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September 29, 2004 at 2:58 am #790SciencetechKeymaster
US citizens seeking employment in Antarctica can apply with the US Antarctic Program (USAP) primary contractor, Raytheon Polar Services Company. The RPSC web site, http://rpsc.raytheon.com/, describes the jobs available and application process.
Q. What kind of jobs are there?
Just about every kind of job you can think of. Mechanics, cooks, painters, carpenters, cargo handlers, computer people, electricians, plumbers, forklift and heavy machinery operators, laboratory assistants, housekeeping, doctors and nurses, communications folks, welders, administrators, bakers and helpers of all sorts. Sorry, no lawyers.
Q. What’s the average contract length?
About four or five months for typical summer contracts (October thru February), or thirteen months for winter-over contracts. A winter-over usually starts at the beginning of the austral summer and lasts until the beginning of the next summer. There are occasionally some 6-month summer contracts, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Most first-timers do a single 5-month summer contract.
Q. What is this job fair I keep hearing about?
RPSC holds a job fair, always in Denver and sometimes at additional locations, usually around the beginning of April. This is to hire people for the upcoming season, jobs that typically start in October. If you don’t already know someone in the program who can get your foot in the door, the job fair is your best opportunity to make some contacts and find out more about the positions available. It’s basically a bunch of department managers and/or assistants standing behind tables collecting resumes. Plan on spending a few hours chatting with them and, hopefully, being informally interviewed. Many determined applicants fly in from around the country just to attend the fair for an hour or two, as this may give them an edge over applicants who only throw a resume into the electronic black-hole of the Rayjobs website.
Q. Isn’t it cold all the time? How do you stand it?
Yes, it’s cold. It is Antarctica after all — you know, the frozen continent, 98% covered by ice, the rest covered by cargo lines, that sort of thing. On a warm summer day in McMurdo the casual dress is a flannel shirt, jeans, gloves, hiking boots and a windbreaker, which gives you some idea of the typical weather near the coastline. Farther inland it gets much colder and people resort to wearing all their standard-issue extreme cold weather (ECW) gear. No, you don’t get to keep it when you leave. If you’re properly dressed it’s usually not too bad.
Q. What are the living conditions like?
Dorm living, a lot like college. Some dorms are better than others, ranging from pretty good to truly squalid. The room you get (and number of roommates) will be determined by your position on the totem pole of Antarctic tenure, your job or the agency you work for, and how well you can schmooze the housing coordinator. Meals are cafeteria-style, with the smaller bases enjoying better food because the cooks can personalize things a bit more. There’s a store which sells souvenirs and toothpaste, a bar or two on station, and a gym or work-out room. If you’re at a field camp, however, don’t expect any of this. At least you don’t have to mow the lawn.
Q. The pay is good, right?
Get real. They receive a lot of applications, so the positions are competitive and the salaries are not. Still, room and board is free (such as it is), so you do end up saving quite a bit, and you don’t have to deal with financial nuisances such as car insurance or rent.
Q. But what about taxes? Don’t you get to keep everything you make?
Not anymore, if ever. Antarctica is not considered a foreign country. Yup, you read that right.
Q. Can I volunteer? I’ll work for free!
Fantastic! Gimme your paycheck. No, really, all kidding aside: transporting and providing for people in Antarctica takes a tremendous amount of time, money, and resources. The work week is 54 hours (minimum), and everyone is expected to help with the grimy, unpleasant tasks. It can be arduous, so there’s a good reason why you’re paid. People who just want to come down for a couple weeks and take some pretty pictures need not apply.
Q. I am superman (or woman)! I can do anything! I teach snowboarding at an outdoor school, travel the world, drove my brother’s snowmobile once, lived in Wisconsin for a year, and I have a degree in art education. This makes me more qualified, right?
Uh, perhaps. How about some practical knowledge? Can you operate a forklift. Inventory a warehouse. Wire a network. Rebuild a small engine. Fix a toilet. Install an HF antenna. And almost always tell the difference between mogas and diesel? In the end, it’s just a job — like any other job in the states — but happens to be in an exotic location. There are unskilled positions, general assistant (GA) and dining assistant (DA), but knowing a trade makes your odds much better.
