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I was super curious about the Antarctica PQ process when I applied for jobs on the ice, and now that I’ve personally been through it for my kitchen steward job, I’m here to share my experience with you!
PQ stands for ‘Physical Qualification,’ so the PQ process is a series of health checks to make sure you’re healthy enough to work in Antarctica.
Antarctica is the most remote continent in the world, it’s expensive to move people to McMurdo, the South Pole, and all the other research stations on the ice.
The US Antarctic Program (USAP) and the companies that hold the Antarctic Support Contracts (ASC) want to make sure that the time and money it takes to get you down there isn’t a waste! If you have to leave in the middle of the season, you will be expensive to replace, and that’s why the PQ process for Antarctica jobs is in place.
The good news is that your hiring company will help you through it every step of the way and it’s pretty straight forward. But if you’re curious about the Antarctica PQ process now, this article covers:
- Who has to go through the Antarctica PQ process?
- What is required in the Antarctica PQ process?
- How much does the Antarctica PQ process cost?
- How long does the Antarctica PQ process take?
Let’s dive in!
(By the way, this is not an official guide to the Antarctica PQ process, it’s just my own personal experience with it. This article is only meant as an overview for people who are curious about what’s required to work in Antarctica and should not replace official communications and checklists from the company you work for if you’re going through the process yourself.)
Who has to go through the Antarctica PQ process?
Pretty much everyone.
Every ASC company, like Gana A’yoo, PAE, and Leidos, works with the University of Texas Medical Branch for Polar Medical Operations, so the PQ process is the same across the board.
I’m going through Gana A’yoo to work in the kitchen, but no matter what your job on the ice will be, you have to go through the same PQ process as everyone else when you’re hired. So, what exactly does it include??
What is required in the Antarctica PQ process?
The PQ process has nine steps, which can vary a bit based on your medical history, whether or not your wintering over, and a few other things. But for the most part, these are the nine steps you can expect in the Antarctica PQ process to go.
1. Fill out the 14-page PQ packet.
This is sent as a PDF email, which you will fill out online, verify, and print. The packet includes a couple of pages to fill out about your medical history (with all the familiar questions like past surgeries, allergies, family medical history, etc.) and a bunch of pages for your doctor and dentist to fill out as well. Then, it’s time to start scheduling your appointments.
2. Schedule and complete your lab work.
The first appointment you have to make is for your blood work because those results will be sent to your doctor to look over at your appointment.
The instructions make it easy to schedule an appointment, I made mine at a LabCorp in a nearby Walgreens and was able to go the next day. You have to fast before the blood work is done, so schedule it for the morning.
The results and bill for that were sent directly from the program so that was completely done on my end when I walked out the door.
3. Schedule a doctor appointment.
Next, you have to visit your doctor for an in-depth physical.
There is lots of extra stuff required that you wouldn’t normally do (like a pelvic exam, eye exam, etc.) so make sure to check and double-check the form before you leave so you don’t have to go back. You’ll also need your vaccine history (dating back to your birth), the EKG, and the DTaP vaccine. (You’ll need to submit the official paperwork from your DTaP vaccine, just writing the date of injection on your form won’t be enough.) If you’re a primary or alternate for the winter season in Antarctica, you’ll also need to get an order from your primary doctor for a gallbladder ultrasound.
There are a few other things you may or may not need based on your age and gender (Dan and I had slightly different requirements) so, again, double-check the paperwork before you leave! The only thing on the form I didn’t get was the flu shot because it changes every year, so I will get it in September before I deploy.
4. Schedule and complete your gallbladder ultrasound (winter only).
I’m an alternate to winter-over at McMurdo, so my doctor ordered the gallbladder ultrasound which I scheduled at a nearby hospital. This also requires fasting, so get it in as early in the day as possible. I paid $235 directly to the hospital, got the ultrasound, and got the printed results from my doctor. Easy.
