Research Ship Life- What's it really like?

Hi all! I’m a senior at Great Lakes Maritime Academy and im considering sailing with the UNOLS fleet after graduation- either as an AB or as a Third Mate if I’m lucky enough to find an open position. I was hoping some of you with experience in this part of the industry could weigh in on what to expect- especially since all of my sailing experience and most of my industry knowledge is inland (Western Rivers and Great Lakes).

Thanks in advance,


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I’ve spent over 15 years with UNOLS research ships as an engineer (in various positions including sailing, after several years sailing commercial after graduating CMA.) Here’s what I can tell you for starters.

The good:

  • Every research cruise/mission is something different, maybe with multiple science projects going on a single cruise. It is generally anything but boring. Science personnel are usually good to work with (and UNOLS crews tend to be a lot more interactive and helpful to them than what I experienced sailing with NOAA as an engineer.)

  • Similarly, for a new crewmember (and particularly a newly licensed/credentialed one,) the other crew are almost always willing to teach anything you want to know about your ship. (And that goes for all departments; these ships are too small for the “oil and water don’t mix” BS that was still around when I started sailing.) Life aboard is generally pretty mellow; the staterooms are fairly small, the unlicensed crew are frequently in two-person rooms (as are the scientists), but the overall morale is good. (Most are also very good feeders!)

  • As a Mate or even an AB, you will get a LOT of ship-handling experience; while many of the newer ships have DP capability, there’s still quite a bit of keeping station on-hand with equipment over the side, or towing off the beam or off the stern. And you’ll often be doing it by night as well as by day, depending on the mission, and in some cases running deck operations.

  • A plus is that your training ship STATE OF MICHIGAN is very similar to many UNOLS ships in size and design. (A number of the Stalwart-class T-AGOS were transferred to NOAA from the Navy and refitted as research ships; one was my first job out of the hall and my intro to oceanographic research vessels.)

The not-so-good:

  • The pay is not great when compared to most of the industry. All UNOLS ships are owned by the National Science Foundation, the Navy, or the institutions that operate them (NSF and USN ships are run by institutions under grant; all use their own pay scales.) At this point, we’re about on par with NOAA or MSC, but you’re not going to make mad bank. Most do have provisions for additional “shore leave” time and additional sea pay for time underway. Unless you’re just sailing relief, you will be a permanent employee of the operating institution.

  • Depending on the ship, you may not make unlimited license time. The newest ones in construction (Taani-class Regional Class Research Vessels) will still be at USCG Limited Tonnage/Limited Horsepower for sea time at this point. Globals and Oceans such as the Armstrong-class and the polar ship SIKULIAQ are unlimited tonnage/unlimited HP.

  • There is virtually never a standard rotation schedule as with most commercial lines. Mission/cruise lengths can range from a few days to 30 days or more. and as a permanent employee you’re generally working an 8-hour day ashore, and expected to live in the general area. There are a few Ocean/Global class that may see their actual homeport once in two years (though obviously they’ll arrange reliefs on a regular basis.)

Those are the high and low points; I’d be happy to answer anything else if I can. I will tell you that good crew are always in demand in the academic research fleet, and with the evolution of the newer ships having good training, and the willingness to learn more, will get you hired, and kept on if you’re good and decide you like the work.


I spent many years off and on in the UNOLS fleet. Well worth it, especially if you don’t have family commitments ashore. The hirches can be long. When i was young and single. It is a great oportuniry to gain seatime, knowledge, and talk to interestong people amd go to cool places. Money is not always the highest, but the experience is worth it.


Thank you for all that! Any ships/ institutions that you’d reccomend in particular?

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The T-AGS fleet is another option. MSC white hull ships, civilian operated, with Navy civilian oceanographers onboard. None of the nonsense of having to live in the area or tied to a dock - those ships are almost nearly always at sea.


