Ways to Serve

Enlisted and Officer Paths

There are two very different ways to join the Military: enlisting and commissioning as an officer. Knowing the difference will go a long way toward understanding how the Military works.

Comparing Enlisted & Officer Careers

The choice between enlisting or commissioning as an officer makes a significant impact on the type of experience and training a new recruit receives. Learn the key differences below.


All enlisted jobs require a high school diploma, although with certain exceptions a GED is acceptable. While enlisted careers do include infantry roles, most jobs involve hands-on training for mechanical, transportation, human service or office fields that transfer well to the civilian world.

Good to know: The Services assign careers to where each individual’s skills are most needed, so there is no guarantee service members will receive their first choice for a career. However, the Services do make an effort find the right fit for each service member.


Almost all officer positions require a four-year degree or equivalent.  Officers are the managers of the Military, acting in leadership roles that require planning, directing operations and making critical decisions. Officer positions also include careers that require advanced degrees, such as law and medicine.

Good to know: In exchange for a paid college education and a guaranteed post-college career, Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) cadets commit to serve as officers in the Military after graduation.

Opportunities in the Military

Joining the Military is about finding the right path for you. 

Length 1:19 View Transcript


Narrator: Life is about choices. The small ones we make every day. Get up early, or sleep in? Spend time with friends, or study?

Then there are the big choices. Like your future after school. Go to college? Get a job? Maybe even start a family. You're at a crossroads. The key is to find the right path for you. 

For hundreds of thousands of men and women, joining the Military was that choice. The one that mattered. The Military is full of opportunities for those with ambition. Lifelong careers. Paid education. Experiencing the world. For those who wish to commit to something bigger than themselves, it's a calling. And when they look back at those choices — they realize in service, they can have them all, too. 

If you're considering joining, do the research. Ask questions of people who are there to help. Choose a Service branch which fits your personality — who you are and what you represent. And when you make that leap, when you enlist or join as an officer, you'll be ready. It's your path. And it's just the beginning to a whole new future.

Understanding Enlisted and Officer Ranks

The enlisted and officer paths each have a unique hierarchy of various ranks and insignias. Although ranks and insignias may differ between Service branches, they all indicate a service member’s level of responsibility, leadership and seniority.

Each rank is also associated with a paygrade that is part of a service member’s total compensation. For example, a Marine Corps sergeant has a paygrade of E-5, an Army warrant officer 1 has a paygrade of W-1, and a Navy captain has a paygrade of O-6. As a service member is promoted through the ranks of his or her respective Service branch and path, his or her paygrade will progress as well.

Transitioning From Enlisted To Officer

Most Services have programs that help enlisted service members transition into officer roles. Enlisted service members with the right qualifications may be recommended by their commanding officers for Officer Candidate School (OCS) or Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) if they plan to go back to school.

In addition, there are two other ways service members can earn an officer title. Warrant officers are promoted from the enlisted ranks for technical expertise and rank between the highest enlisted and lowest commissioned officers. Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) are high-ranking enlisted service members who have been given officer-like authority by their superiors. Additional training is provided in both cases.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Alex Burtness
Lieutenant Junior Grade | Alex Burtness Navy