5. Complete any extra shots / requirements from your lab work.
The UTMB Polar Office received my blood work and results directly from LabCorp, analyzed them, and told me I needed to get an MMR booster shot.
I scheduled that at a nearby Kroger Little Clinic and was in and out in 10 minutes. I’m pretty sure this MMR booster is new so it’s likely you don’t already have it and will need it too.
6. Schedule a dentist appointment.
They just need to do a routine cleaning and give a quick overview of the state of your teeth. They also have to do panel x-rays and the less common full panoramic x-ray.
If you need anything extra from this visit, for example, I found I needed to get two teeth sealed, you’ll have to do it to get the dentist to sign off on your forms, but the USAP won’t cover it.
7. Complete your drug screening.
Our steward manager has been super communicative and scheduling our drug screening was one of her tasks.
She kept us informed of when it would happen and then made an appointment for us at an urgent care office nearby (based on the location you give them. If you’re abroad, they can work with you there as well).
We basically had a 48-hour deadline in which we had to complete the drug screening and the process was pretty easy. I showed up, peed in a cup, and was outta there in about 20 minutes.
8. Review and submit your PQ packet.
Make sure you thoroughly review your PQ packet before you mail it in! I found a couple of mistakes on mine, one of which required an entire extra trip to my doctor!
In the end, my PQ packet had my personal medical history, my doctors forms, my dental forms, my EKG results, my gallbladder result, and proof of my MMR vaccine.
I mailed the packet via USPS with certified shipping and emailed my dental x-rays (they wanted digital copies) to the UTMB Medical Branch as well. Now I’m waiting to hear back and hopefully get the all-clear!
9. Request reimbursement for all medical expenses.
If you live in Denver, where the USAP Gana A’yoo team is located, they’ll give you a specific dentist and doctor to go to who will directly bill the program. The rest of us have to pay for everything ourselves and then request reimbursements from the program.
Our lab work drug screening was directly billed but I’m still on the hook for my doctor visit, EKG, gallbladder ultrasound, and the dentist appointment with two types of X-rays. I’m currently waiting to be billed by my insurance. Then, I’ll pay them and then send an itemized copy of the receipt to the USAP to repay me.
How much does the Antarctica PQ process cost?
That depends on what’s required and if your doctor or dentist requires extra work outside the scope of reimbursement.
All in all, though, it should be free or the costs will be negligible. My biggest expense so far was the gallbladder ultrasound which cost $235 up-front but will be reimbursed by the program.
My delta sealants won’t be reimbursed (because they weren’t required in the PQ packet, just by my dentist so he could sign off on it) but I have insurance and would have had that work done anyway.
An MMR vaccine was requested after I sent in my blood work but I’m not sure yet if that’ll be covered by the USAP or not. I’ll request the reimbursement and see what happened.
Basically, on top of paying for the sealants, I’m out of pocket $7 to mail my packet in with USPS priority tracked mail and that’s pretty much it. So, don’t be too worried about the financial aspect of the Antarctica PQ process!
How long does the Antarctica PQ process take?
The UTMB Medical Branch and your contact at the USAP both want you to complete the medical packet as fast as possible.
I’m glad I was in the US when I was hired because trying to get all of that done in Mexico, where I was for months before my interview, would have been exceptionally difficult. It was difficult enough getting it done in the US!
The official timeline for the PQ packet is six weeks, but we were given more leeway because of everything that’s going on right now. I was given the PQ packet in April and dentists weren’t even allowed to open up again until May, so things moved a little slower than usual.
I received my PQ packet on April 9th and mailed it in on May 18th, so I still came in just under the deadline. And now I’m writing this article to tell you all about it!
I hope you found it helpful and informative, and if you have any more questions about working in Antarctica, check out the rest of my articles below or send me a message on the Contact page!
Interested in deploying to Antarctica?
Learn how to get a job in Antarctica (even if you’re not a scientist) and then dive deeper into exactly how I got a job in the kitchen at McMurdo! Or, check out more exciting opportunities in the Working Abroad Series, like:
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