Wednesday, June 29, 2016

NUPOC Program Summary

Should I Join the NUPOC Program / Is NUPOC a ‘Good Deal’? 

The NUPOC Program can seem like a daunting proposition.  Just for starters:
-Driving a Multi-Billion Dollar Submarine/Surface ship around the world
-Directing the operation of nuclear power plants
-Being put in charge of enlisted sailors
-Potentially leaving friends and loved ones for extended periods
-Signing a 5-year commitment

In recognition of that, it is both wise and understandable that you want to obtain as much information as possible before making a decision.  The most immediate question for someone interested in the NUPOC Program is likely something to the effect of “Should I do this?”, “How will NUPOC help me?”, “What’s the catch?”, “Is NUPOC really as good of a deal as they made it seem at the career fair?”, etc.  This post will take a stab at addressing these questions and direct you to other resources where you can do more digging on your own.  We also run free no-obligation trips on a monthly basis (typically to San Diego, though not always) to get applicants more acquainted with the jobs they might eventually have.  

Many of you may be attracted to the program based on deep and genuine feelings of patriotism and a desire to serve your country.  This is laudable and I hope that it is true (as it was for me, though I entered the Nuclear Navy via the Naval Academy rather than NUPOC), but I will explain the benefits independently of this or other personal motivations.  Most NUPOC applicants go on to become Submarine Officers (there are 70+ Submarines, so more Officers) so I will be using this path as the baseline for the following summary, but most of this is translatable to the other positions.  For more information on how other positions differ from Submarines, there are separate posts which compare and contrast each -- use the links on the menu bar above.

To start, here’s a quick summary of why NUPOC is a compelling program to exceptional and highly motivated college students and graduates: 
-          Tremendous Leadership Experience & Responsibility – FAST
-          Unparalleled Benefits Package
-          Get paid (quite well) for up to 30 months while completing degree
-          Excellent Pay with guaranteed raises at 2-years and 4-years
-          Presents you with Several Distinct and Excellent Options at 5-year point 
o   Sign a contract to stay in - return to a Ship/Submarine as a Department Head
o   Stay for Shore Duty but do not sign a contract.  Transition after shore duty
o   Transition Immediately to Civilian Employment
§  Government-Funded MBA/JD/MEM and other GradEd opportunities
§  Top Secret Clearance – Very marketable to public sector and government/defense contractors
§  Leverage leadership and technical experience – excellent private sector prospects 


Let’s break each of these down into a bit more detail. 


Leadership Experience / Responsibility. 

A Virginia Class Submarine costs a bit over $2.7 Billion (Fiscal Year 2017 Estimate).  It is commanded by the Commanding Officer (CO) who is assisted by the Executive Officer (XO). Below them are three Nuclear-Trained Department Heads (Navigator (NAV), Weapons Officer (WEPS), and Engineer (ENG)) and a group of roughly 10 Junior Officers (JOs).  When you show up to the boat on the first day there will only be five people who are in higher positions than you!  Having said that, all of the more experienced JOs will be significantly more knowledgeable than you and will help you to get your feet under you and ‘learn the ropes’ so to speak.  You will spend the first several months qualifying to operate the reactor as the Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW) and will spend the balance of your first ~year on the boat qualifying to drive the Submarine (first on the surface, then submerged) and learning about all the various weapons and communications systems.  Somewhere between your 12-15 month point, you will probably be awarded your Gold Dolphins which mean you’re fully “Qualified”. 

To summarize, within just a few months of showing up to the Submarine you will be in charge of nuclear reactor plant operations at sea.  Within about a year you will be the Officer of the Deck driving a 2+ Billion Dollar submarine and directing all associated evolutions.  Additionally, almost immediately upon showing up to your submarine you will be put in charge of a “Division” of either Electricians, Mechanics, Electronics Technicians (think Reactor Control / Reactor Safety systems), or Engineering Laboratory Technicians (Dual Mechanic/Chemists) who you will be responsible for with the help of a Chief Petty Officer (an experienced and accomplished enlisted sailor).

These responsibilities are the baseline and based on your performance you are likely to have more added.  In my case, I was the Maintenance Availability Coordinator for a ~6 month shipyard period where my Submarine was undergoing major repairs, was the Quality Assurance Officer (QAO – the guy responsible for ensuring that maintenance to critical systems is completed and retested properly before going back to sea), and was responsible for coordinating the Ship’s entry to and exit from Drydock.  These are just a few examples, and each officer’s experiences will vary, but if you want responsibilities there are many to be had. 

