Military Careers: A Definitive Guide

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published February 22, 2021

Many people find long, rewarding and successful careers in the military. The military offers a diverse array of career paths in almost any industry, in multiple branches, so it may be possible to find a military position that interests you. Military careers can also offer benefits such as healthcare, funding for education and specialized training. In this article, we explain the basics of a military career and how to join, to help decide if a military career is right for you.

Related: Should I Join the Military?: Factors to Consider

What is a military career?

A military career involves service in one of the five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces: the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. Those enlisted in the military typically go through a period of basic training before moving into an area of specialization where they usually receive additional focused training. Individuals who choose a career in the military often move up the ranks to fulfill different roles with varying levels of leadership responsibility. Those who choose to pursue a different career after serving in the military often benefit from the transferable skills they learned during their enlistment.

Related: Transferable Skills: Definition and Examples

Branches of the military

The U.S. Armed Forces is divided into five branches that perform distinct yet overlapping roles. These branches are the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. You may find it useful to understand more about each branch when you are deciding if you want to pursue a military career. To help you learn more about these branches of the U.S. military, here is a description of each, with jobs they might prepare you for:

Army

The U.S. Army is the oldest and largest military branch in the United States. It was founded in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress, as a function of the Revolutionary War, and it is primarily responsible for the nation's land-based defense operations. The Army uses troops on the ground, tanks, weapons and even flight equipment such as helicopters to achieve this goal. It is organized into three parts, the Army, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard which function differently but all work to accomplish shared national defense objectives.

Here are some jobs you might have during or after your service in the Army:

1. Combat medic

National average salary: $28,811 per year

Primary duties: Combat medics care for emergency medical needs in a combat situation. They administer field medicine, assist with inpatient and outpatient medical procedures and administer medication.

Related: Learn About Being a Paramedic

2. Army officer

National average salary: $48,278 per year

Primary duties: Army officers are military leaders who perform operations and personnel management. They usually focus on a particular task or specialty, and may achieve different ranking levels as an officer as well.

3. Army IT professional

National average salary: $69,964 per year

Primary duties: IT professionals in the U.S. Army are responsible for monitoring and maintaining computer systems for the military. They usually perform troubleshooting processes for hardware and software and may work with sensitive or classified information.

Related: Learn About Being an IT Specialist

Air Force

The Air Force is a comparatively young branch of the U.S. military, and it comprises the Air Force, the Air Force Reserve and the Air Force National Guard. Until 1947, the Air Force was included as part of the Army. At that time it was separated into its own branch with the distinct objective of protecting the United States' security interests in air and space operations. The Air Force is also responsible for the secure strategic maintenance of the nation's nuclear ballistic missiles.

Here are some jobs you might have during or after your service in the Air Force:

1. Pilot

National average salary: $43,778 per year

Primary duties: Pilots support Air Force operations by flying assorted aircraft such as planes and helicopters. Air Force pilots usually undergo rigorous training that continues throughout their career.

Related: Learn About Being an Airline Pilot

2. Air traffic controller

National average salary: $46,327 per year

Primary duties: Air traffic controllers are responsible for monitoring and managing air traffic in a specific location. Air Force air traffic controllers usually have specific duties associated with military objectives.

Related: Learn About Being an Air Traffic Controller

3. Aircraft mechanic

National average salary: $69,609 per year

Primary duties: Aircraft mechanics are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of aircraft such as airplanes and helicopters. They are responsible for ensuring that Air Force aircraft are in safe, working, optimal order and ready to be used at any time.

Navy

Established in 1775, the United States Navy is responsible for protecting U.S. interests at sea including safe travel, trade and any potential conflict. It maintains forces and equipment beneath the surface, on the sea and in the airspace over these areas to achieve this objective. Some examples of equipment the U.S. Navy leverages in its operations include battleships, submarines, aircraft carriers and amphibious forces.

Here are some jobs you might have during or after your service in the Navy:

1. Communications specialist

National average salary: $27,771 per year

Primary duties: Communications specialists collect and communicate information about the Navy internally or to the general public. They often use print, web and visual media to communicate their stories.

2. Mechanic

National average salary: $44,647 per year

Primary duties: Navy mechanics repair equipment for a variety of purposes, from transportation to heavy equipment and aircraft. They are responsible for monitoring and maintaining these items to ensure they are ready for use at any time.

