Enlisting in the U.S. military or going to officer training can help students launch a career that provides lifelong benefits for them and their families. Whether you enlist and take advantage of tuition benefits down the road or complete your college education and go into your military career as an officer, you have a variety of well-paying options and promotion opportunities available to you in a military career.
A common misconception about military jobs is that they do not pay well. However, according to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, a promotion to full General or Admiral pays a minimum of $16,608 per month (nearly $200,000 per year).
Other military career benefits may include subsidized education costs, guaranteed home loans, and medical care at military hospitals1. When you consider these benefits, a career as a military officer can be an attractive option for those looking for a high-paying position with job security and upward mobility. These careers can also translate to high-paying civilian roles.
Use this guide to learn more about some of the highest-paying military career paths available, as well as how to acquire the skills needed to pursue these careers.
Highest-paying Military Ranks
The list below explains the ten highest pay grades, most of which are for officers. In the pay grade codes, O=officer, W=warrant officer (usually non-commissioned), and E=enlisted. Amounts equal monthly salary; years of experience are listed to indicate the time at which salary tops out for that rank.
- O-10 (20 years’ experience): $16,608 per month
- O-9 (26 years’ experience): $16,608 per month
- O-8 (34 years’ experience): $16,333 per month
- O-7 (30 years’ experience): $14,065 per month
- O-6 (30 years’ experience): $12,638 per month
- W-5 (38 years’ experience): $10,856 per month
- E-9 (38 years’ experience): $8,752 per month
- W-4 (30 years’ experience): $8,691 per month
- O-4 (18 years’ experience): $8,574 per month
- O-3E (18 years’ experience): $7,839 per month
Highest-paying Military Career Jobs
Military pay is based on rank and time in service and applies across all branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Extras that affect base salary include hazard pay, signing bonuses, foreign duty pay, submarine or flight duty, or work as a medical or dental officer2.
The highest-paying careers in the U.S. military require years of experience, often more than 20. Officer positions generally require at least a four-year college degree, with more education required for more specialized positions, such as scientists or doctors.
A degree in military science or a related field may qualify graduates for the following list of careers in the military. These career paths also provide transferable skills to high-paying careers outside of the military:
Air Crew Officers
These officers perform and direct in-flight duties to complete an array of military missions and assignments, including reconnaissance, transport, and search and rescue missions. In a comparable civilian position, an experienced flight instructor with over 20 years of experience can make about $80,000 per year3.
Aircraft Launch and Recovery Officers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), officers in these positions “plan and direct the operation and maintenance of catapults, arresting gear, and associated mechanical, hydraulic, and control systems” used when aircraft take off or land4. For instance, a catapult and arresting gear officer and similar airport operations officers can make up to $70,000 per year as a civilian5.
Armored Assault Vehicle Officers
These military officers “direct the operation of tanks, light armor, and amphibious assault vehicle units during combat situations on land or in aquatic environments,” according to the BLS4. As an example of a career in this field, a broadcast technician can earn $53,520 as a sound engineering technician in the civilian workforce6.
Artillery and Missile Officers
Artillery and missile officers manage service personnel, as well as weapons and operations. Depending on the military branch, they may coordinate the operation and maintenance of field artillery, fire control, intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear munitions, and weapons security. In the civilian world, these officers may find careers as logisticians, earning an average of $76,270 per year7.
Command and Control Center Officers
Officers in this specialty manage critical communication channels between air, naval, and ground forces and coordinate emergency response services. In the civilian world, they may work as air traffic controllers with an average salary of $130,4208 or emergency management directors, who earn an average of $76,2509.
Infantry officers train and lead personnel in ground combat. They must direct the deployment of weapons and other equipment, direct location operations, manage communications, coordinate with support units, and plan battles and reconnaissance. A veteran infantry officer can use their skills to work as, for example, a police detective, making an average salary of $67,290 per year10.
Special Forces Officers
Military special forces are elite teams that carry out “unconventional operations” such as raids, demolitions, reconnaissance, search and rescue, and counterterrorism. Leading a special forces unit requires not only intelligence and technical skill but also a high level of physical fitness for activities such as parachuting, diving, swimming, and survival. An officer with this training can go on to supervise EMTs or firefighters as an emergency management director, with an average salary of $76,25011.
Military Officer Special and Tactical Operations Leaders
This category of special and tactical operations officers covers a number of operations officer careers not included under other categories. In the Air Force, for example, a special tactics officer provides air traffic control, establishes command and control communications, coordinates and conducts reconnaissance and surveillance, and keeps teams trained and equipped for missions. Because these officers need coursework in technical, administrative, and management areas, they may find careers as managers in various fields, with pay ranging from $49,100 to $151,000 per year12.
Medical, Pharmacy, and Dental Services
Military careers in these healthcare fields approximate civilian careers with similar titles. For example, a military pharmacy specialist may be qualified to work as a pharmacy specialist earning about $121,500 per year on average13.
Careers in many of these fields often require advanced degrees or specialized training.
