Working in Antarctica
So you're interested in working in Antarctica? I don't blame you. I worked in Antarctica over a 15 year period and it was an amazing experience. In those 15 years I spent about 4 years in Antarctica over 10 trips. I've worked at 4 stations, with 2 national programs. I experienced unimaginable cold down to -108degF and extreme winds over 120 knots. I've seen one day and one night in a single year. I’ve spent 8 months isolated with only 15 other people. And then there are the things that you couldn't even imagine!
I'm not going to go into why you might want to work in Antarctica as that’s for you to decide. But I will discuss how you go about finding the job, how to get it, and some of the realities and maybe why you shouldn't work in Antarctica.
To be clear, many people have just wandered onto this page with a vague half idea or day dream of working in Antarctica. They've sent me some details and asked is it really possible? They’ve got a simple answer from me, “Yes, you’re a perfect candidate – go for it”. Next thing they know they are heading to Antarctica! It is absolutely possible.
Latest NewsUpdated October 2015
Types of Jobs?
Finding a job to apply for is the easy part. There are science jobs, support jobs, and a smaller number of tourism jobs. I've worked for the Australian Antarctic Division, and as a grantee in the United States Antarctic Program. I used to hire people to Winter Over for the IceCube project and for summer work generally doing IT. A grantee in USAP is a scientist, someone who has or is funded by a grant. I actually work for the University of Wisconsin. Most employers, which are national Antarctic programs, have to adhere to national industrial relations laws and hiring practices. Thus their jobs are well advertised.
Photos of people working in Antarctica. Since I get asked about equipment operator positions and firefighter jobs quite a bit I've purposely picked extra photos of people doing these jobs. Not everyone in Antarctica drives a D7 or crane, or is a firefighter. Also all the photos of people who look like they are fighter fighters (not all of them are full time) are doing drills.
But what types of jobs are available? I always tell potential employees Antarctica is like anywhere else, but intensified. Thus any job that is done in the "real" world is done in Antarctica. Whatever you do now, is probably done in Antarctica. Astrophysicist, biologist, glaciologist, chef, garbage management, carpenter, medical doctor, electrician, dentist, plumber, science technician, firefighter, avionics technician, weather forecaster, equipment operator, general assistant, dish washers, and even Project Managers.
There are a few generic jobs such as General Assistant (GA for short), or Dinning Assistant (DA for short) which are perfect for young hard working people wanting to get their foot in the door. These are unskilled labor positions. GAs often spending significant periods of time shoveling snow, while DAs will wash a lot of dishes. For a hard working person with a great attitude these are great opportunities. Often GAs will be assigned as helpers to trades workers. If the person does well they often end up coming back as a trades helper the next season, and who knows where it will go from there. The present South Pole Area Manager (boss of the entire South Pole operations) started her career in Antarctica as a GA!
There are 2 clear types of work in Antarctica, science positions, and support positions. In the case of science research positions people are normally not hired to work specifically to work in Antarctica, but rather to work on a science project. Depending on the project there is then a chance of going to Antarctica to work on the project. But for everyone working on a project that goes to Antarctica there are many more researchers that don't go to Antarctica. Some support positions can be very close to science jobs, such as laboratory managers, but in general support positions are set length contracts to do specific jobs for a set period of time in Antarctica.
The employer for science positions is usually the research institution where the science project is based. There are many science projects in Antarctica involving a small number of people. Thus it is impossible to list all the institutes that are likely to hire scientists that may end up working in Antarctica. One of the exceptions is the IceCube project which hires 2 Winter Over operators each year, and numerous seasonal employees. IceCube positions can be found on their web site.
Support positions are usually hired through the national program of whatever country is working in Antarctica. Generally these National Programs only hire citizens of their country. To work for USAP you have to be an American citizen and to work for the Australian Antarctic Division you have to be an Australian. There are always rare exceptions and the main one that comes to mind is the occasional exchange program. Below is a list of a few national programs that directly hire support personnel.
- Australian Antarctic Division
- Antarctica New Zealand
- British Antarctic Survey
- South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP)
- Argentine Antarctic Program
- Belgian Antarctic Program
- Instituto Antártico Chileno
- Indian Antarctic Program
- Swedish Polar Research Secretariat
- Japan: National Institute of Polar Research
- Italian National Antarctic research Programme
- French Polar Institute
- Germany: Alfred Wegener Institute
The exception for support positions is the massive United States Antarctic Program, USAP. USAP is a program within the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF has support contractors who hire the support staff. All the support positions are presently hired by Lockheed Martin, GSC, GHG Corp, PAE, Best Recycling and UTMB. They hire many hundreds of people each year, and thus this is the main way most people are hired to work in Antarctica.
