I have to preface this by reminding the reader that I’m a submariner, and that this post may have limited relevance to the other communities. For the SWOs, I have to assume that your qualification process is similar to ours, although the culture may be a little bit different when you’ve got 31 ensigns in a wardroom and don’t deal with nuclear power. For everyone else, I have no idea what you do. I hope this perspective is useful to you.
Here’s the culture I grew up with. Submarine crews have long assigned the epithet “Nub” (for Non-Useful Body) to those who have not achieved full qualification as a submariner, culminated in the mighty “Dolphins.” It was common practice that Nubs were not to partake in things like movies, video games, or dessert, as the time devoted to those indulgences would be better spent becoming useful to the ship. If that practice sounds harsh, consider that work-to-bodies ratio on a submarine is persistently absurd, and a single sailor failing to pull his own weight will have a dramatic impact on the workload (and sleep) of his peers.
The recreational restrictions on the unqualified were more consistently observed among the enlisted than the officers. This was partially due to differences between gold and silver dolphins: Silver dolphins involve between three to six months of work and study; gold dolphins take anywhere from ten to eighteen months, the greater portion of which will be spent also supporting a three-section watchbill as EOOW (Engineering Officer of the Watch). Mostly, it was about cultural differences between the Wardroom and the Crew’s Mess. That said, the expectations of my seniors were clear: Nobody was going to yell at me if I stayed at the table for ice cream every now and then, but I was not to fool around. Time at sea was not to be wasted.
At some point during my tour, direction came from on high that the “Nub” epithet was to be abolished as well as the associated stigma on nonquals. The unwritten rules remained unwritten.
The speed at which you progress sends strong signals to your superiors
Until you can stand a primary watch, becoming certified to do so will be the principal destination of your time and effort. It’s not just about supporting the watchbill, although pulling your own weight is hugely important. It’s also about your own development as an officer. Many say that you’ll learn more on your first qualified watch than in all the days preceding it; I dispute this maxim, but its substance rings true. Your rate of learning will accelerate massively when you begin to accumulate experience leading a watch team. The sooner you begin this accelerated learning, the more seasoned, capable, and trustworthy you’ll be at all subsequent phases of your tour.
Don’t let anyone tell you that your qualifications are self-paced. Hobbies are self-paced. Qualification is your job, and it is break-neck paced. Everyone says to hit the ground running; what they don’t tell you is that you must never stop until you’ve made the team. The speed at which you progress sends strong signals to your superiors—not just about work ethic and intelligence, but also about how well you fit in to the greater organization and understand its priorities. It is the single most significant indicator of your future performance.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can make up for being slow by being unnecessarily thorough. That is a very common, tragic and stubborn misapplication of good work ethic. A perfect regurgitation of the Turbine Generator Voltage Regulator schematic isn’t going to make up for the extra months of genuine experience you could have. For each checkout, study enough to get ink on paper, then move on. You’ll have plenty of time to return to the details when you have the foundation to know which details are important.
Avoid the Moral High Horse. Every so often a JO comes along who believes he’s the first person to realize that the qualification process is imperfect. It is not your job to change the culture of your ship, not yet. You have no choice but to trust in the system as it exists; in both writing and execution. Don’t accept a signature for a practical evolution that didn’t happen, but if someone believes you have displayed adequate knowledge and you disagree, accept the gift and move on. There are multiple checks in the system to prevent you from making it through if you’re unready, particularly the judgment of your senior officers. Allow them the opportunity to make the call. Trust the system, flawed as it may be.
Seek primary references. Not hand-me-down training gouge. It may feel faster, but it usually wastes more time than it saves, and it undercuts your familiarity with the references (which is often more important than what they contain). When you take notes in your training notebook, make sure you write down the reference, volume and chapter where you found the information—this will come in handy when you least expect it.
