NOAA Corps wants grads who love the ocean and field science
NOAA Corps officers command ships and aircraft. They're responsible for conducting oceanographic and atmospheric research, supporting fisheries and much more
Looking for a unique opportunity to serve your country and make a difference on a global scale? Love the ocean, or the skies? Consider the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). NOAA Corps officers command NOAA's ships and fly NOAA's aircraft to support the administration's missions.
"We serve as operational experts, taking researchers to the field, generating the environmental intelligence NOAA requires to produce the accurate, reliable weather and water forecasts upon which Americans depend," says Lt Commander Eric Johnson, chief of NOAA Corps recruiting. "We are not a combat service, but we're a uniformed one. We face dangerous environments on sea duty and in flight, and the chain of command and leadership are still key. Because we're a small service, the officers' opportunities and responsibilities are very broad. It's a cool job."
Cool, and very selective. The corps is limited by Congressional mandate to 321 officers. Depending on budget and other factors, twenty to forty ensigns are commissioned each year, entering in two classes, starting in January and August. NOAA Corps selection rates average 15 to 17 percent.
The initial commitment for officers is about twenty months. The first five months are spent in training at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (New London, CT). During the first two to three-year assignment, NOAA Corps officers serve 180-250 days a year at sea. Then they take three-year shoreside assignments in support, management and leadership positions with NOAA and other agencies. Sea and shore assignments continue to alternate, and officers are eligible for retirement after twenty years of service.
NOAA Corps officers support a wide variety of critical activities within NOAA. They chart the oceans, using multi-beam sonar on NOAA's hydrographic vessels. Officers served as front line responders in re-opening the port of New Orleans after Katrina and the Norfolk, VA harbor after another hurricane. NOAA Corps officers support oceanographic research like the effect of ocean chemistry on coral reef systems in the Pacific and invasive lion fish on the East Coast. Corps officers also fly NOAA's environmental monitoring aircraft, including the agency's "hurricane hunter" planes.
The application process is challenging. Aspiring officers must persevere to be considered for selection. Many don't qualify with their first application, but the recruiting office will consult with candidates to discuss their qualifications if they want to apply again.
Johnson was one of them. After he earned his BS in marine biology, he worked managing an outdoor equipment store, and part time at the Baltimore Aquarium, diving in the tanks to feed the fish and clean the exhibits. He found the NOAA Corps online, applied and was turned down. The recruiting officer advised him to get a job closer to his field and re-apply.
He went to work for a biotech firm and was selected on his second try. He's now working on his masters in public administration with a focus on maritime affairs at the American University (Washington, DC). Other applicants have earned masters degrees, found work with the government, and added other skills to become more competitive before re-applying.
Applicants must have at least forty-eight hours of coursework relating to NOAA's mission: hard sciences, math and engineering. Either calculus or physics is required. Internships, jobs related to NOAA's missions, student government, sports and summer projects all help bolster the application. Direct experience volunteering or working in another capacity with NOAA can also help.
Diversity in all its forms is part of NOAA Corps recruiting. "Diversity is not just your ethnic background," Johnson says. "It's your gender, your life experience. We address all aspects of diversity in our recruiting efforts."
To find candidates, Johnson invites Corps officers to visit minority-serving institutions, schools with NOAA mission-related programs, and their alma maters. NOAA Corps officers attended fifty career fairs in 2011. "My goal is to tell as many people as possible about the NOAA Corps so they will not have to find it by accident as I did," he says.
NOAA Corps officers assigned to the NOAA diving program assist in supporting 400 to 450 divers annually, overseeing 14,000 to 15,000 dives a year. As second in command of the Hi'ialakai, the biggest dive boat in the world, Johnson helped scientists make more than 3,500 dives in 2009, usually three dives a day for thirty days in a row.
Another memorable assignment was in the Gulf of Mexico. The mission was to map a de-oxygenated zone and determine what effect it was having on the ecosystem. NOAA Corps officers guided the boat between oil rigs.
Johnson, like most NOAA Corps officers, finds the combination of sea and shore assignments appealing. "I knew I didn't want to sit in the lab and do statistical analysis, and I've loved the oceans all my life. This is my dream job!" he says.