This was posted by a sailor named "Chris." This is his perspective from Prototype School.
I'd like to preface this by first saying that this is my recount of the pipeline from end of the tunnel. I earned my NEC on 14 AUG 2009. I try to speak strictly to the academic nature of the pipeline, with an average student in mind. SOME will get away with less HOURS, but all the work and B/s Will be the same. I'm not trying to dissuade anyone from going nuke, because personally I love it. I just feel that the true difficulty of the program is oft-times misrepresented in the public realm.
For officers, remove A-school, Add calculus level math in place of trig, and all knowledge requirements in prototype are in-rate.
Just to highlight the difference between power school and prototype, I was in the bottom half of my class in power school (just barely) but still above the "average" 50% that go through. But in prototype, I was .006 away from graduating with the highest overall GPA. So, not all is lost if you struggle in the classroom.
This starts from the beginning of A school through graduating prototype and earning that coveted nuclear NEC. I originally wrote this on another forum for a few people thinking about going nuke to try to get a commission and wanted to know what the program was really like.
What a Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program student experiences going through school:
You're going to spend a solid year in a classroom in the nuke pipeline before you get to anything that even remotely resembles an engine room. If you're lucky. And in that first year in the classroom, you're going to be pushed mentally so far that you couldn't even fathom right now. I'm not saying its impossible subject matter to learn, because its not. Is some of it hard? Yes. But not impossible, and they build a foundation before they start throwing the abstract stuff at you. But its not the subject matter that'll get you. I know plenty of people that haven't made it through this program that were vastly more intelligent than myself. What gets you is the pace. In "A" School, at one point you're taking two classes a day. Not so bad right? Wrong. In those two classes, you'll spend nine hours in the classroom, cover 80+ pages of notes, and then get a couple hours of homework (which you can't take out of the building) thrown on top of it.
But then the notes slow down, as the material gets more complex, but you're still covering more notes in a day than a college student covers in a week at 18 hours a semester (I would know, I've been there.) And then you hit Power School. Welcome to the dark side. You think its going to get easier, but you're wrong. Because now, instead of one class a day at a breakneck pace, you're covering three classes a day. You'll start with Trig, and Physics, and Heat Transfer. Then Trig ends an gets replaced with Your in Rate knowledge requirements. Then Physics ends and gets replaced by Reactor Principles (Reactor Physics) where you'll learn more about crap you can't see than you've ever wanted to know. Then finally Heat transfer and fluid flow ends, and gets replaced by Chemistry, Radiological fundamentals and metallurgy. 6 Months, 9 subjects, 3 classes a day. You're still covering 75+ pages of notes a day, you're still getting a crap ton of homework. if you're really hot shit, you've learned the tricks to get homework done quickly without violating your integrity and you only spent 10 (usually consecutive) hours a day in the building.
so you've made it through Power School. You're hot shit, right? No. You STILL don't have anything better than a student NEC. so now its on to prototype. You've come a long way if you've made it this far. You've learned to cram like no other, memorize countless pages of seemingly useless information and repeat it back verbatim on demand, and hopefully learned some time management skills. these are all great skills, but they were all just a build up to prepare you for prototype. The first 7 weeks of prototype aren't that bad. Its all in the classroom. Except its not a normal classroom. sure, you'll have an instructor for a couple hours a day that will come in and give a lecture (did I mention that all those days and hours back in power school and A school were mostly lecture based and non interactive? You'll learn to mainline caffeine quickly enough if you want to survive.), but for the most part, its open study hall. What do i mean? I mean, between the books you're issued, and the gigantic technical library at your disposal, you have tech manuals (operations, maintenance and technical specifications) of every single system and component that makes up the training platform you're trying to qualify on. For cross-rate knowledge, they expect you to know all the specs for the SYSTEM, how the system works, and how it ties in to all the other systems. For in Rate knowledge, they want all of that, PLUS they expect you to know the technical specs construction and operation of every COMPONENT in the system. (Example: I've been out of training for 3.5 months now. Haven't stepped foot in the library, been on the computer, or to the boat in any of that time, yet I can still list every load on every breaker on every switchboard in the engine room, plus the location and type of equipment, where its operating station is, its technical specs, and how a loss of one switchboard affects all that machinery plus the rest of the boat)
So you think you know all there is that you're required to know about something, good right? WRONG. Now you have to track down an instructor who is qualified to sample your knowledge on the subject, and convince him that its worth his time to sit down and listen to you ramble about the same thing 180 students before you rambled about. You get to do this an astounding 78 times before you're done with all your systems and in rate knowledge. And did I mention that for those 180 students in their first seven weeks, there's MAYBE 40 instructors available to them to get these knowledge checks from? You do the math.
