Friday, July 18, 2014

How to Become a PADI Scuba Diving Instructor

People ask me all the time how I became a dive instructor! I can say that it is not an easy (or cheap) process, but if you have a passion for diving and have the right personality to teach, it's an amazing way to do what you love - and if you want, live in some pretty interesting and exotic places.

Since I can only speak for my own experience, this post is focused on how to become a PADI dive instructor. There are many training agencies around the world for basic certification all the way up to instructor - some of the more common ones are SSI, NAUI, BSAC, SDI/TDI, CMAS - but they are all different and I really don't know what the other ones are like.

the day i passed my instructor course!
The journey to become a dive instructor starts a looooonnnnnnggg time before your instructor course. You have to become a certified diver first! After that, there are continuing education courses. The timeline and cost looks something like this:

(Prices are from Roatan in 2012 and have probably gone up a bit - and keep in mind Roatan is one of the cheapest places in the world to do diving courses.)

  1. Open Water Diver - the basic diving certification course. 3-5 full days plus homework at night. $300-450
  2. Advanced Open Water - a step up from the Open Water course. 2-3 days. $275-400
  3. Emergency First Responder - before starting the Rescue course, you have to have a current First Aid certificate. If you don't have one from somewhere else, you'll need to take this. 1 day. $100-$150
  4. Rescue Diver - a seriously physically and mentally challenging course where you learn how to react to emergency situations above and below the water. 3-4 days. $300-400
  5. Divemaster - the first professional step. Usually an internship where you work in a dive shop while studying dive theory, practice skills and dive leadership. Must have 40 logged dives to begin. 6-8 weeks. About $2000 including PADI fees. Once you are a 'PADI Pro' you will have to pay yearly professional fees to keep your standing. If you don't pay, your certification level reverts to Rescue Diver. I think it's around $90/year to maintain a Divemaster rating. 
  6. Open Water Scuba Instructor - this is a 'dive instructor'. Usually a 8-12 day Instructor Development Course (IDC) with a 2-day Instructor Exam (IE) at the end. About $2000-3000 including PADI fees. It's about $250/year to maintain an instructor rating, plus some shops require you to maintain professional liability insurance. You must have 100 logged dives by the end of the IDC to participate, and have been a certified diver for at least six months.
  7. Master Scuba Diver Trainer - this is a small step up from a regular OWSI. All it means is that you have certified at least 25 students, and that you are licensed to teach 5+ specialties. There are a few ways to be certified to teach specialties, but I took the route of doing an MSDT prep week with my course director after the IE which takes 5-7 days and costs $600 and up depending on how many specialties you want. PADI fees depend on how many specialties you choose, they are around $70 per specialty. This is the instructor level I'm currently at.
  8. There are a few higher instructor-level ratings but they're kind of irrelevant for this post and since I haven't achieved them yet I can't tell you much about it. Check the PADI website if you need info on that.
PADI has built in a bit of a roadblock to full 'zero-to-hero' programs where people do their courses back to back and try to become an instructor as fast as possible. You have to be a certified diver for at least six months (ie. have completed your Open Water course for six months) before you're allowed to do the instructor course. One of my friends didn't know this, and his IDC center overlooked it, and he went all the way through the instructor course and exam and PADI wouldn't certify him as an instructor because he hadn't been a certified diver for six months. He had to do the IDC and exam all over again (and it's no easy feat). Other courses have 'minimum logged dives' thresholds before you begin the course. Most dive shops won't do a Rescue course with less than 20 dives, or Divemaster with less than 40-60 dives.

doing a refresher with one of the first open water courses i ever taught. this lady was nearly 70 and it took me almost three weeks to get her certified, but she did it!
I personally think that PADI should have higher 'minimum logged dives' thresholds. When I did my courses, I did my Open Water and Advanced Open Water back to back, which I don't recommend to anyone. It's really hard to get everything you can get out of the Advanced course when you've only just learned to dive and you're still figuring out your buoyancy and basic dive skills. I also think the Rescue threshold should be raised to 40 dives. As a Rescue diver, you learn to be responsible for yourself and other divers underwater, and if you're still developing your skills as a diver, it's hard to assist others. I also think 100 dives is low for an instructor.

my 'office'
I did my Rescue the second I banged out 20 dives, and started my Divemaster as soon as I hit 40 dives. I had 114 dives when I started the Instructor course. When I look back on it now, over 800 dives and 50+ certifications later, I really don't think I had enough diving experience.  I would recommend to anyone looking to become a dive instructor to get as many dives as you can between courses. I know diving is expensive but you will have so much more success at the professional level when you have actual experience in the water. I never had any doubt about my teaching ability - I am a natural teacher and have a knack for sharing knowledge - but I think I would have been a better dive lead with more experience first.

