ARRRRR ME HEARTIES!!!! So ye want t’ be a pirate, t’ sail the open sea searching for booty – what? You said a marine biologist? Oh. Well, sailing the open sea searching for booty is actually prohibited by UNOLS regulations – what? Oh, you wanted advice on how to BECOME a marine biologist. All right then. Fall must be the time when a
student’s heart turns toward the call of the sea, for I have received several requests for advice from undergraduate students.
And let me just get this out of the way – being a marine biologist is not about pulling golf balls out of whale blowholes or hugging dolphins. If you want to do that, become a wildlife veterinarian or a dolphin trainer. Marine biology is about figuring out the way the ocean works – and most of the ocean is not made out of dolphins. (That is too horrible a scenario to contemplate).
There are bad reasons and good reasons to become a marine biologist. Fortunately Dr. Milton Love has a convenient list which you should go read immediately. Go there now. Still want to be a marine biologist? Did you read the part about the smell? Ok, you’re sure? Keep on reading this blog post, then.
The following advice is aimed at undergraduates, and is my personal opinion and should by no means be taken as the One True Way. I invite our marine biological readers (both academic and non-academic) to add their own suggestions in the comments.
GET YOUR ACADEMIC SCIENCE ON
You have to have a solid, traditional science background to be a marine biologist. This means the standard coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, math, and statistics. If you want to take environmental studies-interdisciplinary-type courses, go ahead, but it won’t do you any good without the basics. The easiest way to do this is to major in a hard science, but it is possible to major in something else so long as you do this coursework. You don’t have to love all of it – please don’t ask me about my grade in Organic Chemistry – but you have to do most of it reasonably well. I strongly recommend computer programming as well – scientists today live in a glorious sea of data, and you are going to have to know how to program in order to avoid drowning in it. (I spent a year and a half weeping into my R code – don’t be like me!).
Assuming you want to be a marine BIOLOGIST, take lots of biology! Ecology, evolutionary biology, genetics, microbiology, cell biology, invertebrate zoology…even if the course is not directly about marine science, you will be learning skills that can answer questions about the ocean. If you don’t like advanced biology courses, well, you probably won’t like marine biology.
FIND A WAY TO GET RESEARCH EXPERIENCE
So, marine biology is about learning how the amazing animals and ecosystems of the ocean work, but how exactly do we do that? RESEARCH! Classwork will give you the basics, but working in a lab or doing independent research is how you’re going to learn how science is actually done. It is easiest to start as an undergraduate, since there are lots of opportunities and resources out there to help you. (More on non-undergraduate opportunities later).
You might notice that many of the things on this list involve talking to your professors. Getting to know them is one of the best investments you can make, though I know it’s not easy, especially at large universities. But science professors (along with teaching) are also running a lab, doing research, talking with other scientists who are doing research, and have graduate students in need of help with their own research – so getting to know them is one of the best ways of getting your foot in the door. Also, you’re going to need recommendation letters for most of the below list of programs, and it’s pretty hard for a professor to write a letter for a student they’ve never spoken to. So go to office hours and talk to them – the best time is at the beginning of the semester when things are pretty quiet.
Here’s a list to get you started:
- Work in a lab. I got started in marine ecology when some weird guy I knew from student theater said that his lab was hiring undergrad assistants. I needed a job, and that sounded fun. Well, scanning several thousand slides (this was before digital cameras) was not exactly fun per se…but it got me involved in the life of the lab. I met the graduate students, went to lab meeting, and started to learn how this whole science thing worked. Many labs hire undergraduate research assistants, and it is a great way to learn about science while gaining some useful skills. So go to your professors’ office hours and ask if there are any opportunities in their labs, or if they know of any in their departments.
- Take a research semester abroad. There are many programs that allow you to go abroad, get course credit, and do science. They may cost more money than your usual tuition, but may also have financial aid programs. The two programs I know of off the top of my head are Sea Education Association (sail on a tall ship, learn oceanography and maritime skills) and Three Seas Program (coastal marine science in New England, the Caribbean, and southern California). Both of these program have a strong academic component (e.g., you’ll do coursework in marine science) and emphasize independent research skills. No doubt there are more of these programs – if you have experience with one, please add it in the comments. [Update: Another program mentioned in the comments: the Williams College/Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program.] [Update II: Also CSU Marine Biology Semester at USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies].
