The vast number of emails, phone calls, letters and messages I have received over the years, has diminished greatly since my retirement. Over the years prior to my retirement however, the communications were not only from students but from people in all walks of life interested in finding out how to become a Marine Biologist. After spending over three decades in the field lab as well as almost two decades in the classroom with students & educators, I truly believe that most individuals do not really know what it takes to get into and to stay in the field of the Marine Biological Sciences. Here is my token of personal advice for any of the aspiring students striving to become a Marine Biologist out there. These are only my opinions and of course, nothing is written in stone but perhaps interested individuals may be able to adapt some of these steps and suggestions to fit their own lives and circumstances. The first key question one should ask oneself is “what am I really interested in?” Here is where it gets confusing because when people question me about becoming a Marine Biologist they usually picture a Field Marine Researcher.
Marine Biology in a nutshell, is the study of marine organisms, their behaviors and interactions with the environment. It includes many different sub-disciplines and consequently, an array of potential career directions. Would you like to be a microbiologist, a behavioral ecologist, a system analyst, a geneticist, a professor or perhaps some combination of these? There are many roads to choose from and many organizations that hire Marine Biologists, so having a fairly precise idea of what you would like to do is an important first step in the right direction. The next step is to ask yourself what really fascinates you about the ocean. Are you passionate about biodiversity on coral reefs or algal blooms? Is the structure of soft-bottom communities what inspires you or the feeding behavior of critically endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal? Try to construct a “big picture” of what captivates you then narrow down your focus to explore something that is feasible, either in the lab or the field. But don’t lose sight of your big picture. Not getting roped into a “specialization” has the advantage of keeping you flexible and more responsive to a challenging and changing job market. Your first topic of choice may later on, morph into your real career but that’s not always the case and may not necessarily be the best road to take.
It’s important to concentrate attention on unanswered questions more than on a specific species. It’s also a good idea to be practical in your choice of a subject by giving some thought to where and how you plan to accomplish your studies. It’s imperative, whatever your topic of choice, that you are passionate about it because it is passion that will help you accomplish what you set out to do, even if it takes pushing your limits. Whatever you choose to study, you should keep conservation in mind given the current range of environmental issues facing our oceans and their inhabitants. What will the individual engaged in studying the migration of Northern Right Whales do if these leviathans disappear within his or her lifetime. Read, write and get experience. It’s unlikely you can read all there is to know in this discipline but try to know as much as you can. Do your homework, peruse the Internet in search of information, read books and if you can’t afford to buy them, go to the library. Study how scientific papers are written because this will likely be the output of your studies in the future. Seek advice and help in the academic world or through research institutions. Learn how to communicate science! Being a great communicator will help you advance faster and further in a Marine Biology career and may help you reach out to the general public about marine conservation issues if the need arises. Solid practical experience in your field or a field related to it, is certainly key to becoming a Marine Biologist. Being involved with different projects, working on diverse hypotheses and learning about different species and processes also helps keep an open mind while gaining experience beyond your selected subject.
Volunteer opportunities are offered everywhere today and are easily found, thanks to the Internet. If you work well and are adaptable if you’re willing to commit, if you are enthusiastic, you might slip from being a volunteer into acting as a real researcher. You may even find the opportunity to write a collaborative peer-reviewed paper, something that will help you when entering graduate school. When choosing a volunteer position in your field, inquire to see who are the experts in that specific discipline. Try to work under the wings of these professionals and ask questions, get feedback and suggestions on how to improve your skills; this will help you get the right kind of experience. Traditional academic education is important and going to graduate school, first a Master’s program and then a Ph.D. is certainly the way to go, especially if your goal is remain in academia. As a start, take all the science courses available to you in high school and as an undergraduate. Preparatory courses in basic biology, zoology, chemistry, physics and mathematics are essential, but other courses such as ichthyology, conservation and oceanography are also quite valuable, as well as those related to your specific field. Then there’s the study of statistics. This is something you must know and be good at and no, you can’t get around it.
School however, won’t teach you everything you need to know to gain knowledge and expertise in your chosen field. You need to look outside the box and find other ways to learn and acquire practical skills. Attending conferences and workshops in your discipline, visiting universities, museums and research institutions, meeting experts in your subject area (who could become your advisers later on) and asking questions, being part of email list serves in your topic of interest are just some of the things to pursue. Distinguish yourself as an independent thinker. Many people want to become a Marine Biologist and that makes this a highly competitive discipline. A lot of people start toward a career in Marine Biology but end up working in completely different fields and almost everyone is struggling to find a job in today’s tough market. If you have chosen to be a Marine Biologist it is likely you haven’t done it for the money—as there isn’t much in it anyway—so you need to be creative and flexible. Look for something that your field is in need of, something that your peers are not offering. Learn practical skills like scuba diving, boat handling, GIS techniques and statistical analysis that just a few know. Push yourselves to work better than everyone else. The desire to study marine species in the wild is probably not enough to take you out to sea among these amazing creatures or set you apart from the masses. It’s passion, enthusiasm and learning what’s necessary to make you stand above the crowd that will help you attain your goals.
G.R.M. – Lansing, MI – March 26, 1991