Best Research Vessels to get on for Unlimited Tonnage

Hey folks!

Looking to break into research vessels from working on OSV’s and was wondering about who runs the “best” boats, hoping people with recent experience in this niche can offer some insight and speak a little on their experiences.

Some criteria I’m looking for insight into:

  • Unlimited tonnage or not
  • Quality of the crew
  • Quality of the company
  • Quality of the vessels
  • General type of work and routes run by the vessels (sailing to interesting places outside of the US)
  • Pay
  • Schedule (ideally looking for minimum of a month on/off up to 3 on/off)
  • Anything else you may deem relevant

Looking forward to hearing about your experiences, will gladly hear anything you have to offer!

The T-AGS fleet is interesting work. I’m not sure which union has them now. They’re unlimited tonnage DP1 ships. Pay and schedule suck though.


Hey thanks for your response! I’ll look more into it, as far as pay and schedule sucking, is it MSC levels of sucking? They seem to be MSC contracts?

There’s a research division up at the Great Lakes. MMP

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The T-AGS are currently AMO. The typical schedule is 4 on - 4 off (months).

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University of Washington is the best. You will automatically be in the IBU if an AB, not sure about licensed or engine. I have sailed with Maersk, Scripps, Univ of R.I. and Woods Hole. All are good, UW shines.

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It’s MSC but contractor operated. It used to be 4 on/2 off, so if it’s 4/4 now that’s better. I don’t know what the pay scale is now, but a while ago it was pretty miserable, and I don’t see why it would have gotten much better.

The work is pretty interesting though, and you go some cool places and spend several days in port at a time.

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Research vessels are not my world but I’ve worked with/known plenty of folks who’ve worked for UW that would share that sentiment. Seems like a good gig if you can get in with them.

Woods Hole has nice boats doing interesting work. They’re unlimited tonnage and iirc work 4 months on, 2 months off.


Columbia university has a ship, MMP has their officers. Hard to get onto, they often lose “funding”.

Edison Chouest has a couple of unlimited ships but they are hard to get onto, not a lot of turnover. You might have to work on a mud boat for awhile.

You will not automatically be in the IBU in any UW Maritime position. You are able to choose if you join the IBU or not. This is a result of the Janus Decision in the Supreme Court 2018.

UW Thomas G. Thompson, Woods Hole Atlantis and U of A Sikuliaq are 3 of the best UNOLS vessels and operations. Scripps Roger Revelle does similar work but il very heard alot of stories from mariners that have left there that would cause me to avoid that operation.

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In my experience, any of the ships in the UNOLS fleet are a decent vessel to live on. Very laid back vibe, not as much stress, and good friendly people. It’s not commercial, so the pay will obviously not be what you’ll be getting on an osv; Science is what is running those vessels, and most are funded mainly by NSF, not greed and money hungry megacorps. But the quality of life makes up for it, I think. I sailed on a USNS white hull run by Mearsk through AMO and it was the worst experience of my life. Toxic work environment if there ever was one. Try for the private institutions and universities, i.e. USF, Scripps, MBARI, URI, BIOS, even NOAA. Pay isn’t great like I said, but you get to see some cool places. And actually enjoy them for a few days. Hitches vary in length, depending on the ship. Unlimiteds are generally 4 on/4 off for officers. Check out the UNOLS job posting website… And you can post a resume online there too.

I’ve worked for USGS for the last 10 years. Vessel management is the most unmaritime group of educated idiots I’ve have ever met. On the other hand the actual science crew that you take on surveys, are a really cool bunch, with different science missions all the time. Currently looking for a engineer.

Are you looking for unlimited tonnage as deck or engineer?

NOAA is good for the former, but only one vessel (Ronald Brown) has unlimited tonnage for engineers, though Lasker is working on getting some loophole for their COI (I’m not 100% on the specifics) so their engineers can get unlimited time.

I’ve worked deck for four years now with them as relief pool, so my schedule is variable and other than a minimum (120 days worked/year, available 90 days during peak season… April-October I believe?) I can set the days I work. There’s permanent crew, which work consistently unless they take leave, and there’s a few boats that have rotational (3 months/1 off, or 4 on/2 off, depends on the boat) positions. The crews can definitely vary, I’ve worked on a third or so of the fleet and I have my favorites, not just in operations but morale, cooks, command, etc.

The boats generally have their specific areas that they stick around, but a few go to some cool places. Sette works near the Marianas and the Northwestern Hawaiian islands sometimes, Explorer has a large ROV and they travel a fair amount. Brown travels around the globe but has much longer assignments.

Pay is a little weird, hourly base pay is crap but everything after 8 hrs and weekends/holidays are all OT, which is pretty decent. I have my issues and complaints, but I imagine every one of the folks on these boards has something to complain about on their ships.


We are looking for 3rd or DDE 4000. We are not as compartmentalized as NOAA the engineer will work the deck during fishing ops.

@Codfather I believe Scripps/ UCSD has two ships but has horrible people and terrible pay.
To the OP @lifeisabeach, Research ships in general are not great jobs. It’s low end work. Meaning you aren’t going to be working with the industry’s best and brightest. If you’re nearing retirement it is not a bad job because it is not physically draining at all. Additionally, if you are not used to dealing with people’s liberal mentality and entailed conduct both from the crew and the science researchers- then it is not worth it. There is a reason these research ships are always hiring. My advice is to stick with the OSV work during this upturn and you can then move to the research vessels during a downturn. Remember COVID is still a thing so even if these ships are traveling to interesting places, they may not be getting shore leave.

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Westcoast89 is totally right on the weirdo science people on research ships. On the other hand they are easy prey and fun to tease.

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I’m deck. The only qualm I have about working for NOAA is that I heard to be a mate you have to go through their officer training program?

Will definitely take this into consideration. Not sure how much longer I’m planning on sailing for so I figured I might as well get some interesting ports under my belt before going shoreside, but that’s a fair point with COVID still being a factor. I feel like the ships I’ve heard about and been on haven’t really taken it seriously so I keep forgetting that it’s still an issue.