I've been a paper instructor before.

Early in my dive pro career, when I was searching for my first instructor job, I felt my CV was... bare. (Of course it was! I was a brand new, green instructor!)

In a vain attempt to try and make myself look more experienced than I actually was, I decided to get a load of Instructor Specialty ratings to pad things out a bit.

I got as many as I could. In the end, I had about 15. Everything from wreck to nitrox, boat to deep, drift to fish ID.

At least, on paper I did.

I was qualified to teach some pretty serious stuff (laying lines and penetrating wrecks, diving to 40m) and I had nowhere near enough training or experience. I never even hit the water to train for my Specialty Instructor ratings!

Luckily, I'm not the kind of person who would teach something while feeling out of my depth. My CV might have been full of little white lies, but I had a plan to fill in the gaps in my training before actually teaching anything. Thankfully I was never asked to deliver a course before I was 100% ready or I'd have been exposed!

However, not every paper instructor is like me. Some get the ticket and start teaching even though they've got minimal experience behind them. Do you think that's a good idea?? Read this article: "You can't run before you can walk" from The Human Diver and have a think about it.

In this blog, I'll discuss the main two ways you get ratings, the pros and cons of being a paper instructor and the benefits you'll get when you train for your PADI Specialty Instructor ratings with a Course Director.



There's two ways you can get your PADI Instructor Specialty ratings:

1. By submitting an application form (this option is only available to MSDT's and higher)

2. By training with a Course Director

During option 1, when you submit your application form, you have to sign to say you have relevant experience in that area of specialty (at least 20 logged dives). If PADI wanted proof, you'd have to be able to show them your logbook.

PADI Instructor Specilaty rating application form

Now, I have a funny relationship with logbooks ... they're sooo easy to fake. How can I know if the information in someone's logbook is truthful? When we're accepting DM candidates on our programs, we have to verify that they've got 40 logged dives. We weren't necessarily there for every dive, so how do we know they've not snuck in an extra couple here and there to boost their numbers (just like the little white lies on my CV)? And while we're on the subject, when the minimum time for a dive is 20mins, I could have 2 DM candidates in front of me - one log book might have 40 hours of logged dives, the other just over 13 hours if they've bashed off minimum dives to get through the numbers. Which diver is most likely to be ready for the program?

In the case of our Instructor Specialty ratings, I could show that my logbook has 20 wreck dives - but is that 20 dives laying lines and penetrating? That's what I'm going to be able to teach after all. Is that 20 hours of experience, or 6.5? 20 dives swimming around a wreck or 20 dives going inside?

You might be surprised to hear that you can still be a paper instructor even if you trained with a course director through option 2. When you attend a PADI Instructor Specialty Course, there's a very structured program a CD will follow. It's designed to set you up for success and looks at everything including training standards, logistics, marketing, and even costing. You will get in the water (unless it's a dry specialty like equipment). You'll practice the skills that your students will complete to make sure you're completely happy with them.

If you don't get in the water, you're a paper instructor. If your CD doesn't get you wet, dump them. They're cutting corners.



Let's look at the negatives of being a paper instructor before we explore the positives.

Unless you genuinely have the experience to apply to teach a PADI Specialty course without training for it, paper instructors may find that...

  • They are not tooled up enough to deliver high-quality training. The phrase blind leading the blind springs to mind and without any particular expertise in the area, are they really helping their students develop? Are they able to coach them through the problems they may encounter or do they just not have enough experience? Is their knowledge and understanding deep enough to answer their students' questions?
  • And if it's not high-quality training it can damage the reputation of the dive centre or the individual. We need to move away from selling specs cheap and delivering sub-par training. There's a peculiar attitude of "you don't need to pay for that" when it comes to specialty courses, especially in the UK which is just absurd to me.  I can kind of understand the logic with courses like Fish ID - a diver could read a book and teach themselves. But there is soo much value in this course being delivered by a knowledgeable, passionate PADI Specialty Instructor that can bring the training to life in a way that a book never could.
  • They are putting their own safety and the safety of their students at risk. While this might not apply to some of the "tamer" specialties, when it comes to wreck, deep, nitrox etc. a paper instructor does not have the experience behind them to make good decisions at crunch time. Experts have so much more resources filed away in their brains. When a novice is faced with an unexpected problem, they don't have as much knowledge to deal with it.


There's a reason why you're only allowed to self-certify as a PADI Specialty Instructor after you're qualified as MSDT. You have proven that you have more teaching (and general diving) experience compared to a green OWSI.

The prerequisites for MSDT are that you've certified at least 25 students and you've got 5 specialties that were trained for with a Course Director (hopefully properly!) You'll have dealt with a few core courses, learnt about marketing and costing specialties (which can be applied to other specs too) and you're proving you're committed to your life as a PADI pro, moving up the ranks.

As long as you have the necessary experience and passion in your chosen specialty, applying on paper does have some benefits including:

  • It's cheaper. The application cost to self-certify is currently £91.20 (as per 2022 pricelist) versus £44.40 + whatever the Course Director charges you for training.
  • It's quicker. If you have a student chomping at the bit to do a spec with you, it only takes a couple of days to get the ticket to teach. This has happened to me before - I wasn't qualified to teach the Shark Conservation course and didn't submit an application because I figured I wouldn't get the opportunity to teach it much. When the time came, it was quick and easy to self-cert (I had the knowledge and the passion ready to go) and I was able to start the course soon after.
  • You can create your own awesome PADI Specialty Courses. There's actually a third option for getting speciality instructor ratings. If your area of expertise doesn't exist as a speciality already, you can write the course yourself and submit it to PADI for approval. This is a great route if there's something you're really passionate about, or there's a critter that's unique to your area. On my list of to-do's somewhere is to write a grey seal protection speciality. I want to teach our divers to interact responsibly with the colonies of seals down the road from The Fifth Point.