Unparalleled Benefits Package:   (Note that these are military-wide and not NUPOC-specific)

This one is pretty easy to talk about.  You have free medical/dental coverage and either free or nearly free healthcare for dependents.  In addition to the normal 401k option offered by most companies, you can also retire with a set benefit pension 20 years after starting active service (NUPOC time in school counts towards this, so if you join as a Sophomore you could have 3  of the 20 years to retirement already completed before you even show up to Nuclear Power School!).  You get subsidized life insurance (SGLI).  You will be a veteran, which brings with it many significant benefits in terms of hiring practices, school admissions, etc.  You will earn GI Bill benefits along with the Yellow Ribbon Program which means that you can go and pursue almost any graduate opportunity you’re interested in later at no cost.  If you stay in long enough, you could alternatively choose to give your GI Bill benefits to a (future) child and avoid paying out of pocket for their education down the road.  You can get a reduced interest mortgage with no down payment and no mortgage insurance (I’m literally doing this right now – closing on a house in about a month) via the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.  I’m sure I’m missing some things, but this should give you an idea. 
One less positive note --- there will not be 401k matching contributions in the Navy until January of 2018, though I think this downside is easily outweighed by the other points I noted.      

Get Paid (Quite Well) for up to 30 Months While Completing Degree:
If anyone else provides compensation anywhere close to this program for students in college they’ve been very secretive about it…

Once accepted to the NUPOC program you become “Active Duty” but your only real responsibility is to finish school and get good grades (along with staying in shape and not doing illicit drugs).  The Navy is basically paying you up front because they want to make the program compelling to top-tier talent coming out of college.  You’re getting paid to be smart.  I’ll summarize what you can expect to receive:

-          You’ll get paid as an “E-6”.  That is to say the 6th level of the Enlisted pay scale
-          Your pay in NUPOC has 3 main components:   (see links below and at right)
o   Base Pay (Taxable) - $2,435.84/month  (link)
o   BAS (Untaxed) - $367.92/month (same link as Base Pay above)
o   BAH (Untaxed Housing Allowance) - Varies by location.  Ranges from about $1000-4000/month with most areas in the $1250-1750 range. (link; select year and whether you have dependents then find your city)
-          For Submarine / Surface / Naval Reactors Engineer Accessions there is a one-time $15,000 bonus when you get accepted
-          If you refer a friend or classmate to the program after you are accepted you have the opportunity to get promoted (for pay purposes) to E-7 which works out to an additional $400-450/month depending on your location.

I encourage you to do the math for your area, but assuming a relatively low housing allowance (ie. Low cost of living location), this would work out to about $4,000/month for up to 30 months along with a $15,000 bonus and an opportunity to get a raise while still in school.  For high cost of living areas (San Francisco Bay area, NYC, etc) the monthly pay is ~$7,000/month.  And this time counts towards retirement and is earning you GI Bill and other Veterans benefits.

If you want to work or do internships with other organizations while in NUPOC that is entirely fine and actually encouraged if it is Engineering/Technical in nature, just so long as doing so is not a detriment to your studies. 

** Side Note / Quick Plug **
Albert Einstein said that “Compound Interest is the most powerful and least understood force in the universe”.  I believe him to be correct in this.  If you make the long-run average market return of ~9% per year, you will double your money every 8 years.  For perspective, if you save $20,000 at age 20 and invest it at the market return you will have ~$1.28 Million when you’re 68 if you don’t ever save another dime.  If you continue saving, obviously that rises dramatically.  Be smart and wealth can be a choice.

(Disclaimer: There are no guarantees of what future market returns might be, and I'm not telling you that you're going to get rich because of this program -- this is a sidebar public service announcement from me personally to everyone reading this that you should start investing early because the benefits are much greater for saving now vs. starting 15-20 years down the line. I've simplified purposely here to make a point.  Even at a lower return, say 7%, that initial investment would be over half a million at age 68.  That same initial investment at age 40 would only be ~$80k.   Do yourself a favor and go do some independent research.)

