What It is Really Like to Work for Semester at Sea

Ever since disembarking from the Spring 2019 voyage of Semester at Sea, I have gotten 1-2 inquiries per month on LinkedIn and Instagram asking about my experience as a former employee. These messages are great because it shows what a strong interest there is in working with Semester at Sea and I love sharing my experience. However answering all of these individual requests has become a bit exhausting, which is why I wanted to summarize my time working with Semester at Sea in a shareable blog post. 

For a quick TL;DR version of my experience: I absolutely LOVED working for Semester at Sea as the social media coordinator on the Spring 2019 voyage! It had been a dream of mine to work for Semester at Sea ever since I completed my voyage as a student in Fall 2010, and I was thrilled when that dream finally came true last year. There may be a few nitpicky things I could critique about the experience of working with Semester at Sea, but overall it was truly fantastic. I am wholeheartedly grateful for the opportunity to have worked with SAS and it sometimes still feels like a dream that it actually happened. But if you want to get into the nitty gritty of my experience working for Semester at Sea, this is the blog post for you! 

Everything You Want to Know About Working for Semester at Sea!

Faculty vs Staff vs Crew

On the ship there are three tiers of employment status — Faculty, Staff, Crew — each with very different expectations and responsibilities. Starting with faculty, their role in the community is pretty obvious. They are responsible for teaching 2-3 different courses to the students in the shipboard community. The subjects range widely, and the rigorous academic curriculum matches that of a home campus with subjects like economics, marketing, women’s studies, anthropology, and much much more. The faculty are responsible for hosting one field class per course, but they are otherwise free to travel independently during time in port.

Staff members differ from faculty because they are not involved in the instruction of the academic material, but are involved with more administrative or functional job roles. This includes, but is not limited to, the medical team, the field office, the student life team, the comms team, and the academic admin team. Because the staff are involved in key functions needed by the shipboard community, they are often expected to work certain hours while in port. This could mean being on call, being on duty, administering field programs, etc. As such, staff members are not usually as free to travel independently while the ship is in port. 

From here on out, I will refer to the staff + faculty as ‘staculty’ which is what we kindly called our group on my voyage. I like this inclusive term because the divisions between the faculty and staff should be insignificant. The community needs these two groups of people to work together for a successful voyage. I found that our staculty really bonded together, creating a sense of unity despite the diverse job responsibilities of the people on these teams. 

Lastly comes the crew. They are responsible for all the upkeep, maintenance and daily function of the ship and the ship’s services. The crew members are the true heroes of the Semester at Sea experience, but are so often unseen or unappreciated. I can genuinely say that the crew of Semester at Sea are some of the hardest working people I have ever met, and they deserve an abundance of respect. Without them, Semester at Sea wouldn’t function. Their day-to-day experience and operations are totally separate and distinct from the Semester at Sea staculty. In fact, they are hired on a third-party contract and have an entirely different set of rules and responsibilities from the Semester at Sea faculty and staff. Although you might develop a casual relationship with your cabin steward (Hi Rosa!) or the bartender in the staff lounge (miss you Doris!) or your favorite server (#Pons4Lyfe), they are not allowed to engage with the Semester at Sea community outside of their job responsibilities at risk of losing their job. As such, you will not travel with them in port or hang out with them during their off hours. This is mandatory for all staculty and should be respected. 

Home Office vs. Shipboard Employment

Semester at Sea has a unique organizational structure in the sense that there is the shipboard staff and the home office staff. The home office for Semester at Sea’s parent company, the Institute for Shipboard Education, is based in Fort Collins, Colorado. Staff members at the home office work full-time for Semester at Sea performing jobs in the operations, finance, marketing, recruitment, etc sectors of the company. They are the staffers who make the long-term strategic and operational decisions that allow Semester at Sea to thrive YoY.  The home comms team did all the analytics, reporting, etc — that was outside of the purview of my position, and I was never reprimanded if a post didn’t get as much engagement as others.

You might be interested to learn that the permanent full-time employees rarely travel on the voyage in full. Several staff members from the home office might travel to the ship for embarkation or disembarkation, or might travel for a leg of the voyage, but otherwise they remain in the home office performing their normal job responsibilities. The shipboard team will report back regularly, but the home office is not typically part of the day-to-day operations of the current/ongoing voyage. Of course, if there are emergency situations such as Coronavirus, then the home office will be much more involved in decision-making. 

Each voyage, roughly half of the staculty are new to the SAS community and half are returning for a second, third, or fourth voyage. But the entire team turns over each voyage (with a few exceptions) so the mix of people on the staculty will vary every semester. Bringing back returning staculty helps to preserve institutional culture and navigate the unique challenges that come from hiring a new staff for every voyage. Don’t be discouraged if you have never done Semester at Sea before — there are plenty of spots for new voyagers to carve their paths! 

