What is a Midshipman?

Mary McMahon

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 had varying levels of authority and status on board ship.
Historically, midshipmen had varying levels of authority and status on board ship.

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, a midshipman may refer to an officer cadet in training at a naval academy or a merchant marine academy.
In the modern era, a midshipman may refer to an officer cadet in training at a naval academy or a merchant marine academy.

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.

The Navy has ships positioned in waters around the world.
The Navy has ships positioned in waters around the world.

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Discussion Comments

JaneAir

@KaBoom - That's interesting. I didn't know that military colleges were free. That's certainly an incentive for some people to consider attending.

I think it's funny they still use "midshipman" when some of the attendees are now women. Maybe they should consider switching over to midshipperson!

KaBoom

My father attended the United States Naval Academy. All students there are referred to as midshipman. Instead of being called by their first name, they are called "Midshipman" and then their last name.

From what my dad tells me going to the Naval Academy is much different than attending a regular college. I know I didn't get a special title at my college. However, at a military academy you get much less freedom, so I suppose it all evens out.

One other interesting thing about the Naval Academy is that it is free, but then you must serve a specified number of years in the military when you get out. Upon graduation, you are commissioned as an officer and cease to be a midshipman.

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