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Star Trek: What Is An Ensign?

As the quasi-military arm of the United Federation of Planets in the "Star Trek" franchise, Starfleet uses a military ranking system for its officers. And as with most organizations, everyone has to start somewhere. In the world of Starfleet, the lowest rung in the chain of command of commissioned officers is that of an ensign, identifiable by the single solid gold pip on these officers' uniform collars.

Aboard a Federation ship, only the cadets or recent Starfleet Academy graduates serving in active duty as midshipmen rank lower among the commissioned officers. Although this lowest rank doesn't come up in later series, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) references his history as a midshipman in the "Star Trek: The Original Series" episode "Court Martial," when he testifies that he was good friends with Starfleet Academy instructor Benjamin Finney back when Kirk was a midshipman. In "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," the appearance of Scotty's (James Doohan) nephew and engineer's mate Midshipman First Class Peter Preston (Ike Eisenmann) implies there are at least two classes of midshipmen.

According to the non-canonical "Star Trek: The Next Generation Officer's Manual," Starfleet cadets, the subject of Paramount's latest series, generally become midshipmen post-graduation once they have finished their final cadet cruises and spend between six and 18 months working in this rank before their promotion to ensign, with common positions for this rank including serving as scientific or technical line officers' junior aides. Midshipmen are promoted to the rank of ensign junior grade, designated with a single hollow pip, where they typically work in assistant roles. From there, they are promoted to the junior officer role of ensign, allowing them to begin work in their chosen occupational track under the mentorship of officers working above them in the Starfleet hierarchy.

A Starfleet officer's career path

Although every Starfleet officer's career track can vary, many spend years working as a midshipman and then an ensign before their promotion to lieutenant junior grade. In the "Star Trek: Voyager" episode "Flashback," Lieutenant Commander Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), a "Star Trek" actor who has since passed away, reveals to then-Ensign Tuvok (Tim Russ) that it took her three years to make ensign. And, as Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) notes in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Datalore," three years is a typical time frame for officers to spend as an ensign before getting promoted to lieutenant. 

However, for most Starfleet personnel, it's time well spent — a journey young Naomi Wildman (Scarlett Pomers) is looking forward to in the "Voyager" episode "Infinite Regress" when she tells Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) she plans to begin at bridge assistant and then work her way up to the rank of ship's captain someday.

Once they've made lieutenant junior grade — identifiable by two pips, one solid and one open — the next rank up is lieutenant, a role recognized by officers wearing two solid pips. From there, the next promotion is lieutenant commander, which is designated with three pips, two solid and one open. Officers who plan to move up from there can follow the chain of command to commander (three solid pips), captain (four solid pips), commodore, admiral, and finally, fleet admiral.

Unlike the 21st-century United States military, Starfleet has a fairly high percentage of commissioned personnel who went to school specifically to pursue a career as an officer. But although they don't get much screen time, there are also plenty of enlisted and non-commissioned officers in the world of "Star Trek," including yeomen, petty officers, specialists, analysts, and technicians.