Frequently Asked Questions about working in Antarctica

"The first time you come down for the adventure. The second time for the money. And the third time because you can't function anywhere else anymore."

Tongue-in-cheek information for U.S. citizens wanting to work at U.S. research stations.


Q. I must go to Antarctica! Uh…how do I get there?

There's four ways:

1. As a tourist. This will run you the big bucks. A 10-day cruise leaving from Tierra del Fuego starts at $10-15K US, depending on the ship and time of year -- not including the airfare to South America, which will probably be at least another $3000US. From there, the prices go up. Way up. Research it: the smaller ships can get into more areas, do shore landings, and provide a much more informative and exciting experience, but it comes at a higher price (well worth it, IMO). If you can afford it, do it. Even if you can't afford it, do it anyway. Don't be tempted by the cheapest shoulder-season cruises; early and late in the season there isn't as much wildlife, and the weather is crappier. Better to pay more and get the experience you deserve. A lot of the cruises are eco-oriented, with opportunities for photography and interaction with the wildlife (yes, penguins). Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions is currently the only company that provides support for private expeditions into the interior of the continent; this is in a whole 'nother league. A tourist flight to the pole through ALE costs maybe $50000US or more. The very rich come down in their own private yachts. The not-so-very-rich sometimes come down on their own boats, too, and a few of them actually make it home again.

2. As a researcher, or research assistant. Probably three quarters of the researchers at U.S. Antarctic stations are graduate students who are tagging along to help a Principal Investigator (PI). If you have a PhD, propose a research project to the National Science Foundation. Make sure your proposal has merit, is economical, and promises to cure hundreds of environmental evils while incidentally providing you with a trip to the Antarctic. Your proposal will most likely be discarded, of course, unless the planets are aligned just right, or you have an uncle who's a congressman. Well, at least you tried.

3. As a Distinguished Visitor (DV). Are you a congressman or general? Call the National Science Foundation and say "I wanna go to Antarctica!" All productive work will cease while you're given the grand tour of the continent. The food budget for months will be blown in a single evening when the galley is required to serve lobster and steak. Then you'll go back to Washington and cut the budget even further, because if we're eating such fancy food and have time to give multi-day tours, then clearly we're over-funded. Meanwhile, work will return to something resembling normal on station, except that the winter-over crew will now be eating 1960's vintage MREs and shivering around a lit can of sterno.

4. As an employee. If none of the other three methods will work for you, and you're really desperate, you could try this. That's how most of us get down here. The military used to be a major player too, but that's not really an option anymore. Are you sure you wouldn't rather get a good job in Des Moines as a dental hygienist? No? Okay then, but don't say I didn't warn you...

Q. How do I apply?

Repetitively. Either that, or know somebody who knows somebody who will hire you. Most applicants try several times before they are finally hired. There's a lot of contractors and subcontractors these days, and you have to decide what kind of job you want and who to apply to. For more information, look at: USAP Jobs and Opportunities, for US jobs. If a position sounds interesting, don't be afraid to apply for it even if you feel you're not qualified -- lack of qualifications is not necessarily an impediment to being hired. Another option might be to work on one of the tourist ships, although the crews are predominately Filipinos.

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, buyers, doctors and nurses, communications folks, welders, administrators, bakers and helpers of all sorts. The contractors' charters are to provide logistical support for all U.S. Antarctic stations, so whomever it takes to run a station, they hire. Right now they could really use a good masseuse, sez me.

Q. The pay is good, right?

Get real. They receive enough applications that they can afford to pay employees minimal salaries and treat them like disposable diapers. Some folks take summer contracts just so they can get the free trip to New Zealand. Otherwise, make damn sure you'll love your job, because you won't get paid all that much and the standard work week is at least 54 hours. 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?

Of course not. The long arm of Uncle Sam will reach into your pockets, even down here. Antarctica is not considered a foreign country because it has no government. (Yeah, I think it's a silly law too.) If you have no permanent state-side residence, you can avoid paying state taxes by establishing residency someplace without a state tax. Also, file form 3903 for deducting the cost of moving and storage of your belongings in conjunction with international employment. (Strangely, this form defines a foreign country as being anyplace outside of the U.S. or its territories, go figure.) If you're flexible about your home state, I suggest establishing residency in a state that doesn't have state income taxes before deploying, as this will boost your income by five or ten percent.

Q. What's the average contract length?

About four or five months for typical summer contracts (October thru February) in McMurdo, three and a half months for a summer south pole contract, or thirteen months for winter-over contracts. A winter-over usually starts at the beginning of summer (October-ish) and lasts until the beginning of the next summer. But you should be aware of some gotchas: There are no vacations, no sick days, and no way to leave a station once the winter begins. But then, why would you ever want to leave?

Q. Isn't it cold and dark 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. The secret to staying warm is to wear warm clothing (well, duh), like you would during a snowstorm only more so. On a warm summer day in McMurdo the casual dress is a flannel shirt, jeans, hiking boots and a standard issue parka, 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 issued extreme cold weather (ECW) gear. No, you don't get to keep it when you leave. During the summer months it is dark none of the time, which can be a bit weird when you come out of a dark building into broad daylight at 2am, but that doesn't seem to put a damper on evening parties.

Q. What are the living conditions like?

Dorm living, a lot like college. Some dorms are better than others, ranging from mediocre 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 agency you work for, and how well you can schmooze the housing coordinator. McMurdo and Palmer Stations have shared rooms; South Pole station is mostly single rooms, thank goodness. If you don't like it, you can always build yourself an igloo or pitch a tent. Really. 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, booze, 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. This all sounds so negative. Why does anybody go there?

