Tuesday, I took the psychological evaluation to spend a winter at the South Pole along with ~20 other folks involved with the US Antarctic Program. The evaluation is part of the PQ process, and is required for people who intend to spend the winter at McMurdo or Pole.
Making sure that winterovers are mentally prepared certainly makes sense; I’d almost put it above some of the rest of the PQ process in terms of importance. At the same time, the psychological evaluation – I’ll call it the psych – isn’t the most comfortable topic for polar people to talk about. A lot of folks see the exam as a significant risk, but at the same time, it’s a bit of an unknown.
I say the psych is a risk because by the time most of us have made it into the examination, we’ve invested a lot in our new job. If we pass the exam, then the process continues on – we can finish any remaining PQ tasks and head on to Antarctica.
If we fail the exam though, the process comes to an abrupt stop – generally there’s no more training, no more job contract for this season, and no prospect of taking the test for another year. The job you quit to pursue Antarctic work might not want you back, and there’s no getting back the effort spent on the process so far.
The unknown comes partially from the exam format. There are two distinct parts; a bubble-in test, and a 1-on-1 interview with a psychologist. What people seem to remember more, and talk about more, is the written part. This year, the written part consisted of the MMPI (I think the -2-RF version, but can’t remember for sure) and 16PF. I’m sure results from both tests are very informative to a psychologist, but from the test-taker’s perspective, the tests are weird. Imagine answering several hundred true/false questions along the lines of “I like repairing a door latch” or “I feel a tight band around my head”. Somehow, a program can take the answers to hundreds of those questions and produce a report describing a person’s personality, which is then used by the psychologist to decide if that person can work in Antarctica over the winter.
Results of the psych are terse; PQ or NPQ for most people – Pass or Fail. Some get a conditional result where they have a PQ for summer, but need to retest just before summer ends before they’re approved for winter. Suspense! There’s no feedback relating to why a person passes or fails, results are literally condensed to a single “X” in a form email.
We were told at the beginning of the test that results would be sent out very quickly after the exam; it only took a few business hours for mine (above) to arrive via email. Rumors started spreading a bit after lunch on Wednesday that several folks had failed. By the end of the day, we knew it was about one in three. Everyone who sat the test had been scheduled for the same trainings over the next few days, but tickets to send home those who failed were arranged that evening.