A Guide to…Going Pro

Let’s face it, every job has it own significant drawbacks…nobody really likes working in an office, nobody likes dealing with colleagues who are just as miserable as you are and I’ve never met anyone who thinks that wearing a shirt and tie is more comfortable than wearing shorts and T-shirt. Well, what if your job didn’t have any of those drawbacks? What if your office was the sea, your colleagues were all young, happy and energetic and your normal dress code was shorts and T-shirt or a wetsuit?

It’s Safe To Say That Shorts And T-Shirts Are Better Than Shirts And Ties…

I am, of course, referring to working as a recreational diving professional. A job heralded by many as a “dream job”. I wanted to write this article to ensure that the reader fully understands what is entailed in the job description, so that if you decide to “Go Pro” then you will be much more informed than if you take all your information from a PADI poster.

What’s It Really Like To Turn The Passion Into A Career?

For the purposes of this article I will be referring to the PADI system of professional progression because it is the largest organisation in sport diving tuition and thus the one you are most likely to encounter. The PADI system is also copied by a few of the other major recreational dive companies, so much of this will sound familiar if you’re in their system.

The PADI Ladder

At each level I will aim to give you a thorough breakdown of what you require to get there, what the duties are when your there and what the perks of the job are. Obviously diving is massively global and so most of my experience might not directly relate to your situation (especially pay and specific responsibilities) but it will hopefully enlighten you to the full realities of turning your passion into your job.

Divemaster (DM)

I have split the DM into two distinct parts for two reasons: 1) the DMT is very different from the actual job of being a DM and 2) there is a large portion of people who go for the DM certification but have no intention of ever working as a DM (kids going for college credit, people looking for prestige, etc).

Divemaster Trainee (DMT)

So, you’ve decided you want to become a professional recreational diver – I am being specific here because it is possible to be a professional diver in other fields which have little or nothing to do with recreational diving – commercial, military, police etc.

First off, what do you require to start your professional career:

  • 20 dives logged by the time you start your DMT.
  • 80 dives logged by the time you end your DMT.
  • PADI Open water, Advanced Open Water and Rescue (or equivalent) before you start.
  • Emergency First Responder course (plus Secondary Care) before you start.
  • Fitness Medical for diving (required for all levels hereafter).
  • Be at least 18 years old.

If you have all the above, then you are ready to start what should be one of the hardest endeavours of your life. That is not to say it won’t be fun, nor is it necessarily sadistic but it is likely that you will find it very demanding mentally, physically and possibly emotionally.

The DM training is a fully inclusive course that is designed to be practically led, with the theory following. In my opinion a good DMT will last around six to eight weeks, though it can be successfully completed in as little as three weeks with the proper preparation. The reason that I suggest that a DMT last at least six weeks is because the training process is not just about achieving training goals, it is about absorbing as much as you can from the instructors as possible. Although you are not yet training to become an instructor, a DM has all the foundations to teach, they are simply not given the responsibility or the tools to do so. It is for this reason that you should use your DMT period to keep you head down and your eyes and ears wide open.

A DMT will probably feel like they are slaves, they will be bossed around by every person in the dive school and will probably do all the dirty, sweaty and boring jobs. I won’t sugar coat this part, it does get a little tiring running around like a headless chicken for little reward, but this is where you learn your craft. A good DM will have learnt, from their time as a DMT, which instructors are helpful and who to avoid, what equipment gets the best attention and what pieces you want to avoid giving to your divers when your the DM, and other little bits of information that will be priceless to you when you’re the one responsible for other divers. If you’ve done your DMT well then you will be well prepared to make your life easier as a DM.