Adventure. Travel. Boredom with normal living. Interesting work. Pick your reason. Expect to do things everyday that very few people ever get to do, and see things that 99.99% of the world will never see except on TV. Some jobs have direct contact with multiple science projects across many fields of study, which is practically impossible to find elsewhere. Just don't come down here expecting a good love life (unless you're a woman, in which case the odds are good but the goods are odd).

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 a high degree of "spirit of adventure" otherwise they wouldn't be down here. The population is maybe 30 percent women, 68 percent men, and 2 percent of some androgynous sort that resist being categorized. At hiring time they strive for a 50/50 mix of women and men, but not enough women apply (I suspect they're too smart; only guys fall for this bullshit). Maybe more women would apply if they knew how many single, attractive, and financially-secure (okay, well, financially creative) outdoorsy guys are here.

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 HIV positive or a controlled diabetic may not. It's taken on an individual basis, and sometimes it's a mystery how some individuals passed. You can apply for a waiver if rejected, but at that point your future in the program is doubtful. 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). Seriously.

Q. What sort of attitude do the people have about, you know, everything?

Increasingly, there's an environmental awareness. Think of McMurdo like a remote version of Boulder, except that intolerant or over-zealous religious and political views will make you a pariah. Palmer and Pole are the same, only smaller. There's always a few really-annoying-people, with bigoted views or negative attitudes; they usually end up huddled in some corner with each other, grumbling about how miserable they are. Drugs of any kind are not tolerated, probably because the entire station would get high at every opportunity. About the only thing the dispensary ever dispenses is advice. Drinking is officially sanctioned, condoms are freely distributed and sledding is against the rules, which gives you some idea of the managing philosophy. The gay and lesbian communities are there, if usually discreet. Significant-others, whatever your gender preference, may share a room. Heck, they sometimes even allow a married couple to live in the same room with each other.

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. Where can you go once you get there?

It depends on what your job is. If you're needed at a field camp, fish hut, or another station, they'll see to it you get there. Around McMurdo, there's all kinds of remote camps in the dry valleys, on the ice shelves, in the mountains, and out on the ice plateau (where they go to find meteorites from Mars, among other things). Some workers get off station all the time, while others never have a chance to get out. Helicopter pilots and snowmobile repair persons get to go everywhere; everybody hates their guts.

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, pictionary, musical performances (including the infamous IceStock concert), foot races, photography - don't even think of coming here without a good camera -- aerobics, yoga, 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 marathons. There's even a climbing wall in 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 jaw-dropping, truly awesome gym. 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. Talk to any South Pole person who is about to winter and they'll tell you they can't wait for it to begin.

Q. If I came down, would I enjoy it?

You have to answer that for yourself. Some people get off the plane (or boat) and say "Hell no, I'm not staying here," and they leave. That really happens, and you are always free to leave on any available flight. Just don't expect the contract completion bonus. Others would live here forever if they could. Heck, even if you hate it, a summer contract is only four or five months. Yes, it's scary if you haven't done it. But who knows... you might actually like it. To many it becomes addictive -- once the Ice is in their blood they want to keep coming back. One thing, though: going to Antarctica is very hard on relationships back home. Many workers who had good, loving significant-others before coming to the Ice have returned to find their bank accounts cleaned out and divorce papers in the mail.

Q. Reality check! Is this right for you?

It's a job. Yeah, it's in an exotic, remote location, but it's still just a job. And you'll be working your butt off. Don't go expecting amazing field trips or weeks of playing with penguins, it might not happen at all. If it does, consider it a bonus. Most of all, think about what you'll be sacrificing by going, and what you'll do when you get home. This is important because an Ice contract is typically a short-lived thing. Before long you'll be back in the so-called 'real world' and probably need a job again. If you get addicted to working on the Ice it can seriously mess you up (I'm a poster-child for this). You'll come to realize that most of society has been duped into working at crappy jobs for years without much time off; meanwhile, you start to feel that 3 or 4 months off each year for play time isn't enough. God help you if you try to return to a normal 8-to-5 job again, for many of us it simply isn't possible. I'm not being tongue-in-cheek here, I'm warning you that the moment you open your eyes to the possibilities -- and dangers! -- of this lifestyle there may be no going back. Think hard before swallowing the red pill.

Q. Any last bits of advice before I start applying?

No advice, but some practical suggestions... When you apply, be professional, not just another slacker who wants to take pictures of penguins. Know what job you want to do, how long you want to go down for, and target your favorite department. Skilled positions are usually filled last because there's a lot more interviewing involved, and it's sometimes difficult to find good people (especially at the salaries they offer). Some summer positions (remember, austral summer is from October to February) may still be vacant in July or August, and you can start to hear the department managers panicking as they try to find someone. If you get an interview-type phone call in late June or beyond, then they really need someone and your chances are good. You may be able to use their desperation as a bargaining chip to get a more desirable contract length. Returning employees are preferentially hired first, so you're in line behind them; some people have been coming down to The Ice every year for the past twenty years. Hiring begins around March, however they're always looking for good people. A few years ago they stopped hiring chemically-detectable drug users, convicted felons, and psychotic alcoholics who attack people with hammers, although a few still manage to squeeze in through the cracks now and then. If you fall into that category, or you're about to keel over from swallowing your chewing tobacco since age ten, you might want to consider that career in Des Moines as a dental hygienist.

Good luck.

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