information or save the lives of Americans overseas.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree or higher may be required


Criminal Investigator

These Marine agents conduct criminal investigations under the jurisdiction of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. They analyze crime scenes, interrogate suspects and witnesses, and conduct covert operations. Criminal investigators also collaborate with law enforcement agencies to navigate hostage negotiations.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree or higher may be required

Navy

In addition to full-tuition scholarships and the ability to attend college classes while on ships, Navy sailors benefit from comprehensive training in cutting-edge equipment and technologies. Service members also enjoy cost-effective healthcare and, due to the nature of their training and deployment, ample opportunities for travel.

The Navy provides enlistment tracks for individuals with and without prior military service. If you are completely new to military service, entry qualifications include medical, legal, and moral standards, as well as adherence to a zero-tolerance drug policy.

Information Systems Technician

These sailors operate shipboard control and special intelligence systems. They possess a broad range of administrative and IT skills, including network administration, database management, and software maintenance. Information systems technicians also work as part of the Information Dominance Corps to gather and analyze intelligence on adversaries.

Minimum Education: High school diploma or the equivalent


Navy Diver

As part of a highly skilled task force, Navy divers perform perilous salvage operations and search and rescue missions. These service members support various law enforcement agencies and act as technical experts for special operations units. Navy divers also carry out routine ship maintenance and construction/demolition duties.

Minimum Education: High school diploma


Hospital Corpsman

A hospital corpsman provides emergency medical and dental treatment to SEALs, Marines, and other service members injured in the field. They also serve as operating room technicians for specialized surgical operations. Furthermore, hospital corpsmen perform clinical tests and administer preventative care.

Minimum Education: High school diploma or the equivalent


Nuclear Officer

These Navy leaders supervise, control, and command a vast fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. They oversee personnel and propulsion systems onboard these vessels and use high-tech weaponry in battle and ship defense. Nuclear officers also train newly enlisted sailors.

Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree may be required, preferably in a STEM discipline


Navy Physician

Navy physicians occupy similar positions as civilian doctors, administering care to service members and their families. Unlike most of their civilian counterparts, however, Navy physicians enjoy an accelerated career track that involves opportunities to engage with global humanitarian efforts.

Minimum Education: Doctor of medicine

Financing Your Education

While some military careers do not need a college degree, there are some that require you to pursue an advanced degree.

Fortunately, today there are numerous financial aid opportunities that allow military service members and student veterans to access college for a reasonable price. There are also many scholarship opportunities for students as well as military dependents and spouses.

Preparing for the Military in College

Created through the National Defense Act of 1916, the ROTC prepares college students to become military officers in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. ROTC programs are offered at 1,700 higher education institutions nationwide.

In exchange for a paid college education and guaranteed careers, ROTC cadets generally commit to four years of military service upon graduation. Each branch facilitates its own version of ROTC training. The Army operates the most rigorous program, which consists of field training and leadership development on top of academic studies.

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