- Do independent research. The core of being a marine biologist is, of course, research. One of the best ways to get research experience is through the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. These are usually summer programs (though some are at different times of year) that set you up with a lab and and a mentor, and pay you a reasonable stipend (enough to satisfy most work-study requirements) to do research. You can search on their website for programs you might be interested in – here is the list of Ocean Sciences REUs. (I did two REUs as an undergraduate and they were both amazing experiences.) Another great resource is Pathways to Science, which focuses particularly on connecting underrepresented groups with mentors and opportunities. Your university may also have programs just for its own students – investigate by asking your professors and with the appropriate Student Affairs office. [Update: the MBARI Summer Internship.]
YOU’VE GRADUATED – NOW WHAT?
Once you are no longer a student, the path becomes more twisty and difficult, and some of the unfairness of the academic system kicks in. Here are your options:
- Go directly to graduate school, do not pass go, and definitely do not collect $200. If you’ve majored in a hard science and gotten some independent research experience, you have the option of going directly to graduate school. (How to do that is a topic for another post.) While many excellent scientists have gone straight through, my personal recommendation is to take a year or three and getting some work experience. Enjoy not having homework and going out with your friends during the week. Being a bit older and more mature will help your sanity later on.
- Get a job in academic science. Many labs have research assistants – people who are paid to help in the field or in the lab. These jobs can be an amazing way to get experience, to meet people in your field, and to go awesome places. Unfortunately, they are usually funded off grants, which makes them ephemeral and badly paid. Some only pay room and board, particularly those in exotic locations. If you don’t have student loans and can stay on your parents’ health insurance (and you are a traditional student in your early 20s) – these can be a great option for grand science adventures. If you have student loans and/or are not on your parents’ health insurance and/or cannot just pick up and go to crazy locations, these may be very difficult for you to do. The best resource for finding these type of jobs that I know of is the ECOLOG-L listserv. Other paid options that people I know have done include working as fisheries observers or as educators at aquariums.
- Get a job that is not in academic science, but will give you useful experience anyway. When I graduated from college, I had to take a job that would not only pay me, but give me health insurance. While I found it frustrating at the time, it actually led to unexpected paths that have proved very valuable – for example, the construction job that taught me about managing a large project (and about rebar! I love rebar!). When I was interviewing for graduate school, my construction job made me stand out from the crowd. Just be prepared to explain how your nonstandard experiences will help you be successful in marine biology. However, this works best if you also have a strong science background from undergrad.
- Get a nonscience job and volunteer with scientists. Many labs and research expeditions take volunteers along. If you have a regular job but want to get into science, volunteering can be a great way to get your foot in the door. This works best if you have some time available during regular work hours, but some people take volunteers at night or on the weekends. If you have a really flexible schedule, it is possible to volunteer to work on an oceanographic vessel for the duration of a cruise (which can be anywhere from a few days to several weeks). The best way to find volunteer positions is to email people who you might be interested in working with – even if they are not accepting volunteers, they may know someone who is.
To paraphrase Michael Pollan: “Basic science. Lots and lots. Mostly research.”
- Dr M’s excellent post So You Want to Be A Deep-Sea Biologist. [edit: added this link 13 Nov 21:00 PST]
- Danna Staaf on How to Become a Cephalopodiatrist. She focuses on cephalopods, but most of her advice holds true for all fields of marine biology. [link added 15 Nov 0800 PST]
- The indispensable Dr. Milton Love’s So You Want To Be A Marine Biologist and So You Want To Be A Marine Biologist: The Revenge
- Becoming A Marine Biologist from SUNY Stonybrook – also in Chinese! (PDF)
- Advice from former Scripps graduate student Greg Szulgit.
- Huge list of resources from Hopkins Marine Lab
- Christie Wilcox (now of Science Sushi) tells her story