Popular Career Paths With a Military College Degree
Once your military career ends, you can translate your officer skills into a civilian career. These industries offer military graduates many opportunities.
Careers in aviation can pay extremely well. For example, airline and commercial pilots, who fly commercial airplanes rather than fighter jets, can earn about $130,440 per year14. Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians, who maintain and repair aircraft, make on average $66,68015.
The healthcare field contains many possible opportunities for veterans. For example, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners provide primary and sometimes specialized health care and usually can prescribe medications, order tests, and diagnose illnesses.
Computer Security and Networking
Veterans who are network experts can find careers as network and computer systems administrators. These workers handle day-to-day operations of computer networks, including local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), network segments, and intranets. These professionals earn an average of $84,810 annually16.
The field of cybersecurity is growing, and veterans with skills in information security analysis stand to earn $103,590 per year, on average17. Skills needed include monitoring networks for security breaches, installing firewalls, documenting breaches, conducting penetration testing, developing security best practices, and helping end-users secure their equipment.
Veterans with firefighting skills gained in the military can join local firefighting or emergency services organizations. With EMT training, firefighters can earn an average of $52,500 per year responding to fires and other emergencies that involve danger to lives, property, or the environment18.
Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement
A popular choice for veterans, careers in criminal justice and law enforcement include police officers, private investigators, paralegals, forensic science technicians, bailiffs, and probation officers, to name a few. The highest pay goes to police officers and detectives, who can make an average of $67,290 per year10.
Average Salary for Military College Graduates
Military schools in the United States include the United States Naval Academy, United States Air Force Academy, United States Coast Guard Academy, United States Merchant Marine Academy, and United States Military Academy at West Point.
These schools offer specialized degree programs that prepare graduates for military careers. However, you do not need a degree from a military institution to become an officer. A degree from an accredited college or university can be good preparation for an officer career.
Military pay is based on rank and pay grades for enlisted rank, warrant, and commissioned officers, rather than on the choice of college.
How to Find a Job After You Graduate
To improve the chances of being hired into a military career after college, you can take one of several paths.
Consider attending a senior military college or a service academy. Another good option is to enroll in a traditional university or college that offers a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program on campus.
Army, Coast Guard, or Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS) is a third option. In the Air Force, this is known as Officer Training School (OTS), and in the Marine Corps, it is called the Platoon Leaders Course (PLC). Both traditional college graduates and enlisted service members who wish to transition into officer positions can attend OCS, according to Today’s Military.
Officer School programs last between 9.5 weeks (Air Force) and 17 weeks (Coast Guard) and prepare graduates to enter the given service branch at the level of ensign (Coast Guard, Navy) or Second Lieutenant (Army, Marine Corps, Air Force). Base pay for these officers at rank O-1, with fewer than two years’ experience, is $3,386 per month.
Graduation from a military college or university avoids the need to secure additional training in an Officer School and guarantees job placement. For instance, U.S. Naval Academy graduates attain a bachelor of science degree and a commission as an ensign in the Navy or second lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
The cost of attending a military college or university is as affordable as it gets: free. However, a service commitment is required of all graduates and varies by branch. For example, the Coast Guard, Navy, and Merchant Marines each require five years of service.
Discover More About a Career With a Military Degree
Q. How hard is it to get into a military college?
It is fairly difficult and competitive. The National Center for Education Statistics data suggests the average acceptance rate is about 9.8% across all service academies. Four of the five service academies (not the Coast Guard Academy) require a nomination from an authorized source, often a member of Congress. Applicants also need strong SAT or ACT scores, excellent high school academics, leadership experience, community involvement, and athletics and extracurricular activities on their resumes.
What does military college cost? Military colleges are tuition-free to accepted students in exchange for a period of service post-graduation.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Military Careers. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/military/military-careers.htm
 Defense Finance and Accounting Service. (2021). Military Pay Tables & Information. https://www.dfas.mil/militarymembers/payentitlements/Pay-Tables/
 PayScale. (2021). Flight Instructor Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Flight_Instructor/Salary
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). 2018 Standard Occupational Classification System. https://www.bls.gov/soc/2018/major_groups.htm#55-0000
 PayScale. (2021). Average Airport Operations Officer Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Airport_Operations_Officer/Salary
 PayScale. (2021). Broadcast Technician Salary. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Broadcast_Technician/Hourly_Rate
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Logisticians. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/logisticians.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Air Traffic Controllers. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/air-traffic-controllers.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Emergency Management Directors. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/emergency-management-directors.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Police and Detectives. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Emergency Management Directors. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/emergency-management-directors.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Management Occupations. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/home.htm
 PayScale. (2021). Average Clinical Pharmacy Specialist Salary. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Clinical_Pharmacy_Specialist/Salary
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Airline and Commercial Pilots. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/airline-and-commercial-pilots.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Aircraft and Avionics Equipment Mechanics and Technicians. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/installation-maintenance-and-repair/aircraft-and-avionics-equipment-mechanics-and-technicians.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Network and Computer Systems Administrators. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/network-and-computer-systems-administrators.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Information Security Analysts. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Firefighters. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/firefighters.htm