Related: Learn About Being a Mechanic

3. Electronics technician

National average salary: $57,150 per year

Primary duties: Electronics technicians are responsible for the electrical systems in vehicles, aircraft and maritime vessels. They monitor and repair them as necessary to this equipment can be deployed immediately when necessary.

Marines

The U.S. Marine Corps was instituted in 1947, and collaborates closely with the U.S. Navy and other military branches. They defend Naval bases, for example, in conjunction with the Army and Air Force. They use a variety of strategies and equipment to achieve their objectives and often combine methods in flexible ways.

Here are some jobs you might have during or after your service in the Marines:

1. Motor transport operator

National average salary: $37,195 per year

Primary duties: Motor transport operators are responsible for safely driving and maintaining military vehicles for transporting personnel and equipment. They must often adapt to driving in a variety of terrain and conditions.

2. Network systems operator

National average salary: $45,330 per year

Primary duties: Network systems operators maintain computer networks and systems to ensure uninterrupted communication and operations. They usually have expertise in both hardware and software installation and maintenance and help troubleshoot network issues when they arise.

3. Electrician

National average salary: $51,956 per year

Primary duties: Marine Corps electricians repair and maintain electrical systems for military facilities. They might also perform electrical installations and maintenance for temporary facilities or housing.

Related: Learn About Being an Electrician

Coast Guard

The Coast Guard was established in 1790 under a different title, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service for the purpose of enforcing customs. After a series of modifications in name and objectives, it because the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, responsible for many different operations having to do with domestic U.S. waterways. Some of these objectives include maintaining security for travel and trade, search and rescue operations and marine life conservation.

Here are some jobs you might have during or after your service in the Coast Guard:

1. Boatswain's Mate

National average salary: $30,054 per year

Primary duties: A boatswain's mate is an expert in seamanship on a variety of Coast Guard vessels. They command and operate boats including patrol boats and tugs, and they often serve in a law enforcement role as well.

2. Culinary specialist

National average salary: $33,434 per year

Primary duties: Culinary specialists work in food preparation for the U.S. Coast Guard. They often plan, prepare, serve and clean up after meals as well as analyze and implement dietary plans.

3. Intelligence specialist

National average salary: $63,884 per year

Primary duties: Coast Guard intelligence specialists collect and analyze security-related information to support the military's operations. They use highly specialized equipment and receive thorough training in intelligence operations.

Read more: The U.S. Military Branches Explained: Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines

Military Skills

The skills you gain in the military can benefit you throughout your service career and beyond. Here are some skills you may learn if you choose to pursue a military career:

  • Communication

  • Perseverance

  • Flexibility

  • Leadership

  • Collaboration

  • Honesty and integrity

  • Critical thinking

  • Organization and planning

  • Prioritization

  • Conflict resolution

Related: 12 Military Skills to Put on a Resume for Any Job

How to join the military

If you think a career in the military might be right for you, here are some steps you can use to get started:

1. Research branches and roles

Before enlisting in the Armed Forces, think about roles and responsibilities that appeal to you. Research the benefits of the different military branches as well as the specific jobs available to each. Consider speaking with network connections who are currently or were previously enlisted in the military to learn about their experience.

2. Speak with a recruiter

Once you have an idea of which branch of the military appeals to you, visit with a recruiter to determine your next course of action. A recruiter for your intended branch can answer questions about your preferred career path, opportunities available and next steps if you choose to enlist.

3. Explore career paths

After speaking with a recruiter, continue exploring career paths that may be of interest to you in your chosen military branch. Be mindful of the time, education and training necessary to achieve those goals. Consider ways different roles might transfer to civilian careers, if you plan to work outside of the military after your enlistment. You can usually ask your recruiter questions at any point throughout the process.

4. Take required testing

When you have decided to enlist in the military, your next step will be to take the required tests. One test you'll need to take will be the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, at a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS). This test includes multiple-choice math, science and language questions and can take up to three hours to complete. Your results can help determine your enlistment eligibility as well as potential career paths for you.

You will probably also need to go through a series of physical exams to ensure you are healthy enough for military service. You will probably experience a regular physical to check height, weight, reflexes and other physical health measures. You may also e asked to complete physical activities to check for balance and joint health.

5. Enlist and attend basic training

The last step in joining the military is to enlist and attend basic training. The process is a little bit different for every branch, so be sure to ask your recruiter clarifying questions if necessary. Training locations also vary based on which branch you have chosen, as well as other factors particular to the needs of that organization. Basic training usually entails hard physical work, so you may wish to increase your exercise levels to prepare ahead of time.

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