- United States Antarctic Program
- Lockheed Martin Antarctic Support Contract
- IT Engineers
- Laboratory Assistants
- Project Managers and Project Controllers
- Subcontract Administrators
- Winter Site Managers
- Station Services: Gana-A’Yoo Services Corporation (GSC)
- Dinning Attendant
- GHG Corporation
- Communications Operators and Technicians
- Antenna Riggers
- Systems Administrators
- Network Adminsitrators
- Satcom Engineers
- PAE Inc
- Air Transportation Specialist
- Crane Operator
- Environment, Health, and Safety Engineer
- Facility Engineer
- Fire Systems Technician
- Flight Line Equipment Mechanic
- Fuels Operator
- Heavy Equipment Mechanics / Operators
- Human Resources Generalist
- Maintenance / Construction Trades and Specialist
- Materials person
- Power/Water Plant Technician
- Waste Water Treatment Operator
- Best Recycling
- Haz Waste Technician
- Recycling Technician
- University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB)
- Medical Lab Technicians
- Physician Assistant
- Biomed Equipment Repair
Other professional ways of working in Antarctica are listed below.
Now you're thinking seriously about working in Antarctica. Maybe now is the time to learn a little more about Antarctica. Have you thought about where the South Pole is or other places in Antarctica relative to the rest of the world? I know for many it is obvious. But for many it is a shock that it is really on the axis of rotation of the earth. That there is really only 1 day and night a year at South Pole. And there is a station there with dozens of people working and living there all year round! Other stations not at the South Pole, but maybe on the coast, or inland somewhere else, also have unusual conditions to deal with, be it wind, altitude, or cold.
This leads to the typical terms of employment in Antarctica, specifically the length of time to be spent in Antarctica. Broadly there are two types of jobs, Summer positions, which are typically 6 months or less in Antarctica during the busy summer months, or Winter Over positions which usually involve a summer season followed by a stay during the winter months when the station is completely isolated and self contained. The winter season is usually about 8 months long and with the preceding summer the trip usually on the order of 1 year. Wintering Over is not for everyone (more so than summer positions) and depending on your personality, is mentally and spiritually draining. Many people choose to try a summer position before committing to wintering. Many employers will prefer to hire a person who has had a successful summer experience for a Winter Over position over someone with no experience.
You've found a job you want to apply for and need to write an application. What of your personal qualities and technically skills should you emphasis in the application letter? Employers are very careful about who they employ to work in Antarctica. It costs a lot of money to train and get people to Antarctica. Poor performance not only affects that employee, but can also lead to reduced productivity in the entire community. Significant experience in a profession is an almost must. While there are jobs for helpers and apprentices, because of the limited number of people that can be sent to Antarctica, and the associated cost, most people are employed because they have rock solid and broad experience in their profession.
A job in Antarctica is more than doing a good job technically, it is also about working in a trying environment and being a productive member of the community. But trying environment I mean more than the physical environment, cold, windy, dry, or high, but being in an often stressful and unpredictable work environment. Work schedules are often tight with uncompromising deal lines - end of season. Situations arise such of lack of parts or expertise which result in improvisation, quick thinking, and independence. For these reasons employers are looking for very even keeled people, unflustered when things aren't going well.
There are things employers are trying to avoid. These are red flags for people that will not do well in the small isolated communities, affecting not only their performance, but also the entire community. If you fit into these areas you should strongly consider the possibility that working in Antarctica is not for you rather than trying to deceive potential employers. The big one for me is a person that is over excited, too anxious to get the job, who is expecting a massive adventure on the scale of the heroic age. This type of person will be restless, disillusioned, and unsatisfied. About the worst way of getting over a traumatic even such as a divorce is to go to Antarctica. I'm always looking for people that are running away from their lives. If you have some sort of general dissatisfaction with your life, Antarctica is not the place to go to find yourself. Many people do find themselves there. Some in a negative sense. If you feel you are have trouble fitting in to society it will be worse in Antarctica - unless it's because you've spent too much time in Antarctica already.