Certifications don't always mean everything... there are some local dive guides on Roatan who never went past the Rescue level, and they have 35,000+ dives on this reef. When I was a brand-new OWSI, I had 119. Who would you rather go out with for a fun dive? As a certified diver, I'd rather go with someone who has more experience on the reef. Who would I rather have teach me how to dive? An instructor. Just something to keep in mind (looking at you, newly certified OWSIs on Roatan who like to tell the boat captains who used to be divemasters here for 15-20 years how a site is supposed to be done).

Now, having your piece of paper that says you can teach people to dive isn't everything. Most shops expect instructors to have their own set of full gear. Full gear means: BCD, regulators/console, dive computer, fins, mask, snorkel, wetsuit/drysuit, knife, torch, etc. I bought all mid-range stuff and spent close to $6,000 for everything new 2.5 years ago. I have already replaced a BCD (thank god my dive shop was a ScubaPro dealer and let me order one at the dealer price of $250, otherwise it would have been around $600-800 retail), had one mask stolen (a $75 mask) and replaced with a $25 (dealer price) one, had a torch die (a $90 light that ScubaPro wouldn't replace because I lost the receipt), and had to get increasingly larger wetsuits as I gained weight here (thankfully free from dive shop lost & found). I am going to need a new dive computer soon which will probably run me around $600. I also pay $165/year for the highest level of DAN dive accident insurance - as a dive professional, because of how much time I spend diving I have a higher risk of having an accident, and with a ride in the hyperbaric chamber costing $8000-10,000 per treatment, I don't want to pay for that. Every diver (even recreational) should have dive insurance. Most travel policies don't cover scuba diving, so be sure to look into it.

get ready for killer triceps from hauling tanks all day
I always tell people diving is not for the faint of heart or wallet. All in all, it cost me around $13,000 for all courses and gear. That's not including the cost of 2 holidays to Roatan to complete courses, or the cost of moving here and not working for the first 4 months while I did my Divemaster and Instructor courses. I think I had to save about $20,000 to get to the day I started working as a dive instructor.

Oh, and once you become a dive instructor? Unless you work in one of the very few places in the world where you make decent money (but still not great), be prepared to get paid shit for how much work you're expected to do. Also, there is no guarantee that you will get work! You'll be competing for jobs with instructors who have way more dives and experience than you, and since you get paid the same no matter what your experience level is, dive shops will almost always choose the more experienced candidate. Instructing is not all rainbows and butterflies all the time either.

I have spoke at length on this blog about how little we get paid (and how often people don't realize they are supposed to tip). Most people are shocked when they find out my salary. From talking to friends who are instructors all over the world. you seem to be able to make enough money and save a bit in places like Grand Cayman and Australia. Anywhere else (the rest of the Caribbean, SE Asia, Indonesia) you usually make enough to live and have some beers with your friends a couple nights a week and that's it. I don't recommend this career path full-time for anyone who has student debt, loans, or credit card bills. It's highly unlikely you'll make enough money to make monthly payments consistently, especially if you want to go home to visit once a year or do any traveling. This is not a career you get into for the money. It's a career to get into to share your passion and knowledge of the underwater world with others. Sometimes I get frustrated and stressed about finances when my other non-instructor friends here are taking holidays from Roatan (yes, we still need holidays when we live in paradise...we're still working, we're not retired!) and I have to cut back on my groceries for the week because I don't even have enough money for everything I want to eat for the week.... but then I take someone for their first open water dive and see the amazed look on their face. There is nothing in the world that beats that feeling.

happy instructors on a staff dive!
Do I recommend becoming a dive instructor? To some people yes, to others no. It's not something you do just to get free diving. It's not something you do if you can't stand being in the pool day after day doing 'try dives' and telling people how to clear their mask over and over and over and over and over. It's not something if you are just trying to find any way to make a living in an exotic country. It's for people who have a passion, and the ability to impart knowledge to others. You have to have the patience of a saint (mine gets tested daily), the know-how to convey instructions in several different ways (not everyone learns the same way) and the inner moral compass to stick to PADI standards even when your student is really, really nice and she is going to leave you a big tip if you just pass her but she isn't mastering the skills. The bottom line is that it's not for everyone, and you really need to think it through to the long-term level. Get a ton of experience before putting in the time and money. Assist on courses at your local shop so you can see what teaching is really like. Talk to instructors who have gone through the IDC at the center you're thinking about choosing. If being a dive instructor is truly your path, you'll love it!

Guys, make sure to follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me keep on showing people Nemo's world. So there's that.


  1. Thanks Sandra, I'm glad you enjoyed it!! Hoping it will be helpful for the many people who email me asking me this :)

  2. wow this was so eye-opening! I always mean to say that my goal is to get my open water cert, but end up saying dive masters and people look at me like "you're an idiot"

  3. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)July 22, 2014 8:06 AM

    My highest certification level is AOW and I'm not sure I will go beyond this at any point (I guess rescue diver would be good/useful but beyond that, I see no point unless I want to teach). That said, I'm so glad you brought up the fact that even though PADI lets divers go straight from OW to AOW, it's really not a good idea. At this point, I've logged about 50 dives, but only got my AO after I had done something like 30... even then I wasn't sure if I was really ready! But even with just 30 dives logged, we met plenty of "Advanced" divers who had maybe only 12 or 15 dives! When we were under the water, it was plenty clear which of us were the better divers and it rarely had to do with certification level and far more to do with how many dives people had logged. There's no substitute for just getting in the water and practicing/attempting to master your skills every single time!

