How Do Promotions Work in the Military?

Military Promotions

Just like in the civilian world, promotions in the military are a significant milestone in a service member’s career. A promotion is a reward for their hard work, commitment, job performance, and the branch’s belief in their abilities to excel at a higher level.

Because service members advance in rank, promotions come with more responsibility, sacrifice, and accountability. The process for military promotions is different than those in civilian careers. As a professional resume writing services company who works with military, veterans, and those who are interested in the unique military experience, one question we’re always asked is, “How do promotions work in the military?” Because inquiring minds want to know, Empire Resume is providing a brief overview of the factors involved in military promotions.

DoD Promotion Requirements Impacting Promotions

Early in a service member’s career, promotions come much faster. They are automatic for both junior levels enlisted up to E-3 and officers, in the beginning, but as they advance in rank, promotions won’t come as easily or frequently. The primary factors that impact promotions in the military include:

  • Time in grade: The length of time spent in a rank or paygrade.
  • Time in service: The length of time spent in a military branch. It typically begins with the day the member attended basic training.

Promotion Timelines for Officers and Enlisted

Military Promotions

Authorizations, losses, and promotions to the next higher grade create changes in both the time in service (TIS) and time in grade (TIG) for each military service. However, the Department of Defense requires that promotion opportunities for commissioned officers be approximately the same for all the services, when possible, within constraints of available promotion positions.

Promotion Expectations for Officers

The chart below shows the when military officers can expect to be promoted based upon their time in service. Minimum time in grade for promotion is established by federal law, 10 U.S. Code, and is shown below:

  • O-2: 18 months TIG and 18 TIS
  • O-3: 2 years TIG and 4 years TIS
  • O-4 to O-6: 3 years TIG and 10, 16, and 22 years TIS

Promotion Expectations for Enlisted

Promotion timelines for enlisted personnel is different. According to research, below is a list of when enlisted personnel can be promoted:

  • Air Force: The average TIS for promotion to E-3 is 16 months and 3 years for E-4. For E-5 and E-6. The average TIS for promotion to E-5 is over 4 years and 12 years for E-6. E-7 through E-9 are promoted by skill level. Only 1% of enlisted persons can hold the grade of E9 at any time. To be eligible for E-9, an E-8 must have at least 14 years TIS and 21 months of TIG.
  • Army: E-4 requires 2 years TIS.
  • Coast Guard: The Coast Guard is the only service that automatically advances members to E-2 when upon graduation from basic training (boot camp). In some cases, they are eligible for promotion up to E-3 upon graduation from boot camp, based on either enlisting for six years, or prior military experience.
  • Marine Corps: The average TIG is six months for promotion from E-1 to E-2 and is virtually automatic. An E-2 requires nine months TIS and eight months TIG.
  • Navy: Advancement in these ranks are fairly straight forward, and virtually automatic, though the move to E-3 may require certain Professional Qualifications or Apprenticeship Exams before becoming eligible and expects a minimum performance level.

Promotion Limitations

Military Promotions

Congress controls how much enlisted personnel can be on active duty at any point in time, and the maximum numbers of people that can serve in pay grades above E-4. A service member cannot be promoted until there is an opening in the next rank.

Often, promotions do not take effect immediately. It’s possible for a service member to wait months until the promotion is official.

Military Promotions by Branch

Each branch of the military, has its own methods of promoting service members. According to Military One Source, the approaches are as follows:

  • Army

Soldiers receive “duty performance points” from unit commanders when they demonstrate qualities of the next rank, including competence, military bearing, and leadership. Certain point counts are required to achieve the next rank.

  • Air Force

Airmen compete for promotions past E-4 through service records and recommendations from superior officers. Some Airmen qualify for accelerated promotions to higher ranks through special programs such as below the zone or stripes for exceptional performers.

  • Marine Corps

Marines compete for promotions after E-3 pay grade. They need good scores on their service records, which combine factors such as physical fitness test results, time in service, and conduct and duty proficiencies.

  • Navy

Sailors compete for promotions past E-3 using a combination of exam scores and a point system. Points are awarded for time served in specific jobs, awards, completed schooling and other factors.

  • Coast Guard

Although the Coast Guard is a part of Homeland Security, in times of war, they are a part of the Navy. Overall, Coast Guard promotions are based on merit, eligibility exams, evaluations, and appointment.

  • Space Force

Guardians may be going before panels to achieve higher ranks. According to Air Force Magazine, the Space Force is eyeing promotion boards for ranks above E-4.

Ceremonies for Military Promotions

Military Promotions

Every military promotion, no matter how big or small, is an achievement worth celebrating with a promotion ceremony. A ceremony affords the opportunity to receive recognition from fellow service members, family, and friends. These ceremonies are filled with tradition and history based on each branch, and may involve exchanging coins, a pinning ceremony, and a reception with cake.

It is customary for the spouse and children to participate in the pinning ceremony by pinning the new rank on the service member. However, a close friend or anyone else who may have made an influence on his or her life may do the honors.

Empire Resume is the Best Career Resource for your Military-to-Civilian Transition

At Empire Resume, we not only share the curiosity about how military promotions work, we know how it works firsthand. As company founder, I’ve gone through the promotion process myself and have watched others do the same. When you or someone you know is ready to begin their career search outside of the military, contact the best military-to-civilian resume writers at Empire Resume. We deliver results, guaranteed!

Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for service-members transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.

Military Promotions

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