A DMT will probably do a little (or a lot) of the following during their training period:

  • Assist instructors in the pool and the ocean with students doing courses.
  • Assist DM/instructors in guiding dive groups round dive sites.
  • Set up equipment for yourself, your instructor and your students.
  • Set up the dive boat or site with all the appropriate equipment (CESA lines, spare weight, O2 etc)
  • Prepare the dive boat in the morning, often early starts.
  • The course is ran by OWSI so you will have a briefing with them, probably at the end of each day, to assess your performance. You will also get a final debriefing at the end of the course when they sign you off.
  • Get the customers fitted for gear in the morning and wash it all in the evening.
  • Possibly work in the dive shop, learning about gear and how to sell it.
  • Possibly service some low level gear.
  • Possibly fill tanks, though some operations hire their tanks from other companies.
  • Complete lots of exams, and do the appropriate study for them.
  • Draw a map of a dive site, with appropriate features marked.
  • Design an emergency evacuation plan for your dive operation.
  • Do a number of fitness tests and stress tests (please take these seriously and train for them – strive for a 5)
  • Anything else the dive shop owner requires – you’re their lackey until they sign you off!
  • On your qualifying eve you may be required to complete the snorkel test, this is a diving school specific test and is not sanctioned by PADI, though this doesn’t make it any less necessary for your training. In essence, you will be sat on a stool and you will put on a standard snorkel and mask. On top of the snorkel will be a funnel – into this funnel your peers will pour some kind of alcoholic beverage and you have no choice but to drink it (you cannot breathe until the snorkel is clear). The drink can be anything from a tame vodka and coke right through to a bucket of the worst cocktail imaginable (mine was a bucket of Thai rum and coke if you were wondering…it hits like a steam train!)

  • You’ll Get Used To Setting Up Gear…

Divemaster (DM)

Once you’ve qualified as a Divemaster (and survived the DMT party), the work load shifts from being really labour intensive to a little less headless chicken but with more responsibilities. A DMs primary role is customer care, they are there solely to ensure the customer has a great set of dives and is safe throughout the day. The way the DM does this is up to the person and the way they were trained. I have always believed that a DM should be a good listener, this is the key to achieving all that is asked of a DM. If you listen to your boss you will understand what she wants from you and how to do it, if you listen to the instructors (because you are always learning) you will pick up tips on how to deal with novice divers, if you listen to your customers you will detect their fears and be able to abate them, you will also hear what interests them and be able to tailor your dive plan to incorporate what they want to see.

A DM is also an organiser, he or she is there to make sure that there isn’t a logistical angle that they haven’t already thought of and prepared for. They should be planning for events that have never happened and events that you ensure will never happen. In some diving organisations the DM doesn’t actually dive with the clients, they simply offer assistance in planning the dive and then keep track of who is in the water and who has surfaced. This is not a particularly fun job, but it is vital (especially when the boat or shore is busy) that you know precisely where each buddy team in going and when they expect to surface – even though you’re not in the water with them they are still your responsibility.  DMs have an obligation to think about people other than themselves, that is what makes them professional – this is a character attribute more than something that can be trained into a person. Bare this is mind if you are considering becoming professional – selfish people simply do not make good DMs.

Remember that being a DM is often a thankless job. You might have put in 100% throughout the day and went out of your way to make sure the dives went smoothly but it is quite possible that this will be lost on the customer and your boss – a DM is expected to go further than the bare minimum. Make sure you are not a proud person because you might go weeks without a compliment for the work you do. You will also notice that you wallet will not swell with cash, a DM is very poorly paid wherever you are. It is not a job you take to become rich, even with tips it is a lousy salary. You must also remember that diving is often seasonal, so from your merge earnings you need to save some to get you through the low season.

Assistant Instructor (AI)

For those of you that managed to make it through the DMT and found that being a DM was exactly the sort of life you then you may consider moving on from just supervising certified divers to assisting non-certified divers become fully qualified. Being an assistant instructor normally isn’t considered a goal in itself, usually people go for this qualification purely to gain access to full instructor level. This doesn’t mean that assistant instructor is a useless qualification though, it does give you a few more privileges, a little more responsibility and quite a bit more training in the art of diving tuition.

An AI is a much more valuable asset to an instructor than a DM because they have been given a grounding in the educational system they use, and so they are more capable of preempting the needs of the instructor. They are also useful in the classroom and the pool because they are qualified to present the theory lessons and demonstrate skills under the indirect supervision of a qualified instructor. This means that heavy workloads can be divided up among instructors and AIs as long as they remain under supervision.

