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In Star Trek, Starfleet academy students take various different courses, for example: medicine, science, communications, exobiology.

But how do cadets make the big chair - what's the career progression that students take?

Take Kirk - he seems to end up in the captain's chair almost by accident rather than following a structured path.

  • Related, possible duplicate: scifi.stackexchange.com/q/12476/51379 – Adamant Aug 18 '16 at 21:12
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    @Adamant : I wouldn't be so hasty. The core question here is what is the typical career progression. The answer to the linked question does that address that. – Praxis Aug 18 '16 at 21:26
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    If you're Kirk it goes Cadet - Captain. Then you get to sit on the big chair and snog all the alien girls. – Valorum Aug 18 '16 at 21:33
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    @Valorum You mean "If you're new-timeline Kirk..." Jack's answer covers Prime (ie, original) Kirk – Adeptus Aug 19 '16 at 1:28
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    @Adeptus - the new timeline is all sorts of dumb – Valorum Aug 19 '16 at 6:59
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While there are plenty of exceptions in the Star Trek universe, due to exceptional valor or need in dire circumstances, typically a cadet needs to graduate from the Academy before he or she can hold a rank. (During time in the Academy, a cadet may be posted to a starship for training purposes, such as Spock's training ship in The Wrath of Khan, but he or she has no rank — simply cadet.)

One he or she does graduate, the typical progression for a command-stream cadet (gold shirts in TOS, red shirts in TNG) as seen through characters' lives in the various Star Trek television series and films is:

  • Ensign
  • Lieutenant Junior Grade
  • Lieutenant
  • Lieutenant Commander
  • Commander
  • Captain

In TNG-style rank pips, these are:

enter image description here

How quickly one can go through these ranks, or even whether they can attain them, is determined by a combination of performance, merit, individual circumstances, and the nature of the missions served.

A couple of potentially confusing points to keep in mind:

  • An individual formally assigned command of a starship may be referred to as "Captain" by other officers even if he or she does not hold the rank of captain (a commander or other more junior officer formally assigned command of a vessel during exceptional circumstances may be granted a field commission of Captain, which temporarily removes this ambiguity in rank; for example, Riker received one in "The Best of Both Worlds")
  • An officer left in charge of the bridge ("given the conn") is addressed as "Captain", even if he or she does not hold the rank

Regarding both the career journey of cadets and the very last point above, Nog and O'Brien exchange relevant remarks in DS9 "Behind the Lines":

NOG: Just a few more minutes, Commander.

O'BRIEN: That's Captain. It's an old naval tradition. Whoever's in command of a ship, regardless of rank, is referred to as Captain.

NOG: You mean if I had to take command, I would be called Captain too?

O'BRIEN: Cadet, by the time you took command, there'd be nobody left to call you anything.

NOG: Good point.

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    In other words, pretty much the U.S. Navy officer ranks at least up through Captain. – user31563 Aug 19 '16 at 1:46
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    I know it wasn't in the original question, but what's the insignia for Admiral? – Django Reinhardt Aug 19 '16 at 10:59
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    @DjangoReinhardt The Admiral's insignia changes around in TNG a few times. Admiral Necheyev has a gold-bordered rectangle with 3 gold pips, aligned parallel to her collar. This is the most common. Admiral Gromek in "The Emmisary" has a gold-bordered rectangle with 3 gold pips, aligned perpendicular to her collar (though the variance might be because she appears to be wearing a dress uniform). Admiral Riker in "All Good Things" has gold-bordered rectangle with 4 gold pips, aligned parallel to his collar. This variance might be because he's in a future timeline. – Joe Cullinan Aug 19 '16 at 18:32
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You have to be in the Command division to work your way to the big chair.

Unless you are commanding a science vessel (like alternate future Crusher) you aren't going to captain a ship wearing anything but Gold (TOS) or Red (TNG). People can move from divisions, as we see on occasion (Worf started in Command, moved to Operations, then was moved back to Command when he transferred to DS9). This doesn't mean Crusher can never achieve the rank of Captain, but she would be a Captain in science, probably serving at a medical facility, and not as a captain of a star ship.

Examples of standard rank advancement:

In the Prime Universe, Kirk has a regular progression for being promoted, although somewhat rapidly. His whole history isn't known, however:

  • He entered Star Fleet Academy for a five year officer training program.
  • He was commissed as an Ensign sometime in the first half of the 2250s.
  • He was promoted to Lieutenant in 2255.
  • In the later half of 2250s he was an instructor (with the rank of Lieutenant) at Star Fleet Academy.
  • Sometime between the late 2250s and 2265, he achieved the rank of Captain and was awarded command of the Enterprise from Christopher Pike.

In TNG you could look at La Forge:

  • La Forge attended Star Fleet Academy
  • He served as an Ensign aboard the USS Victory
  • He served as a Lieutenant Junior Grade as Conn officer aboard the Enterprise-D
  • He was promoted to Lieutenant when he became the Chief Engineer aboard the Enterprise-D
  • One year later he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander aboard the Enterprise-D

Titles can be a little ambiguous though. If you are in command of a star ship, you are called the Captain, regardless of your actual rank. That is the same on Navy vessels, where you might be a Lieutenant Junior Grade in charge of a tug boat, but if there is another crew member, he will refer to you as captain.

How to be promoted:

People who excel at their jobs are often rewarded with promotions. In contrast you can look at the alternate time-line with Picard, where he never achieved more than the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade as a science officer. This was because he was viewed as an officer who always played it safe, and never took risks that would get him noticed.

The other factor that can lead to rapid promotion is a war. If you have a lot of personnel being killed and a shortage of officers, you are going to need to promote people to fill key leadership positions.

In contrast, if you served aboard the NX-01, you never saw a promotion.

  • There's a slight ambiguity between rank, assignment and duty in your answer. For example La Forge held the rank of LtJG, was assigned to the Enterprise-D engineering department, and often took the duty of Conn officer. Similarly, while holding the rank of LtCdr, he was assigned as Chief of Engineering, and (IIRC) occasionally took the duty of Officer of the Watch when Picard, Riker, Data, Crusher and Troi were otherwise engaged. – Stop Harming Monica Aug 19 '16 at 15:29
  • @OrangeDog I added something about the ambiguity of titles. – Jack B Nimble Aug 19 '16 at 16:23
  • I meant more that there's no such thing as "Lieutenant Commander, Enterprise-D". – Stop Harming Monica Aug 19 '16 at 16:42
  • @OrangeDog, oh I meant that to be more what ship he was serving on. – Jack B Nimble Aug 19 '16 at 16:57
  • I know what you meant, but contrast to "Chief Engineer, Enterprise-D", which is a thing. – Stop Harming Monica Aug 19 '16 at 16:58

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