Being Part of the Communications Team

I held the job title of “Social Media Coordinator” on my voyage which is part of the shipboard communications team. As such, I can really only speak in detail about my employment experience as part of this team and this post will not address what it is like to work as a faculty, medical team member, or RD for example. 

On my voyage, there were 5 comms team members — myself, the videographer and three student assistants (i.e. work study) students. I was responsible for producing the photography of the voyage, as well as the daily administration of all SAS’s social media channels (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat). The videographer was responsible for producing 10 videos on predetermined topics over the course of the voyage, along with short video recaps of our time in port. The student assistants supported all of our social media, photography and videography work and we would assign specific projects to them on a weekly basis. 

I worked extremely closely with the videographer, Mike, during my voyage even though our actual deliverables had very little overlap. It was so nice to have someone else to think creatively with or complain with when I was stressed. Mike and I were thick as thieves. In fact, some students thought that I was married to Mike and not Sam because of how much time we spent together working. Hahaha. From what I have heard of previous comms teams, this tight relationship is usually the case, but I was nonetheless very thankful to have such a dedicated and close colleague to rely on. 

My “work husband” Mike looking like a seriously official videographer

I think the comms team, along with the RD and field team, have one of the tougher jobs of the shipboard team, the reason being two-fold. Firstly, the social media coordinator and videographer have to consistently work throughout the entire time in port, unlike the faculty and most staff. It was typical for me to only have one day “off duty” in port. I was almost always on a field program, sometimes for up to 5 days in a row. In fact, me and Sam almost never traveled together while on Semester at Sea because I was always working on field programs that he wasn’t interested in joining. Don’t get me wrong — this was a super fun part of the job because I got to do things like cook incredible Burmese food or visit rare ecosystems in South Africa. But it is very exhausting to be working for 100 days straight and by the end of the voyage, I was definitely burnt out. 

Secondly, the comms team is the face of the voyage for everyone NOT on the voyage. You are producing content that your shipboard community rarely sees because of the lack of internet on the ship; yet their family and friends at home watch it super closely and intensely. The engagement rates for SAS’s content is swift and steep, which makes it a very interactive job but also a nerve-wracking job. If you post something that upsets people, you will hear about it instantaneously and it will be almost entirely from random people on the internet that you’ve never met. This leads to a strange sense of isolation in not being recognized for your work in your direct community and simultaneously being responsible for telling the stories of your entire community. 

Regarding the field programs I covered during my tenure, the programs were pre-selected for me by the home office based on content needs and demands. For example, one of my programs was a new program that SAS wanted to promote on future voyages so they needed coverage. Another program was a best-selling field program that hadn’t been covered in a while and they wanted fresh material. Because these programs were part of my job responsibilities, I did not have to pay for them or be a TL for them (more on that further down). 

Application + Interview Process

The application process for Semester at Sea voyages is pretty extensive, and it happens roughly 6-9 months before the voyage begins. For some positions, the interview process is even longer — especially for higher-level administrative positions. In this process, the hiring team is looking for people who are simultaneously a good fit for the position and for the community overall. All open positions for staculty members are posted on the Semester at Sea employment page, and can be applied for online. 

I had a fairly unusual experience in my application process with Semester at Sea, because I didn’t really apply. My (eventual) manager reached out to me on LinkedIn in mid-August before a January voyage asking if I was interested in the position. I’m not sure exactly how he found me, but I assume being a SAS alumni and listing my content creation skills on LinkedIn helped the algorithm reach my profile. He initially messaged me on Tuesday, I had my first interview on Wednesday, second interview on Friday with a job offer later that day. My experience was MUCH faster than I have heard for other positions, and I get the sense that they might have had someone fall through at the last minute — hence the rush. 

From what I remember, the application process was fairly straightforward. I sent in a cover letter and resume and filled out a short digital form online. My first interview was a phone interview, followed by 2 skype interviews with different team members. I was asked for references and did a background check. 

I often get asked about how to ‘set yourself apart’ in the application process for Semester at Sea. I was never on a hiring panel for SAS, so I don’t really know for sure. But in my case, having significant international experience along with relevant work experience played a big part in my attractiveness as a candidate. I also talked a lot about my soft professional skills during the interview process, referencing skills like adaptability, creative problem solving and intercultural competency all of which are DEFINITELY relevant to working with Semester at Sea. Finally, I had publicly viewable examples of my social media and content skills from this blog which I could directly share with the SAS hiring team as proof of what I was capable of. 