An AI Is More Useful To An Instructor In The Pool Than A DM

Another aspect of the AI that makes it a little more valuable in certain situations is the ability to conduct DSDs in confined water (you can do this as a DM but it requires extra training – DSD Leader) which can prove very profitable if your dive school uses DSDs as a marketing tool.

There are not many requirements to become an AI other than to be an existing DM and have been diving for six months. The course is organised and ran by Staff Instructors which means that it can be operated at anytime, usually it is launched in conjunction with the Instructor Development Course (IDC) because many people do the two courses together and jump straight from DM to OWSI.

Open Water SCUBA Instructor (OWSI)

Once you’ve got your AI in the bag you are already well qualified in the PADI ranks and should feel well versed in the teaching system PADI employs. The IDC is a two week program that elaborates on all the topics you learnt in your AI. There isn’t a huge jump between the theory from the AI and the IDC, it’s just that there’s loads more of it.

When you train to become an OWSI you will first complete the IDC which is where you will learn all the standards for each course, you will have time practicing your theory presentation skills, you will train in the pool and the sea to refine your teaching techniques and you will hone certain special skills (rescue skills, search and recovery knots etc). Once you have studied your brains out (the IDC is absolutely exhausting and you will surely suffer from sleep depravation plus abnormal stress levels – make sure there is nothing else in your life that will add big distractions as you will simply not manage the anxiety levels otherwise) you will probably have a few days for a break before it’s time to go to the Instructor Exam (IE) which is a two day package of tests which fully assesses your abilities in every field from skills to in-water teaching to classroom presentations. If you worked hard in your IDC then this will be surprisingly easy, a good Course Director is much more of a hard ass than a good Examiner.

OK, so you’ve passed your IE and you’re now a fully fledged OWSI, what do you do now? Well, an instructor’s workload is very different from a DMs, though no less challenging, please remember that you’re paid to do this – which makes it a job, and like any job you’ve got some serious responsibilities:

  • An instructor’s primary role is to teach (duh!)
  • As a PADI OWSI you have the authority to teach all the PADI courses from Discover Scuba Diving right the way through to signing off on Divemaster courses.
  • You will be held completely responsible for the wellbeing of all of your students.
  • If a student you have been training gets hurt and you are found to have not followed the PADI standards then you will not be protected by PADI and you will be legally liable for the damages (this can go to criminal court and lead to real life criminal consequences).
  • There are moral and ethical decisions to make that will affect you regularly, you will be pushed to bend and even break the PADI rules by many different people (bosses want you to take too many divers, clients want to skip parts of the lesson and your partner wants you to cut corners and come home early – always remember that it’s YOUR PADI license and it’s YOU that will loose it).
  • It can sometimes be a difficult decision to make when presented with a DMT who simply isn’t ready to be signed off, yet he’s paid his money and worked hard and his time has ran out on his holiday – the decision can sometimes be very vexing.

On the plus side, an instructor’s life is a little more varied than a DMs or AIs. You are able to meet a huge variety of people, often from all over the world. You will learn a huge amount about diving that you never would have had access to (teaching is often the best way to learn). Your pay will go up significantly, though please ensure you understand that a dive instructor will never be “rich”, but you might be able to save some money now which makes your quality of life much better than a DM’s. The job itself is more demanding mentally than being a DM, and obviously you have a much higher level of responsibility than if you were taking out certified divers. Being an OWSI conforms to the old rule that with greater wealth comes greater responsibility, but also great fun!

Lot’s More Responsibility, But This Is Matched With Greater Rewards

The requirements to become an OWSI are fairly simple:

  • You must be an Assistant Instructor.
  • Have 100 dives logged by the start of your IE.
  • Been trained to Emergency First Response Trainer level.

Master SCUBA Dive Trainer (MSDT)

A MSDT is a strange qualification because it doesn’t really mean anything concerning your authority within PADI. Technically it is simply a milestone to denote those instructors who have attained a certain level of expertise. An MSDT is an instructor who as been qualified in five specialties and has certified twenty-five divers.