Q. How is Raytheon as an employer?
The square peg of corporate culture has been pounded into the round hole of field camp work. This does not suit everyone, of course. The best coping strategy appears to be a “whatever” sort of response to every swing of the bureaucratic hammer. Did you expect anything else?
Q. How about the people? Is it all mountain-men and rugged individualists?
There’s a few of those around. But for the most part the people are just normal folks. Obviously, many of them have an adventurous spirit otherwise they wouldn’t be there. The population is maybe 35 percent women and 65 percent men. The average age is in the 30’s, although there are people from 18 to 70+. Generally speaking, most Ice people are easy-going and rather educated. Many lead “lives of experiences” rather than careers, and working with them is often enjoyable and eye-opening. It’s one reason why a lot of us keep going back year after year. The environment may be cold, but the people are very cool.
Q. Are there any Eskimos? What about polar bears?
Bzzzzzt. You lose. Thanks for playing. Now go back to third grade and study geography again.
Q. This is like the space program, right? You have to be in excellent health?
Everyone has to pass a physical and dental exam, but so long as you’re not at immediate risk of dropping dead then you have a chance. Things like a serious heart condition can be show-stoppers, but being diabetic may not. It’s taken on an individual basis. Winter-over candidates are subjected to a bit more scrutiny, including a dubious psychological exam. What stops most people is bad teeth (not counting cold feet).
Q. What is there to do?
You’ll be working most of the time. But somehow, amid all the noise and confusion, you’ll find yourself doing a lot of interesting things. Just to name a few: hiking, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, volleyball, video parties, camping, musical performances (including the infamous IceStock concert), foot races, photography – don’t even think of going there without a good camera, aerobics, cooking, science lectures, art projects, slide shows, making silly FAQ files for your web page, mountain biking, search and rescue exercises, reading, stitch-and-bitch sessions, dances, and special events such as golf or rugby in the snow. There’s even a climbing wall and bowling lanes at McMurdo. Some people volunteer time at the library or greenhouse. Palmer has boats which can be used to explore the local islands. South Pole has a new gym and good karma. And then there’s boondoggles: the term given to any off-station trip, usually rare and highly coveted, to a scenic or special location. This can include jaunts to go see penguins, helicopter flights, trips to historic sites or other stations, or even flights to the Pole. But mostly, you’ll be working.
Q. What is the winter like?
Wintering-over is a very paradoxical thing. It sounds terrible: it’s dark, very cold, there’s not many people, and it’s often difficult to get outside for any kind of recreation. People who haven’t wintered give words of sympathy to those who are about to. But the majority of folks who have wintered-over agree that it’s much more enjoyable than the summer. A lot of it has to do with the number of people on station: when a station closes, the population decreases dramatically and the whole attitude changes. Time is suddenly available for work or personal projects that had to be put off during the hectic summer months. The station becomes closer, tighter-knit. And if you have an appreciation for your surroundings, Antarctica is unbelievably beautiful in the winter.
Q. Is it dangerous?
Yes. Very dangerous. You may fall into a deep lifestyle from which you cannot escape. It can be addictive. It will make you question why you spent so many years working at a stupid 8-to-5 job. Your family will think you’ve lost your mind, and they’re right. You may start selling all your belongings, and what’s left you’ll shove in a dusty storage locker that you won’t open for years at a time — and not miss any of it. And when you return to so-called civilization, you may wander the earth like a lost child, gawking at the strangeness of it all. Once the Ice gets in your blood you can never get it out. Be safe: stay home, watch TV, and forget all about this.
Q. Any last bits of advice before I start applying?
Go to the RPSC job fair in Denver, hand out resumes and network your brains out. Be professional, it can’t hurt. Know what it is you want to do, how long you want to go down for, and target your favorite department. Get the email addresses and phone numbers of the hiring managers so you can contact them later when you haven’t heard from anyone. Skilled positions are usually filled last because there’s a lot more interviewing involved. Remember, most summer positions are from October to February. Returning employees are often preferentially hired first; some people have been coming down to the Ice every year for the past twenty years. Even so, be persistent and you’ll have a good chance of freezing your butt off with the rest of us.
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