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Chief suggests someone high-ranking and/or the job is very difficult. There are higher-ranking officers in Star Trek but they are not called chief. I do not know how difficult the job is but on a superficial level, it does not seem difficult to me. Push a few buttons and the person gets transported. I have seen several other Star Fleet officers doing the same thing. Engineers like Geordi have a much more difficult job. Even the "intern" Wesley handles more complex problems.

Why is the job title "Chief" so cheaply used in this case?

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    I always felt the series was very ambiguous if not downright inconsistent on how difficult operating the transporter is. – djechlin Dec 19 '16 at 4:21
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    It is a rank, not an assessment of the difficulty of his job. None of the officers are called "Chief" because it is a rank for enlisted personnel, not officers. O'Brien is not an officer. – Bamboo Dec 19 '16 at 4:21
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    For more on O'Brien's rank you can see: here, here, here, here, and here – Bamboo Dec 19 '16 at 4:29
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    O'Briens ranks has been discussed more than the entirety of Harry Potter questions put together on this site. He never went to Starfleet. He "rose" through the ranks of NCOs. It is discussed a bit in the later episodes of DS9. They actually also made a special rank thingy for his uniform in the later seasons of DS9 too. SUGGESTION: Maybe there should be an O'Brien rank tag on the site. – Cherubel Dec 19 '16 at 8:39
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    Flying a space shuttle does not seem difficult to me. Push a few buttons and the thing re-enters atmosphere, gracefully descends and touches down on the runway. – ComicSansMS Dec 19 '16 at 9:24
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The reason O'Brien is identified as "chief" actually depends on which episode you're watching. His military rank history is a bit unclear throughout the show, but at any given point, one of two possibilities always holds for that form of address:

  • Initially, O'Brien appears to hold the rank of lieutenant (he has the same uniform as other lieutenants and he's addressed that way several times.) However, his specific job duty is "transporter chief". As such, it's acceptable to identify him as "chief" informally.

  • As some point late in The Next Generation, and then for the entirety of Deep Space Nine, O'Brien is identified as a senior chief petty officer. In this case, his rank allows him to be identified as "chief". He was also promoted to Chief of Operations, an NCO position, so it was also proper to identify his job title as "chief".

There's a bit of a flaw in this progression: lieutenant is a commissioned officer rank, while petty officer is not. There's no reason given why he would have lost his commission (did he resign it, was it stripped, etc.?), especially given that he continued to be assigned more responsibilities as he went along.

Regardless of his rank, though, there was always some legitimate reason for other crewmembers to address him as "chief".

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    Could he have been a Chief Warrant Officer, not Chief Petty Officer? A CWO is an NCO that holds a rank equivalent to a Lieutenant, but without the officer's commission. He would then have had the same rank (and potentially uniform, though he should have different insignia) as the Lieutenants. Don't remember the details of the show, but do know military ranks a bit. :) – Erik Johnson Dec 19 '16 at 7:46
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    Hm. And yet the scene when Worf's parents meet O'Brien would seem to indicate that O'Brien and Worf's father were both enlisted men sharing a chuckle. At least that's what I got out of it. Or perhaps it was a position that used to be (or usually is) for enlisted men, but now/on the enterprise are not. – Broklynite Dec 19 '16 at 8:27
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    Perhaps there had been a temporary project to commission senior NCO's as officers and O'Brien had been selected. In the end, maybe they decided that the project wasn't so good and returned everyone back to NCO ranks. It's also possible that O'Brien had a "field commission" a la Wesley due to some unmentioned special circumstance (e.g. replacing a fallen officer in a previous battle), and the commission was revoked later once that fallen officer had been replaced with someone who had attended Starfleet Academy. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Dec 19 '16 at 16:41
  • Temporary commissions are a real thing, so this is entirely plausible. – Kevin Krumwiede Dec 30 '16 at 4:57
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    Can't remember the exact episode, but in DS9, Miles once mentioned that his father like to brag about his son the "Senior Chief Specialist" like that was a rank. So even more confusion and ambiguity – psubsee2003 Sep 7 '18 at 11:49
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An officer would never be referred to as Chief, ever. Even the Chief Engineer, an officer, is called CHENG but not chief. I believe it is just an error on the writer's part. When they needed an enlisted guy, they decided to say O'Brien was a CPO. Surely nobody will remember. If an officer gets busted in rank, he does not go to enlisted ranks, he is lowered in grade. Ensign is the lowest officer rank. Warrant officers do not exist in the Navy. Chief Warrant Officers do, and they are NEVER called Chief. I would suggest that Starfleet is similar, since the basis for most of the ranks are from present day Navy ranks and such.

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    Whilst a decent answer this mostly relates to your experiences in real life, could you edit to explain how this relates to Star Trek? Better yet add evidence that ST uses the ranking system from real life. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 7 '18 at 11:02
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