Excellent Pay with Guaranteed Promotions at 2 years and 4 years after Commissioning:
Once you graduate and complete OCS (ODS for Instructors and Naval Reactors Engineers) you will be commissioned as an Ensign or O-1 paygrade.  You will initially be living in Charleston, SC for Nuclear Power School (NRE's are the exception here - they go to Washington, DC and get a larger housing allowance as a result).  Based on this location you will initially be getting paid a respectable (though short of amazing) ~$60,000/year (a couple thousand more for Submarine Officers who start getting Submarine Pay at Power School -- $230/month or just shy of $3k/year).  Of that only about $36-38,000 is taxable and you won’t be paying anything for medical/dental so this is probably the civilian equivalent of ~$70-75,000 starting pay to go to school.  (As always I encourage you to check with the resources linked here and at the right; also note that all of the calculations below ignore the fact that a hefty chunk of the pay you'll be receiving is tax exempt and that there is no deduction for medical/dental -- each will be the equivalent of a substantially higher civilian salary in terms of "take-home" pay).

Things start to look much sweeter shortly thereafter.  You will automatically promote (assuming you don’t get a DUI or some other very major offense) to Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG, O-2 paygrade) at the 2-year point and Lieutenant (LT, O-3 paygrade) at the 4-year point.  Each of these promotions individually adds a little over $11,000 annually to your base pay, along with $150-300/month to your housing allowance depending on your location at that time.  You will also likely be receiving Sea Pay and Sub Pay (look at the bottom of the Pay Scale linked at the right), which is not huge but moves the needle by a few thousand/year. 

All told as a LTJG (2-4 years post-commission) you’ll be receiving about $72-75,000/year if we stick with Charleston BAH (to be conservative; you will be in a different location, and if it is Hawaii, San Diego, DC etc the BAH will be drastically higher).  As a LT (4-5 years) you’ll be receiving about $86-89,000/year (again sticking with Charleston for conservatism).

At your 5 year point – aka the end of your commitment, you can either choose to sign a contract (which starts a $35,000/year bonus on top of other pay each year until it expires), or to stay in for shore duty (which gives you a reduced bonus of $12,500/year until you either leave the Navy or sign a contract), or obviously you could choose to get out altogether. 

Moral of the story: From your 5-year point on you will be making somewhere between $100,000 - $125,000/year if you are in a low cost of living area (which, sadly for me, Memphis, TN definitely is).  If you are in a high cost of living area this can be as much as $35,000/year higher, though you would presumably spend a fair chunk of that on the expensive housing.  There’s also another pay bump at the 6-year point of nearly $500/month for 'time in service', and there is an increase in your housing allowance if you have dependents which I’m ignoring for all of these numbers.  Should you choose to stay in the Navy this continues to rise as your "time in service" increases and you are promoted to Lt. Commander, Commander, Captain, and finally (if you're an all-star!) Admiral.  

These are all rough “back-of-the-envelope” calculations, but each is based on the source documents listed in the links on this web page and backed up by my personal experience and that of many peers who I used to verify this for accuracy.

NUPOC Presents you with Several Distinct and Excellent Options at 5-year point:

In my mind, the most compelling thing about the NUPOC program is the fact that it opens a lot of doors for you. 

Fast-Forward 5 years from your commissioning.  You’ve just completed an ~ 3-year tour on a Submarine (or alternative path for other designators).  You’re being very well compensated and trying to decide what to do next --- a crossroads.  So what are your options? 

Basically, there are 3, and they’re all pretty awesome.  

1.  You can choose to stay in and sign a contract.  Start getting that $35,000 annual bonus on top of your other pay and enjoy a couple of years of shore duty before you go back to a submarine / ship.  You'll be getting paid somewhere between $125,000 - $160,000 depending on where you're stationed.  (They pay you well because work on a submarine / ship is hard and they want excellent officers to stay in and lead the next generation – you’ll appreciate the break!)  This path obviously also will continue to progress you towards a pension at your 20-year point from the day you were accepted by the Admiral into NUPOC, and opens the door to passing your GI Bill benefits on to a child thus avoiding that expense in the future.  It's hard to overstate how good this could set you up ---- but let's just lay it out: assuming you enter directly out of college this means you'll be making well into 6-figures starting at around age 27 until you're 42, at which point you have the option to retire with a full pension and benefits for life as well as free college for one of your children.  Additionally, predicated on you demonstrating competence in your job, you could be the commanding officer of a Submarine as early as ~12 years after this point.  (A reminder: the retirement pension starts at the date of your interview with the Admiral +20 years, so you could receive it as early as age 39 if you maximize your time in NUPOC; I just used the numbers above as a reference example)

2.  You can choose to stay in for shore duty and not sign a contract.  This will give you the smaller bonus ($12,500/year) but also keeps your options open between signing a contract later to stay in or else transitioning out of the Navy. In the meantime, you get paid very well for two years especially in comparison to your hours worked in most shore duty assignments.  If you decide to transition after shore duty, the discussion below for (3) applies.