Training

After I was offered the social media coordinator position, I was asked to come to the home office in Fort Collins for a 6 week training period. I was living in Chicago at the time, so this was an out-of-pocket expense for me. Thankfully I have family in Colorado, but it is something to consider depending on where you live. This training period is not standard for all positions, but I believe that SAS tries to have as many shipboard staffers come to the office (when possible) to clarify the organizational structure and culture — plus it puts a face to a name! 

During that 6 week period I learned all about the Semester at Sea brand values, social media strategy, specific details about style, etc. Because I worked on the spring voyage, the fall voyage was happening throughout my training period, which gave me a great window into what the actual day-to-day of the job might look like. It was during the training period that we developed the Comms Team’s editorial calendar, which detailed all of the types of content we would produce across the various channels. 

Semester at Sea is in a unique position because they have a variety of different audiences (alumni, parents, universities, prospective students, etc) to appeal to, so the content needs to be both broad and niche at the same time. My job was responsible for balancing the fun content prospective students and alumni might be interested in with the academic content that universities and parents might be interested in. 

In my opinion, 6 weeks was a bit long for the training period and I think 3 weeks in person and 3 weeks remotely would have been more than sufficient. I shared this feedback with the home office comms team at the end of my contract, and the situation might be different now. I’m not sure. However, I must say that this training period did a REALLY good job of setting expectations. The home office team knows the ebbs and flows of the voyage and my manager actually held my position on a previous voyage, so he really got it. This made me feel really comfortable going into the voyage, because I felt like I knew exactly what to expect — and it turned out to be pretty spot on to my lived experience!

Salary and Benefits

I’m going to be straight with you — I didn’t work for Semester at Sea because of the money. These are not super lucrative positions and your motivation should not be about the salary. Working with Semester at Sea is really about the experience of being a member of a living-learning community that travels the world together. 

My employment contract was not defined by a salary or hourly rate; instead, I was paid in a series of predetermined stipends. These payments came before the voyage, at the beginning of the voyage and at the end of the voyage and were made via direct deposit to my US bank account. During the training period (mentioned above), I was paid an hourly rate commensurate with my experience level. 

I traveled on the voyage with my husband, who was not a Semester at Sea staculty member. As such, I had to pay for his room + board costs at a significant discount from the market rate. The cost of his voyage wound up being roughly ½ of my stipend total. This cost is true for any family members that you might bring, including partners, children, parents, etc. 

For benefits, I got free room and board on the ship including all meals in the shipboard dining halls. I also received international medical insurance, which is meant to cover emergency services. It is not meant to be a replacement for regular health insurance, but functions as an add-on to cover any necessary medical services rendered in the various ports of call. I also received a flight reimbursement (within a set cost range) for my flight to and from the ship.  

At the end of the voyage, I basically broke even on my earnings. With all of that said, each position on a Semester at Sea voyage comes with different salaries, benefits, and stipulations. I cannot speak to any other positions, and if you are curious about the details of a specific position, I recommend asking the home office during the application process.

Preparing for the Voyage

While actually getting the job offer was a challenge, the more stressful part was getting all of the visas, paperwork and logistics secured. It is a lot to keep organized! For many people, the Semester at Sea preparation process might involve selling or subleasing a home, quitting a job or taking a sabbatical and packing up personal items to put in storage. 

This is made even more complicated if you plan to bring a partner, spouse or children along the voyage with you — coordinating for 2+ people is much harder than just one! In my case, my husband wound up quitting his IT position in Chicago and took off nearly 6 months of employment. We also owned our condo at the time, which we needed to sublet. Additionally, we had two cats to find accommodations for. It all wound up working out, but this is no easy task. Be prepared to put in a lot of labor before the job even starts. 

I thankfully had the insight of a previous voyage under my belt, so some of the preparations came more easily. I knew exactly what we needed to pack and I felt confident in our ability to downsize our stuff appropriately. I also had knowledge about what the experience of Semester at Sea was like, even if it was as a student instead of faculty. I share some of my insider tips of what to expect on Semester at Sea in a separate blog post. 

I was largely responsible for packing my own photography equipment for my job. Semester at Sea does provide the comms team with cameras, lights, microphones, tripods, etc; however, it was mostly not as nice as my own personal equipment and I was not familiar with the brand they had (Nikon vs Canon vs Sony vs GoPro). Thus, I wound up just using my own lenses and camera body. I did however use the computer and tripods that SAS provided for me, because I didn’t want to carry my own.