The specialties in question are like mini courses that an instructor can take under the supervision of a Course Director (or by applying to PADi directly, but that’s a pain) which authorise the instructor to teach specialty courses to their students. These courses range from digital underwater photography to deep diving to equipment specialties. They are not particularly intense but they are informative and allow you to give a good introduction to a certain specialty area.

One plus point for applying for your MSDT is that it is often synonymous with “experienced” when a dive school is posting a job in a classified. To put it simply, if you have five specialties and have certified at least twenty-five divers, you are more employable. It is also necessary to become a MSDT before you can progress to Staff Instructor, so for that reason alone it is worth applying for it.

IDC Staff Instructor (SI)

By this point in the game you are a fairly experienced and wise old instructor and you might be looking for the next level of challenges. The next level comes in the shape of Staff Instructor which puts you in the position to start training the trainers. A SI is given the training necessary to fully sign off an AI and to assist a Course Director in training instructors during the IDC. This new level of instruction provides you with two benefits; first, you will reap much more fruitful financial rewards at this level – if you can assist in regular IDCs then you can make quite a decent salary, the first real money you make in diving. Second, in the process of becoming a SI you will vastly improve your diving technique and your instructing technique even more so.

To be eligible to train for Staff Instructor you must be nothing more than a Master Scuba Dive Trainer which means the only thing that really decides when you make your move from MSDT to SI is your own self confidence…and your wallet, because these courses aren’t free!

Master Instructor (MI)

A Master Instructor is another odd qualification in that, like the MSDT, there is little to be gained from it other than the prestige of being a very senior instructor. It is a very shiny embellishment for your CV but it counts for very little other than the certificate. The only thing that makes it valuable to you is that it is a prerequisite for becoming a Course Director.

To be classed as a Master Instructor you must (this is the abridged version, for the full technical details you should see the PADI site):

  • Be a Staff Instructor.
  • Have been an OWSI for two years minimum.
  • Have certified one-hundred-and-fifty divers (though those one-hundred-and-fifty certifications must be split into a specific group, i.e. So many Open waters, so many DMs etc).
  • Been to three PADI seminars.
  • Know everything about the PADI system.
  • Have no Quality Assurance violations in the past six months.

Course Director (CD)

It is possibly a little early to be looking at Course Director but it’s important to have a goal to aim for when undergoing a challenge. The CD is the head honcho, he is the guy who fully trains the teachers. There is almost nothing he doesn’t know about diving and there is absolutely nothing he doesn’t know about PADI. He will eat, sleep and breathe PADI and he will encourage his IDC candidates to do so too. He is the person who signs off whether a diver is ready to go for his IE and so he heavily influences the destiny of all of his students.

A good CD, as I said in the OWSI section, will put his students through such a rigorous training and testing schedule during the IDC that the candidates on the other end of the IDC will be over-prepared for the IE and will walk through it with their eyes closed, and will leave them asking “was that it?”. His job is to firmly instil the PADI way of teaching and of thinking into normal dive professionals. If he does his job right then they will go on to be the best dive instructors in the business.

To become a CD you need to have:

  • Been a Master Instructor for six months.
  • No Quality Assurance violations for twelve months.
  • Staffed two full IDCs as a SI.
  • Have two-hundred-and-fifty logged dives.

Closing Thoughts

Joining the PADI machine and going professional in recreational diving is seen by outsiders as an automatic key to paradise on earth where you are well paid, well respected and blissfully happy all the time. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, the average professional diver will probably feel fairly poor, fairly under appreciated and will have hard days that make him question his career choice. There will be days when very hard choices are required to be made that will make a difference to people’s lives, and possibly their wellbeing.

However, as a career path it beats the hell out of sitting in an office or working in a factory, and the feel-good hit you get when you sign off a proud diver is quite a rush. There is also a tangible sense of accomplishment from scaling the PADI ladder and overcoming each challenge as it is presented to you. I love being a PADI dive instructor and don’t regret it for a minute (even though I’d love a pay rise!)

When The Day Comes Together, It’s All Worth It… Maybe It’s Not Such A Bad Job After All?

Have you thought about taking the “Go Pro” challenge? Are you already on the PADI ladder? If so, give us your thoughts and stories in the comments section below.

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