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How to Become a Coast Guard Member: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn about the training and requirements needed to become a U.S. Coast Guard protecting the nation's waterways. Explore potential career paths and routes for advancement.

Should I Become a Coast Guard Member?

To enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard, individuals need to pass physical exams, background checks, and credit histories as well as meet a series of personal criteria. Though there are many different positions within the Coast Guard - from the cook to the search and rescue teams - each individual must participate in the eight-week boot camp which requires extreme physical fitness. Most members of the Coast Guard serve for eight years before being given an honorable discharge. Extra training and a bachelor's degree is required for those who wish to become officers.

Career Requirements

Degree Level High school diploma or equivalent (minimum), bachelor's degree
Degree Fields Engineering, government and marine science
Experience Basic training is 8 weeks, most enlisted members serve at least 8 years
Key Skills Physical prowess, 17-27 years old, judgement and decision-making, active listening, complex problem-solving, coordination and critical thinking
Salary $72,800 (median annual salary for captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels for the Federal Executive Branch, which includes the Coast Guard, 2014; military pay is based upon applicable pay grade)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online

Step 1: Meet Coast Guard Requirements

To enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard, recruits must be 17-27 years old, have at least a high school diploma, be a resident alien or U.S. citizen and have no more than two dependents. During the enlistment process, applicants are required to pass physical exams and background checks that search credit and criminal histories. Prospects must earn a score of at least 45 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, which measures knowledge in science, arithmetic, mechanical comprehension and object assembly. Enlisted members generally serve for eight years, though part of their contract could include inactive service, which is essentially an honorable discharge where the government retains the right to call members back within the contractual period.

Step 2: Prepare for Training

Physical prowess is vital to working in the Coast Guard and necessary to prepare for basic training. The U.S. Coast Guard suggests following a nutrition plan and completing strength, cardiovascular and flexibility exercises to prepare for the rigorous physical requirements of training. It's also recommended that recruits who use tobacco products participate in a cessation program, since smoking is prohibited during basic training. According to the U.S. Coast Guard guidebook, The Helmsman, recruits should memorize the Eleven General Orders, chain of command, military and nautical terminology, the phonetic alphabet, military time and salutes to succeed in the basic training program (www.uscg.mil).

Step 3: Complete Basic Training

U.S. Coast Guard recruits attend basic training for eight weeks in Cape May, NJ. Upon arriving at training, they're given haircuts, uniforms, personal hygiene items and medical tests before being assigned to a company. The company commander teaches recruits military drills, marching, weapons handling and military courtesies. Recruits participate in daily physical conditioning and receive hands-on training in marksmanship, fire fighting, seamanship and water survival methods. After completing basic training, graduates are assigned to their first unit.

Step 4: Become an Officer

Though enlisted personnel can go back to civilian life at the end of their contract and officers do not need to have previously served as enlisted members, individuals interested in becoming U.S. Coast Guard officers need a bachelor's degree. As an alternative to attending a university, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT, offers bachelor's degree programs in several majors, including engineering disciplines, government and marine science. During the summer, cadets complete military training that can include scuba diving, law enforcement, weapons and aviation training.

Individuals who already have a bachelor's degree and would like to become a U.S. Coast Guard officer can apply to the Officer Candidate School (OCS). The 17-week training program prepares candidates to become leaders and includes teaching in marine science, navigation skills and law enforcement practices. Graduates of the Academy and OCS receive the rank of ensign. Additionally, civilian professionals in legal, medical, engineering and maritime occupations could also pursue direct commissions to become ensigns, junior-grade lieutenants or lieutenants, based on their academic and professional background.


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