3.  You can choose to transition out of the Navy immediately after the end of your commitment.  There are really a couple of subordinate choices for this one:

a.       You can use your education benefits to go on to obtain an MBA / JD / MEM / some other Masters Degree or work towards a Ph.D.  I am currently completing a Masters in Finance at Georgetown and intend to go the top-5 MBA route after completing shore duty for what that’s worth as a reference (my wife is a lawyer at a large firm in Pittsburgh, PA which has exactly 0 submarines nearby so signing a contract is not in the cards for me).  Then obviously you would be seeking employment after this additional schooling.  One additional note on the GI Bill + Yellow Ribbon Program: In addition to most schools (including Ivies and other top schools) being entirely covered, there is also a housing allowance and books allowance you will receive to mitigate the opportunity cost of lost income. 

b.      You can transition immediately to civilian employment.  There are many resources available to support you should you choose to go this route, including a variety of Junior Military Officer head-hunters, Junior Officer/Nuclear Officer-specific Career Fairs attended by the top industrial/tech/health/consulting/finance firms in the country, and a strong appetite in Corporate America for technically competent young people with leadership experience.  Some Nuclear Officers go the Civilian Nuclear Energy route via Utilities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or other organizations (which is a very good and viable option -- see the forum link (here and to the right), but most do not.


  1. This is a really awesome blog, with a lot of good, detailed information that I wish was around when I signed up for the NUPOC program.

    As a suggestion, I would add information about the Surface path, or alternatively, find someone who could write a blog as good as this one about it, as it is quite a different experience.

    When I signed up for the program, I didn't know much about the SWO path, and found myself taken aback by how the career progression is different form the Sub community.

  2. Unknown,

    Glad you find this helpful and worthwhile. Take a look at the discussion of SUBs vs SWO and if you think there is more data to be included or topics to address let me know via the comments portal at the bottom of the page and I'll look into modifying.

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  4. You have talked about the upsides...can you add more details about the downsides? Who does or does not make a good candidate (aside from grades)

    1. With respect to downsides, I'll point you to one of the FAQs, reposted here for your convenience:

      17. What are the downsides of NUPOC?

      Answer: It depends on the position that you are seeking, but I'll give my general take with respect to submarines (my path in the program) --- again with the caveat that this is one man's opinion and intended only as food for thought. I'm not going to discuss the many positives here because there's quite a bit of discussion of them elsewhere on the site. I do think they strongly outway any downsides, but this discussion may be valuable for you.

      (a) (After graduation) The job is genuinely hard. Not every single day is filled with mind-wracking challenges, but you will frequently be exposed to new environments, given significant responsibility over people, programs, and systems, and there can be periods of long hours and a lot of stress. This is especially true while you are qualifying (learning how to do your job when you show up on the submarine), preparing for major inspections or operational examinations, or leading dynamic missions overseas. I don't really consider the difficulty to be a downside (few things of value are easy, in my experience), but it depends on your perspective.

      (b) (If you select Submarines / Surface) Sometimes you will be gone for training or missions. This is a minority of the time you are attached to the submarine (for me it was ~35% in total) or surface ship, but it's not insignificant. In most cases, you still have contact via email to friends and loved ones, but if you are on a critical mission overseas where transmitting messages could give away your location, this could be curtailed for a period as well. I didn't mind this aspect much, and I actually found being at sea to be comfortable and relaxing after I settled into my routine after a couple of days, but this is clearly a difference.

      (c) "Duty". Unlike an office job, not every single person goes home at the end of the day. The enlisted crew (you won't be in this group) is split up into duty sections which rotate and one "section" of sailors remain onboard throughout the night. At least one and sometimes two officers will stay to be in charge of the Sub/ship and these sailors should something go wrong. In this role, you are responsible for the submarine and are the Commanding Officer's direct representative.

      You are not "working" the whole time. You're basically there to be the go-to leader if a major event happens. You also tour the submarine before bed to ensure that nothing is out of the ordinary. Otherwise, you can read, sleep, study, play video games, watch TV, etc -- but you're doing it on the submarine that night.


      It's hard to describe what a "good candidate" is succinctly, but obviously academic ability is part of it. Otherwise I'd say someone who is eager to push themselves and be challenged, someone who doesn't want a purely desk job, someone who enjoys leading and being a part of dynamic teams, and someone who is not afraid of minor failures. I think you'll have a sense of whether or not it appeals to you if you attend an orientation trip and get to see it in person and talk to people in the job now.