Try the Australian Antarctic Division's Working in Antarctica Quiz. While the quiz is a bit obvious, if you have not worked in Antarctica before it may give you an idea about what the work conditions are really like.
The summer months in Antarctica, from about September until February, is a period of hectic activity. During this period many of the supervisors are on the ice and the last thing they are thinking about is hiring for the next season. However at this time the HR department is getting jobs listed and looking for early applications to produce short lists for the return of supervisors from the ice. The most active period of hiring for Antarctica is therefore around February through mid year. Hiring does happen year round, people don't pass medicals, quit, or maybe even don't work out, but this period at the start of the year is when most hiring is done.
There is a job you are qualified to do, you think you want to try working in Antarctica, and you've got an application letter. What else should you consider at this point? There are many applicants for every job, and not many jobs. It can be very hard to break in to working in Antarctica. Don't expect to get the job first time. If you're the sort of person that will get wound up about not getting the position first try, you're not cut out for it. Getting the job requires more than your abilities. Luck and timing is a big part. Keep trying. Don't forget there is a large (relative to the number of jobs) community of people that have successfully worked in Antarctica before, and they will always get preference over a first timer. Listen to the feedback you get from your application. If you get an interview you are a strong candidate, and unless the interviewer suggests otherwise, you are a good chance next time the job comes up - which will be soon because of the limited duration of these positions. You may also be an alternate. Many people pull out once confronted with an offer, or their family or partner convinces them it isn't such a good idea. I initially did not get a job my first try, but then did get an offer when the Old Hand who had been down before decided to go back to grad school and turned down the offer.
Even once you get an offer it will be dependent on you passing a fairly stringent medical, which may include a psychological examination. If are going to winter and have wisdom teeth, there is a good chance they will have to come out. It used to be the case (and still might be) that the Australian program would even have medical practitioners have their appendix out!
The Good and the Bad and Usually Ugly
Now you would be expecting a huge compensation package. If you're lucky it will be okay. Employers use the supply and demand principle to their advantage. Plus it is seen as a privilege to be offered a job, making up for lack of salary. If you are single and young, it will work out well for you. Some countries may have tax advantages. But considering the hardship, potential risks, and very strong work ethic requiring strong self discipline, working in Antarctica doesn't pay well. The person that is the perfect fit for a job in Antarctica would do better elsewhere.
If you've come to this page never having worked in Antarctica, and have made it all the way to a job, congratulations! Drop me a line to let me know how it goes. Once you accept a position it can become very intimidating very quickly. There is a lot to learn in a short time. It can feel a bit out of control. Hopefully I'll get around to writing advice for what to do next. But in general I suggest you watch and listen. You're now the new kid on the block. Don't try and compete with the people who have worked in Antarctica before. Accept that they have more experience (on the ice anyway) and listen to what they have to say. Try and decide what information is useful to you and use it. The next step is becoming the type of person that gets invited back. For me one of the most important traits is people who continue to watch and learn from what is happening around them, no matter how long they have spent on the ice.
Remember at the start I said I’ve told many people they are perfect candidates based on a resume or a brief description of their background. Unfortunately not all perfect candidates turn out to be perfect for the job or even just that particular job. I hired many people to go to Antarctica after extensive interviews and reference checks. I hired people I’d known for years and had been down before. People change, jobs change, crews change, and the environment is uncompromising. I got it right about 2 times out of 3. I’ve changed. I would no longer make a good candidate as I know I would miss my wife and kids far too much. If you have children I recommend thinking extremely hard about it and personally would recommend you not spend that much time away from your family. Antarctica is not that important – take a trip with your family to Alaska instead or check out the Antarctic Tourist page.
Maybe you'll enjoy the experience, maybe not. There is a good chance you enjoy it, but wild horses won't get you to go back. If you're really unlucky some old timer will look at you and say they expect to see you down for many more years. As the old Antarctic FAQ said, first time is for the adventure, second time for the money, and third because you can't work anywhere else.
Tipping, Not Just for Cows
Why give me a tip for this page? I have no business relationship with Antarctica. I maintain these pages as a hobby for the interest and benefit of others. I get daily emails about working in Antarctica and I try and reply to everyone. It has been awhile since I worked in Antarctica but maintain a strong connection to the place and people. But it is hard to stay motivated to keep this page up to date. People showing their appreciation in a tangible way that covers my costs makes the difference for me. For the price of a quality coffee keep me motivated. But what I really want to hear is that you Got the Job!