Research Ship Life- What's it really like?

That could have been my 1st MSC ship. I sailed ABM, so not familiar with the bridge/chart room layout. The World Atlas in the library was missing pages !

I was an ABW on the USNS Kane out of Bahrain conducting “Survey operations in international waters” and managed to “borrow” an expired chart of the Persian Gulf from the bridge. It added color to my room. I still expect that two men in cheap suits will knock on my door someday after a thorough investigation, demanding to know why I wanted to know where I was.

generally I’d say life aboard research ships is pretty easy. (I did a few years & retired NOAA)
If you go that route you’ll find more port time (world wide), more repairs held for inport or dry dock, somewhat less pay, more babes aboard !, and if you’re thinking ahead it will be hard to be the retirement opportunities, go drink the koolaid!

You and New3M are both correct; the OP (or their friend) is partly correct. I’ve been around for several of those, invariably funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR); the science party were all listed on the muster as oceanographers (and if you think about it, even if one or more of them were actually working for another agency covertly, they’d still have to know something about their purported subject.)

They did curtain off a section of the dry lab (bridge was far too small,) no one else was permitted back there, and there was always one person behind the curtain whether ops were going on or not.

That said, they certainly never mucked with navigation equipment, and in fact provided a list of waypoints as most other scientists do; if they wanted to divert for some reason, they’d simply call the bridge (they always had a phone or intercom back there) and ask.

On the KANE, the spooks only rang the bridge to bitch about an AB wandering off course more than 20’ from centerline.

I’ve been on Unols Vessels for 9 years. Here are a couple of quick thoughts:

Unlimited vessels will be the Sikuliaq, Thomas G. Thompson, Roger Revelle, Atlantis, Kilo Moana and Marcus Langseth.

Some institutions run better programs than others. For example, some places may not pay you in port on weekends, but others will. Scripps recently did away with this practice, however OSU still does i believe.

Some vessels stay generally in a geographic area, while others are world travelers and go to many unuiqe ports. Covid really boned that up but the foergin travel is starting get going in ernest again.

Pay is lower than commerial, however things are changing. The UW and Scripps are IBU now and some positive movement has happened with some new contracts / raises recently.

The job is fun and there is alot of variety. You’ll get a chance to interact with a wide variety of scientists and students, work on some truly fascinating projects and enjoy what you do.

On our ship, we’ve had some extremely long serving crew. Getting a permanent position was much harder but a slew of retirements have made things easier. Our company has slso increased the number of permanent positions to help retention and provide benefits. (The traditional model was that the NSF only funded one permanent crew and everyone else was a relief.) We probably have 1.5 permanent crews now and the office is trying to bring that higher.

There is a UNOLS job board, however you’ll succeed much quicker by contacting the port captain at each institution directly.

I know on our ship they are currently seeking 2/M, 2A/E and 3A/E. AB and oiler positions have been available somewhat regularly as well.

If i can answer anny qeustions, please reach out. Good luck!

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I only worked on one UNOLS research ship, Columbia’s Maurice Ewing (which has been replaced with Marcus G Langseth). In many ways it was the most rewarding job I ever had on a ship. The scientists (mostly grad students who were about the same age as me at the time) were a great group to work with. We stopped at some really unique ports and actually got time ashore. I got some real shiphandling experience, Ewing did not have dynamic positioning and was single screw. We used to do coring samples where we needed to keep the ship in one spot for extended periods of time. We joked we did actually have DP, it was called MATE.

It would have been the perfect ship but for the Captain. Hands down the WORST captain I sailed with, both military and civilian. He could be perfectly nice and charming, and then mid sentence something in him would snap and he be ripping you a new one. The Chief Mate called him “Jekyll and Hyde”, he was a real screamer. After dark, he liked to sneak up to the bridge and quietly slide into the Captain’s chair to eavesdrop on the mates and AB’s. He started at Columbia immediately after graduation and had only worked on the one ship his entire career, which in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing but he lacked so much perspective on how things are done on other ships which might have been better than the insular world he was a part of.

I looked him up on LinkedIn, apparently he’s still there as Captain of Langseth. Maybe he’s mellowed out in old age, but there’s no way in hell I’d set foot on a ship with him as Captain again.

Yeah, it really is. It doesn’t necessarily make someone bad at their job but it’s definitely not a good thing.


Woods Hole is hourly pay with overtime and weekends are all overtime. In port overtime is capped at 16 hours per week but you’re somewhat pressured to only claim 6-8 hours.

So violate labor laws? Jeez

Basically no one ever worked on Sunday when at the dock.

Thanks so much for your reply. Would permanent positions require you to live where the vessel is homeported?

As far as permanent crew working ashore, what does the schedule/ rotation tend to look like? Are you coming in to work every day like a 9-5 job, or is shoreside work limited to immediately before/ after cruises?

A long time ago I worked on research/oceanographic/survey/spy ships. UNOLS, NOAA NSF, Dyn Corporation and others.It was easy to get temp jobs, pay wasn’t great but with OT it was decent and I was fed quite well. Generally good crew and interesting work. Compared to working on box boats, modern bulkers and drillships the research ships were much more laid back. I remember going on watch in shorts and old Converse shoes in one ER.

On one of the Scripps/ University of San Diego vessels there is a “lifer” aka someone who has worked with Scripps / University of San Diego since graduation from a Maritime Academy. He is the worst Captain I have ever sailed with. Not a screamer but just utterly incompetent and disrespectful. Cared more about fishing than actually doing his job. Would not order enough food for the crew and science party then substitute the low food inventory with fish he caught. He would prepare the fish in the galley with the cook pretending to be a chef. He loved the praise everyone would give no matter how disgusting the fish was. The crew did this because they were hungry and worried if they didn’t praise him, he would stop fishing then they wouldn’t have anything to eat!
To top it off he would gut the fish on the back deck near the science equipment pissing them off then then order the crew to wash blood guts off the deck. To my knowledge he’s still working there.

I also heard Scripps was or attempted to unionize with IBU. Looks like with no paid weekends - it’s not doing much to help them. IBU is literally the worst union with the lowest pay. The utter stupidity in the engine department for leading that charge with IBU rather than MEBA, MMP, or AMO as there union is just incomprehensible. Last I heard Scripps and University of Hawaii went to the MEBA in desperation and have hired some union guys licensed engineers as temps.

If you can’t find position with UNOLS, consider USACE.

I spent 5 years with the COE. Use it to gain knowledge and experience but don’t give up. Scientific research is much more interesting.

Most vessels will not require you to live local. The smaller the research vessel, the more local the may like you to live close. The bigger ships you can live wherever you like and most pay travel.

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Good to hear! Thanks!