One exception I’d offer to the avoidance of training gouge is in system drawings—piping or electrical schematics often contain far more detail than what is necessary to demonstrate understanding of how the system works. There’s usually a simplified version that’s passed around. When memorizing diagrams, think about what the system actually does—where the electrons go, where the fluids flow– this is what makes the drawing worth knowing, and also makes it easier to remember. Where you can, walk through the physical system, putting your hands on its components. This feels like a waste of time, but it develops the intuitive understanding of your ship that you will draw on for the remainder of your tour.
Prioritize Practical Factors. In case SWOs use a different word for it, “prac facs” are those evolutions which you must participate in to get the signature. “Conn the ship during a strait transit,” for example. They depend on cooperative ship conditions or schedule, so they always end up being the limiting factor to your qualifications. Make their accomplishment your top priority—you can always get the knowledge checkouts later.
Certain “whole-ship” evolutions will be rich with opportunities to slay these dragons. For subs, surfacing, submerging, reactor startups or shutdowns, or the maneuvering watch are great examples. If any of these things are going on and you’re not busy knocking out prac-facs, you’re screwing up.
For routine stuff that happens frequently at sea, like shifting heat exchangers or lube oil purifiers or whatever, it may be prudent to leave a list of evolutions you need with the cognizant watch officer. If they then contact you, even if you’re snuggled up with your fuzziest blanket and dreaming sweet thoughts of beach volleyball with Val Kilmer, you get your ass up and go. Missing some sleep is a short-term problem.
Take written exams as soon as you can. Even if there’s no way you’ll pass. There’s no penalty for failing; you’ll just have to retake it, and you’ll be much more prepared on the second go-round anyway. As soon as you complete an exam you think you failed, write down everything you were asked while it’s still fresh in your mind. You’ll have a better feel for the style of questions, and many of them will be repeated. More often than you’d think, you’ll miraculously pass anyway.
The relationships you build will be more important to the execution of your real job than the systems
Study in the Spaces. Not the wardroom. The most immediate benefit of this is keeping you out of XO’s crosshairs for bullshit tasking. It also keeps you visibly working in the vicinity of the people who will be giving you checkouts, rather than coming down from your ivory tower when you need them for signatures. Most importantly, it helps you learn by osmosis. You don’t realize it when it’s happening, but just being around the systems and operations you’re studying multiplies your rate of uptake.
Dealing With the Guys. It is no secret that the PQS system is designed to get you in the spaces and interacting with sailors. The relationships you build will be more important to the execution of your real job than the systems. Remember this when you’re exhausted and just trying to get through it all—these people are highly-skilled individuals, not just signatures. If you approach them with genuine intellectual curiosity, teaching you will be a more pleasant experience for them, and thus they’ll be more willing to give you their time in the future.
They may test you, try to get a feel for what you’re all about. They want to know your boundaries. This isn’t the time to assert your mighty officer authority. In establishing your boundaries (which you must), base them on a relationship of professional respect between adults, not between officer and enlisted. There will be plenty of time for all that later.
Blacklisting. It is what happens if you really piss them off. It is not a binary state; it exists in varying degrees, a sliding scale from being mildly disliked and avoided to being completely shut down in qualification progress by collective decision, possibly requiring intervention from your superiors, which will obviously make things much worse. Things that can get you blacklisted are usually gross displays of arrogance or entitlement. Another is blowing off a lookup (if someone gives you a tough lookup and you can’t find it, don’t give up and get the checkout from someone else—that wastes two sailors’ time). If you think you may have inadvertently found yourself blacklisted (it happens), find out what stupid thing you did and apologize.
Be Persistent. You will inevitably reach the point where your progress is held up by something beyond your control; either the CO just isn’t interested in sitting your board right now, or there’s some evolution you need and your ship’s schedule just won’t cooperate. In these cases its important that you don’t just throw your arms up in frustration and give up. Be persistent– bug everyone in your chain of command, do some legwork to see if you can ride another ship for a short underway to get the evolutions done. As usual, don’t be surprised when you get no help with this stuff.
Gut it out. The qualification process is eminently frustrating and it will wear you down. It is a flawed game, and you’ll feel like its rigged against you at times. We all went through it. Like all things, it does come to an end. It’s up to you to expedite the process.