The term “midshipman” is used in several different ways to refer to an official rank in the navy or on board a merchant ship. Different nations have organized their ranking systems differently, which means that a midshipman may have varying degrees of authority, depending on the nation he or she works for. Insignia used by midshipmen to designate their rank while in uniform are also varied, but are usually very simple, reflecting the fact that insignia get more complex and ornate as one rises in the ranks, as new ranks are traditionally ceremonially pinned to an existing uniform to indicate an elevation in status.
Historically, midshipmen were “young gentlemen” in training to be officers. They had varying levels of authority and status on board ship, depending on the era in which they lived, but were generally assumed to be working their way up the ranks and into an eventual position as an officer. Midshipmen sometimes endured extensive periods of training before being admitted as officers.
In the modern era, the term is usually used in reference to an officer cadet. Officer cadets are people who are in training to become officers, and they may be training at a naval academy or a merchant marine academy. The terms “officer cadet” and “midshipman” may be used interchangeably in this case, with all students in the academy being considered officer cadets and midshipmen. Upon graduation, they are given a formal commission which admits them to the rank of officer and allows them to start working on board ships.
In some navies and merchant marines, the position of midshipman is the lowest commissioned rank. This echoes the historical role of the midshipman, as a trainee on board a ship who is learning to be an officer. As the lowest ranking officer, the midshipman has numerous opportunities for advancement, with advancement being based on performance, time in service, and evaluations from supervisors. Most midshipmen do not remain in this rank very long, progressing to more senior positions rapidly.
Like other officers, midshipmen are held to high performance and character standards. They act as representatives for their national governments, and are expected to conduct themselves honorably on shore as well as on board ship. Penalties for breaking local laws or causing offense to local officials, dignitaries, and citizens can be severe, as a reminder that a midshipman is no longer just an ordinary person, but an embodiment of a national government.