Then you get to Crew. Welcome to rotating shift work. 12 Hour a day, 7 on 2 off shift work. Now, the fun really starts. This is the part where you get to prove that you can take all that paper-brain-mouth/paper that you've done over the past year and two months, and make your body do the brain-hand thing. And at first its not as easy as you thought it would be. Now you're standing watch on an actual operating nuclear reactor. And no matter what watch it is, you have the potential to SERIOUSLY fudge things up. Fortunately, there's a staff member never more than an arms length from you at all times. So when you fudge up, they go to mast, not you. But how are you standing watch if you don't know what to do? You know what everything is, and how its supposed to work, but you don't know how to actually use it right? Wrong. While you're doing all this, you're still learning every casualty for every watch station on the boat, whether you're qualified to stand it or not, because even if you're not THAT GUY, its your responsibility to back him up when he doesn't know 100%, and stop him when he's about to goof up. When you're done with those checkouts, you get to find a senior qualified staff member on your crew, and convince them that you know how it works, how its built, how to work it, how it affects the rest of the boat, and what to do when everything goes to hell.
Almost done right? Right. Finally. Getting there. You've been at prototype for 5 months, you know how to stand your watches without breaking the boat, you can sit in a cube with more junior students and ramble off procedures and specs all day, and you're finally ready to qualify. So you take the comprehensive exam. This is a COMP like you've never seen before. Its detailed, they're nit picky, and whats more, anything you've learned from ALL THREE schools over the past two years is fair game. You pass comp, you get your final checkouts done, your ready for your qualification board. For your qualification board, you go into a room, and there's two people there not from your crew ready to tear your brain to pieces looking for minuscule details. One is a civilian, he's your worst enemy. The other is an enlisted staff member of your rate. He's worse than your worst enemy. He won't talk much. His job is to sit there and annotate in detail every little mistake you make on your in rate knowledge and then ask you about it later. The more he speaks, the worse your doing and the longer your board takes. The longer your board takes, the more time you have to screw something up, so the longer they keep asking you questions. Its the ultimate mind fuck. So they give you the initial conditions of the plant, and ask you a couple questions to make sure you know whats going on.
Then, they then say "You're steaming at XXX and X event occurs." You look at them, expecting a question. There is no question. They look at you like WTF why aren't you talking? you take the hint. you spend the next 45min if you're on top of your game explaining every little thing that happens on the boat when X event occurs. You go over every action that every watch stander has to take and you have to know WHY. You have to cite the procedure, but you can't look at the procedure. This isn't a big deal, because you have them all memorized at this point. Additionally, you have to go off on every tangent that you can think of that is topically relevant because the more you speak the less they ask.
Then you're qualified. They give you a list of every topic you need to upgrade yourself on and send you on your way. You go get upgraded on that knowledge, and then get your qualified student sticker. The next day, you come in to work and you're on the watch bill... without a staff member. Hope you weren't just cramming and actually know your shit, because now, it IS your crow on the line. At least there isn't a staff member barraging you with annoying questions anymore.... except the Shift Eng.
One thing I forgot to mention is that in Power School expect a minimum of one test a week, usually two. And don't worry about it when you go to stand your first watch, and as soon as you sign into the logs, you've forgotten everything you thought you knew so well and your instructor thinks you're retarded, and you think you're retarded. It happens to the best of us. And the four hour long barrage of questions while you're trying to take logs and operate the plant, its for a purpose: they're trying to stress you out so that you learn to function in high stress conditions.
One thing to think about is that while this all looks monumentally impossible in its entirety, its really not that bad when you're doing it, because you can't really look at the big picture before you experience it. There WILL be days where your sailor thinks that they can never do enough, or do it right, and they will surely at least once in the whole thing debate de-nuking themselves. The best thing you can do is sit calmly on the phone and listen to them rant. You won't understand their rant, but having a CIVILIAN to act as a sounding board is just enough sanity to get them through.
Looking back on the entire program, it was actually pretty easy. I kick myself for not caring more going through, and studying harder. The day you graduate from prototype and get orders in hand to a boat, grades no longer matter anymore, but I hate knowing that I was capable of doing better, and didn't.