When you start your Naval career, the future is largely a mystery. As you progress is your career, things will crystalize, you’ll become wiser, and you’ll think, “It would have been nice to know all of this in the beginning.”
I’m going to try and tell you what you should have known about career progression and promotion board math from the beginning.
This diagram below demonstrates the typical career progression of a Medical Corps officer who has no prior service. Assuming you are not picked early for promotion, you typically promote every six years. You will become a Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) at approximately 6 years, a Commander (CDR) at 12 years, and a Captain (CAPT) at 18 years. I had no prior service, I have never been promoted early, and this is exactly the timing I experienced in my career.
Along the left are the ranges of promotion opportunity for each rank from fiscal year 2013-2020. In each year, the promotion opportunity for LCDR has been 100%. In theory, if all the Lieutenants are suitable for promotion they can all be promoted to LCDR. When it comes to the promotion opportunities for CDR or CAPT, interpreting them is a touch more difficult because we have to talk about promotion board math.
Promotion Board Math
In Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19), people were very excited about a 90% promotion opportunity for the FY19 Staff Corps O6 promotion board. But it was easy to misinterpret this opportunity. It did not mean that 90% of CDRs were selected for CAPT.
Where Does the Promotion Opportunity Come From?
The short answer is from manpower projections. How many physicians are getting out or retiring? What is the current Medical Corps manning level for that rank? What are future needs anticipated to be? What is the size of the promotion zone? The answers to all of these questions determines the promotion opportunity and guide Navy Personnel Command (NPC) and the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) when they are making their decision.
As you can see here, the promotion opportunity varies from year-to-year:
Historical promotion opportunities for FY13-20.
But as you can see here, the percentage who are promoted from the in zone group is substantially lower:
Historical percentage of in-zone candidates selected for promotion for FY13-20.
Promotion Board Zones
There are three “zones” for promotion – below zone, in zone, and above zone. Medical Corps officers are below zone for two years, in zone for one year, and above zone until they are either selected for promotion or get out of the Navy. A few people are usually picked early or below zone, but most people will not get picked until they are in or above zone.
FY19 O6 Promotion Board Math
In FY19, there were 74 CDRs in zone for promotion. To figure out how many officers can be selected for promotion, you have to multiple the zone size by the promotion opportunity. For example, if you take the 90% promotion opportunity everyone was excited about and multiply it by the zone size of 74, you’ll see that they could have promoted 67 CDRs to CAPT during the board:
90% opportunity X 74 people in zone = 66.6 (rounded up to 67) people they can pick for O6
These 67, though, were picked from CDRs who were below zone, in zone, or above zone. Usually, there is a small number picked from below zone, and a much larger number from the in zone and above zone categories. Here were the results:
As you can see, the 90% promotion opportunity only led to a 41% selection rate for those who were in zone. The remainder came from the below and above zone CDRs.
The Bottom Line on Career Progression
The typical career progression occurs with a promotion every six years, as detailed in the diagram below. The promotion opportunities listed, though, result in a much lower chance of getting picked when you are in zone because the selections come from those below, in, and above zone.