From Pearl Harbor, HI — 02/23/2010
First, I'd like to note that I'm an officer, specifically a Surface Warfare Officer (which I'm almost positive is, by far, the largest officer community not just in the Navy, but in the entire American military). I've read some of the other responses here, most of which are from enlisteds. I'll admit freely - life between officers and enlisteds is significantly different. Officers get a lot more pay, responsibilities, respect, and generally have longer hours. I will be reviewing life as an officer - trying to review officer life in general, but again, I'm a SWO. If you're considering enlisting, good for you, but don't put too much weight into this review.
Pay - Coming right out of college, pay is tremendous. The low $30K pay for an engineering major isn't anything to brag about, but bear in mind that the Navy gives you allowances for food and housing. Aside from the fact that you pay for your own uniform (enlisteds don't), all of your pay after taxes can be spent for whatever you want. I have friends in college that have pretty much the same salary as me and although they aren't struggling financially, they don't have the discretionary income that I do since much of their money goes right into food and housing.
Respect - Most people on the street have the utmost respect for military personnel, especially officers. As a lower-level officer, you immediately outrank all enlisteds. I'm not saying that's fair, but that's the honest truth. The rules of fraternization make it so you can never really be friends with enlisteds per se, but they have to at least pretend to respect you. Many enlisted personnel do hold grudges against officers in general, and rightfully so - there are some bad ones out there. But for the most part, if you do a decent job, you'll get respect. Being in the Navy is not an easy job, and it's a volunteer military. Most people around you respect you for defending your country.
Benefits - Top notch. Full health care, 30 paid days off a year, use of military discounts, access to USAA, and the best retirement plan I've ever seen. If you make a career, i.e. 20 years, out of the Navy, you get half of your pay for the rest of your life after you retire. And if you do it for 25 years, 75% of your pay. Guaranteed by the US government. Unless our economy tanks so much that the government pretty much ceases to exist, no recession can touch your pension. Plus, the GI bill is awesome, and depending on what you do, the Navy might pay for another degree. I'm hoping to get an MBA from an Ivy League school in the next couple of years on the Navy's dime, and I don't think that's an unrealistic plan.
Job Security - Realistically, if you don't make lieutenant commander (third promotion) by 10 years or so, the Navy will whisk you out. Be sure to keep on studying and get whatever certifications you need. For an SWO, get that SWO pin. If you don't, you're pretty screwed. But if you keep up with it, your job is secure. I won't claim that it's the safest profession in the world, but that's a given.
Work/Life Balance - Biggest negative by far. While you're out at sea, 14-hour days six or seven days a week are luxuries. I always managed to have time to do what I needed to do, work out, and sleep enough, but that's pretty much it. Life while stationed at land is pretty much like a regular job, 8-9 hour a day, MF. But you'll be out at sea probably about half of the year, depending on what specifically you do. SWOs work very long hours. Plus, the Navy owns you; if something comes up where you need to work longer hours, or be deployed longer, you either do as you're told or find yourself arrested. Showing up late to work is literally a crime. They won't prosecute unless it's a very regular occurrence, but this is *not* a job you can quit from or make intentional gaffes.
Career Potential/Growth - If you stick around, you can have a great, prestigious career. And if you don't, you'll learn valuable skills and make great contacts. If you do your four years and leave, having "US Navy Officer" on your resume can get you a much better job than some other random 27-year old.
Location - Frankly, you get little say in where the Navy puts you. And you're on a boat a lot. If you don't like boats, um, don't join the Navy.
Co-worker Competence: Most people know what they're doing. Some don't. A few people sign up for the Navy and hate it, doing a poor job and waiting for their contract to run out. Overall though, I'd say people are good.
Work Environment - High stress, long hours, uber-competitive, lots of yelling and crazy rules. I realize the necessity for this particular environment, but even though I plan to make a career out of it, I'd be lying if I said I was a fan of the culture.