  4. Hahaha that's hilarious Rachel! I sometimes make fun of people from the UK when they say "I'm going to get my PADI" or "I'm going to get my divemasters", neither of which are real things - it's getting your open water certification, or your divemaster certification. There's no 'PADI' and no 'divemasters'! But you should definitely get your open water cert :)

  5. You're totally right Steph - I usually tell people if they have no intention of becoming a PADI pro, there's really no reason to go any higher than AOW unless you want to... just keep diving and gaining experience! Maybe a specialty or two...

    Going straight into the AOW seems to be a bit of a sales point for instructors. I'm not convinced that it's the best way or the way divers can be the most successful. I really think they could get a lot more out of the course if they had some diving experience first. That being said, I'm not in charge of it :) So I just do the absolute best I can to make sure every OW diver I turn out can be as prepared as possible, without a higher level of diving experience, to do the AOW course.

  6. Great article, thanks! I share the same passion for diving and this is why I love reading your blog. I'm planning to become at least a DM maybe next year and an instructor somewhere further down the road. And I'm halfway round the world from you are (SEA) but the course prices are slightly cheaper over here after conversion.

    I have to admit, I went from zero straight to AOW and although I chose PPB, I need more dives to further master and fine tune my buoyancy. I'll be doing some fun dives next month so I hope things will get better then.

  7. Wow, it's neither easy nor cheap to become padi scuba divers! Well do to you for being so devoted!

  8. Wow, those are some big numbers after those dollar signs!!!

    I am glad to hear that PADI has tried to ensure that people don't rush through and become qualified whilst still being inexperienced. In general I think anything worth learning should take time. I spent 2 years getting my Diploma of Remedial Massage Therapy, yet I had a friend who did a 14-hour introductory course and then started charging people $60 an hour despite the fact she a) wasn't legally allowed to provide the service b) didn't know what she was doing c) didn't know the names of any muscles, bones, or structures of the body and d) couldn't fix a single thing wrong with people.

    Time doesn't always equal expertise but yeah, sometimes it does. :)

  9. I couldn't agree more that it should be necessary to have more logged dives before you continue on. I'm brand new (14 logged), OW+adventure deep. My first dive shop tried to get me to continue on to AOW, but I still didn't feel that comfortable under water, so I decided to wait. I'm glad I did, I am still learning so much every time I go under... I just don't feel ready to move on. I know I will one day - it's such an addictive hobby! Also, I knew it was expensive to get an instructor level, but when you add it up - geez!

  10. Really interesting post. I'm keen to learn how to dive, but to be honest never really thought of being a dive instructor, but it's still very interesting to know whats involved.

  11. Glad you enjoyed it! I think SEA is the only place in the world cheaper than the Bay Islands. When I went diving in other parts of the Caribbean I almost fell over at the price :)

    Have a great time on your fun dives!! Always good to get more practice in!

  12. Thanks Agness! It's not a cheap hobby but it is very rewarding!

  13. Hehe you're right Karen, sometimes time DOES equal expertise!! For diving I guess it's a fine balance between keeping people involved without having to spend a million dollars on fun dives between courses, and making sure people have the appropriate amount of experience to take on the subject matter of the course. Glad I'm not in charge of that stuff!

  14. Good for you to deciding to wait Katie!! I wish more divers would take stock of their confidence level (and the advice of their instructor) like you did. Doing the deep adventure is a good start because it opens you up to a lot of other dive sites that are deeper than 60ft, but the entire AOW course isn't necessary to do right away. Taking the Peak Performance Buoyancy adventure dive may be helpful too, as you're building your buoyancy skills. The great thing about the AOW course is there's no need to rush it - you can do the 5 adventure dives one at a time as your confidence builds.

  15. I definitely encourage you to try diving Catherine! Being keen to learn is half the battle, as far as I'm concerned :) I think it's good for divers to know what their instructors have done to become instructors - it should instill even more confidence in you as a student!

  16. Our dive instructor in Bali recommended the Buoyancy dive too, so there must be something to that. :) It's something I still struggle with... And if I get a little stressed it gets worse - haha! I've thought about doing an entire dive vacation at some point, so it would be great to get a couple in then to work towards AOW. Otherwise, I feel like I spend all my underwater time worrying about skills and not just enjoying it.

  17. Wow this is some of the most insightful, realistic (I think my wallet fainted just reading this post) info about what it takes to be an instructor! As someone who is looking at bouncing from own cubicle I appreciate someone not afraid to tell it like it is!

  18. Thanks so much Lauren!! The whole reason I started this blog in the first place to chronicle this journey was because I couldn't find anything online with cold hard numbers and lots of information, so I'm doing my best to get it out there! I'm glad you found it helpful!