Divers in the water with their PADI Specialty Instructor


Firstly, it's great that you've acknowledged you'd like to develop as a dive pro. You've got the certification, so now is a great time to do some extra training to make sure you can deliver the best experience for your students when they sign up.

Remember, I was in your shoes too so let's use my paper wreck instructor qualification as an example, I can talk you through how I got myself ready.

There was about 3 years between getting the paper ticket and actually teaching my first wreck course. I must admit that I'm not a massive fan of sunken metal, but while I was working in Malaysia, I'd been diving the Sipidan regularly. She was a biggie, stood upright in 30m of water, and quite intact after being sunk by the marine park in 2012 (not long before I arrived).

I started to really enjoy exploring the wreck, finding life on it (including the massive groupers that hid inside - they were bigger than me!) I dived it loads with students on their Adventure Wreck Dive and guiding fun divers too. It was a site we'd visit lots on team dives too as it was close to the centre and a good treasure-hunting spot. They started to show me the routes through the inside of the wreck. The penetrations were pretty straightforward - big entry and exit doors and no turns in between.

After loads more dives and exploring fully inside, I was feeling more confident that I could deliver the PADI Wreck Specialty course. It was certainly very popular at the dive centre so figured I could be of use.

The last little piece of the puzzle was to learn more about laying lines. The manager at the time, Darren, was an avid tech diver so I asked him to run me through how to do tie offs, handle the reel and the team procedures for penetration. I also asked the team for tie off points on the wreck. Darren kindly took a bunch of us down to the Sipadan to practice, we laid lines and penetrated and took turns in being the leader.

I learnt extra techniques from Darren even though they were above what was required for the wreck course. He taught me how to deal with silt-outs using black-out masks even though it was very unlikely to happen on this site. He taught me how to find a lost line even though you could see multiple exit points. I was trying to skill up beyond what I needed so I had more filed away just in case.

After that, I felt ready to teach the course. I wasn't training people to do serious penetrations, that was beyond my expertise and I made that very clear to my students. I was training them to safely enjoy wreck diving, appreciate the hazards and lay some lines to allow super simple penetrations.

Be honest with yourself. If you don't think you're tooled up enough to deliver high-quality and safe training, you need to get into learning mode. Reach out to colleagues who have the skills you need, link up with Course Directors who can help you learn more.

Team training for PADI Instructor Specialty ratings



If you don't feel you've got the experience to self-cert (or you're not an MSDT yet) go do your training with a Course Director. My biggest piece of advice would be to search out CDs who excel in the area of speciality you're looking for. There's no point spending your money to receive a ticky box course. Make sure you're milking them dry for all their knowledge and expertise.

When you find the perfect match, there are huge benefits to training for a PADI Specialty Rating with a Course Director including:

  • You get the chance to practice the skills your students will complete during your course and then you'll get to role-play teaching the skills. Being able to do it and being able to teach it effectively are two very different things. It's good to practice both. When you put yourself in the student's shoes you might discover some of the difficulties they could encounter.
  • You go through the course standards and organisation in great detail. You have the chance to ask questions to clarify things that are confusing (like a walking, talking Guide to Teaching!)
  • You have someone to bounce ideas off when it comes to marketing ideas.
  • You can talk through costings with someone who has already done that exercise before. Your CD might notice something you've overlooked and make suggestions to ensure your courses are profitable.
  • Learning from someone who's taught the speciality course a million times lets you learn from their mistakes. They'll know what works, what doesn't, how to handle the issues students commonly face, and the logistical things you need to consider.
  • Your CD will be there for you once you're out there teaching your own students. Having a support network around you is essential when you're doing something new. If you have an issue or experience a novel problem, it's good to have someone to chat to.

Obviously, training instructors in their chosen speciality courses is a revenue stream for a Course Director. So... Of course I'm going to try to persuade you to come to me to train for PADI Specialty Instructor ratings! But, unlike when I was a naive instructor adding random specialties to bolster my CV, I haven't done the same with my Instructor Training ratings!

Yup, I have to apply to be a paper instructor trainer for every single specialty. And this time, they are truly paper because there's no training course I can attend!

That's why I only offer certain Specialty Instructor courses. I've picked the ones I'm passionate about (every eco-related one 😉 ) and ones that I think I can impart some great knowledge off the back of my decade or so of teaching experience.

There's only one anomaly in my list of certs. I'm a Digital Underwater Photography Instructor Trainer.... but I know bott all about cameras! I only offer this course to Instructors who are already expert photographers. They've got the technical skills, I don't need to teach them that stuff (phew!) Instead, I help them put their skills to good use so they can effectively teach others.


CONCLUSION: train for your PADI Specialty Instructor ratings with a Course Director if you don't have the experience

When you find an expert Course Director and train for your PADI Specialty Instructor ratings, you will be able to deliver courses that exceed your customer's expectations. They'll be high quality and safe. Not only will you completely understand the in-water components of the training, you'll also have a solid grasp of marketing, costing and logistical considerations plus you'll have someone to support you throughout your instructor career.


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