Working on a Ship

Working on a cruise ship is a very unique experience because you don’t really have an office, a stable environment, or anywhere that is a dedicated “work” space. You definitely have to get creative with where you work on the ship! One day you might be working next to the pool and the next day you might be tucked away in your cabin. The comms team technically had an office in the dressing room of the stage but it was the worst place on the ship, so I never worked there. I typically sat at a table in the Berlin dining hall next to an outlet. 

I didn’t really have a “work schedule” in the 9-to-5 sense and the comms team was free to structure our day as we saw fit. As long as we met our deliverables, the home office didn’t micromanage our schedule. We had check-in calls with the home office every 2-3 weeks to make sure that everything was moving along properly. 

I like to structure my days, and on the voyage I would typically work in a block format. I am personally most productive in the morning, so I would typically wake up around 7am for breakfast and then work until 11am on my most intensive tasks. This block of time was usually dedicated to writing Instagram captions and blog posts, scheduling posts in a scheduler and storyboarding ideas from our editorial calendar. Then I would usually take a few hours off around lunch and start again around 1 or 2 pm. For my afternoon block, my energy usually lagged so I would work on more passive tasks like editing photos, backing up data or organizing my hard drive. I would then take another break for a few hours, and in the evening, I was responsible for capturing nightly content on the various activities on the ship like programs, shows, and events. I would also do student interviews at this time, since classes are all done by roughly 5:00pm. 

When you live and work in the same place, you are never really “off”. While the staculty can retreat to the staculty lounge, the privacy is limited to how ever many staffers are in there at a given time. Plus, it just so happens to be a bar so productivity after 5pm is… less than ideal. Remember that you will be eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in the same place as the rest of the community — a random person might just drop by to ask you something or join you for a meal. You’ll need to get used to interruptions and unexpected delays stemming from a great conversation. You will walk past students in their pajamas or watch movies on the big screen in union together. As such, you always need to be prepared to have encounters with other community members and this shapes your behavior and perception. Your professional foot always needs to be forward, and complaining, gossip, and bad-mouthing should be avoided — you never know who might overhear you in an environment like this.

Signing Up to Be a Trip Liaison

One of the perks of working for Semester at Sea is the opportunity to support field office programming as a trip liaison. In each port, Semester at Sea offers students the opportunity to travel and experience the culture through field programs organized by the shipboard field office. These field programs range from a 5 hour day trip to a multi-day adventure across the country. All of these programs are chaperoned and led by staculty members.

As a TL (what they are affectionately called), you are responsible for leading a group of up to 20 students throughout the duration of the field program. Some groups may reach up to 40 students, in which case you will have a second TL to co-lead the group with. Being a TL means you manage the group of students and are ultimately responsible for their actions. You’ll need to count students on the bus, make sure everyone is following the student code of conduct, ensure people are ready to go on time, etc. It isn’t always a cake walk, but it is pretty fun to lead the group through incredible places like the Taj Mahal or trekking in Sapa, Vietnam. 

In exchange for being a TL, you will receive the field program for free or at a deep discount. This is a great perk if you are interested in traveling during SAS but are on a limited budget. I also really enjoyed how well you get to know students on field programs. You’ll sit with them at dinners and on long bus rides, which is a great way to engage in casual conversation and forge strong relationships with your fellow community members. This was an unexpected perk for me!    

Would I recommend working with Semester at Sea?

100% yes without an ounce of hesitation — as long as you have the right expectations. Working on a Semester at Sea voyage was an incredibly formative and interesting professional experience for me that I wouldn’t trade for anything; but it is not a ‘typical’ job. I recommend that anyone who applies for a Semester at Sea position educate themselves on the special circumstances and challenges that arise from working in a living-learning community. Semester at Sea is truly one of the most unique professional environments I can imagine, and the culture of this workplace might not be a great fit for every person. 

In my experience, Semester at Sea has a bit of a “birds of a feather flock together” sort of community. Think about it. If you are willing to do something as wild and out-there as drop your ‘normal’ life to work on a mobile ocean-based multi-generational campus for 4 months, it speaks to the kind of person you are. Semester at Sea draws a like minded yet diverse community of people together from around the world. I genuinely liked a majority of the staculty on my voyage because of our shared life values and mentality, and some of the relationships I have forged on Semester at Sea will last a lifetime. 

All featured photos were produced during my contract as Semester at Sea’s social media coordinator and are owned by Semester at Sea.

Author: Megan Arz

I am a travel and food obsessed Midwesterner living in Chicago and dreaming of the world. I work as a full-time program manager for Greenheart Travel, but I am also committed to integrating the travel lifestyle into my every day routines. I am passionate about ethical travel, meeting new people, creating unique memories and eating local cuisine!

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