If sailing out of Manama, 2 or 3 weeks at sea with 2 or 3 days r&r at the base with a bar, pool and delicious pizza

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Can’t hurt to go for a hitch, and see if you like it. All those research vessel operators most likely have openings right now, especially because most are non-union for deck, have bad retention, and have horrible pay. I know some MEBA engineers that have enjoyed working on the NOAA vessels but their deck is NOAA Corp (aka non professional mariners and horrible pay). I know MMP has the deck contract for the Columbia university ship so I would try that first. But whatever you do stay away from those Scripps/ San Diego University ships. Nothing but horror stories coming out of that organization. Unorganized and unprofessional to say the least.

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As I work for a UNOLS institution, I will just give a short list of the majors with little comment.

  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (R/V NEIL ARMSTRONG, R/V ATLANTIS). ATLANTIS is primarily the deployment/support ship for DSMV ALVIN, but equipped for other oceanographic work.

  • University of Rhode Island (R/V ENDEAVOR, due to be replaced by Taani-class R/V NARRAGANSETT DAWN circa early 2024.)

  • University of Delaware (R/V HUGH R SHARP)

  • Columbia University/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (R/V MARCUS G LANGSSETH)

  • LUMCON (Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium) (R/V PELICAN)

  • University of Southern Mississippi (R/V POINT SUR)

(The two above are part of a larger consortium that will be operating the Taani-class R/V GILBERT R MASON circa mid-2024.)

  • University of Alaska - Fairbanks (R/V SIKULIAQ)

  • University of Washington (R/V THOMAS G THOMPSON)

  • Oregon State University (R/V OCEANUS retired, will be replaced by RCRV class ship R/V TAANI late 2023. OSU is managing the design, construction, and shakedown of the Taani class )

  • Scripps Institute of Oceanography/UC San Diego (R/V SALLY RIDE, R/V ROGER REVELLE, R/V ROBERT GORDON SPROUL.)

If you haven’t found it already, UNOLS has both a job board and a resume board at .

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Unless things have changed, NOAA unlicensed personnel (deck, engine, and stewards) are SIU. Engineering officers are MEBA.

(It’s correct that deck officers are NOAA Corps, with very few exceptions and those temporary; I think I sailed in the last NOAA ship with a permanent civilian Master, and that was over 15 years ago. NOAA Corps have the same ranks and pay scales as US Navy officers.)

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Where’s the Dr Evil air quotes when I need ‘em… “Oceanographers”

Is @catherder still around? Seem to recall she was on research vessels…


I don’t understand - they aren’t air quote oceanographers, they’re actual oceanographers.


Aren’t you talking about the Pathfinder class boats (Dyn Marine back when I was trying to get on them) that do the hydrophonic surveys and special projects with the folks from three letter agencies?

Sounds interesting! Any idea if theyre crewed by MSC or cobtracted out?

Yup those are the ones.

AMO has them currently

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Ah yes. I had a friend who regaled me with stories of standing a bridge watch with no position fixing equipment available to the bridge team. Just someone coming out from behind a dark curtain and telling you what course to steer. Very “up and up”.

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Your friend was embellishing quite a bit. Either that, or he was on a different class ship.

Yea really.

Once in a while there’s some 3 letter people involved, but most of the time, it’s really oceanographers who tell you what to do.

I did a lot of work with three letter organizations while I was there and never once was I without equipment to fix a position. Half the time the spooks didn’t know where we were exactly, they just knew they needed me to get the ship to X position

I was on an MSC ship that was sorta like that. In the open ocean the chart was not kept on the chart table in the wheelhouse but back in a separate chart room aft of the wheel house. Whatever sat nav equipment we had at the time was all back there as well.

The mate had to go back to the chart room to plot a fix. There was a small opening right above the chart table that could be opened so the mate could keep an eye on things in the wheelhouse while plotting.

One time an AB came out on deck to practice his sun lines and captain had someone go down and take his sextant away.