Marine Biology: What it takes

After spending many years as a marine biologist I ended my career as the assist Chief of a southeastern state. Over the years hundreds of students, if not thousands, came through my lab. They ranged from grade and high school students to college undergraduates and graduates.

While I’ve never been one to rain on someone’s parade but all of them, except for the graduate students, had an unrealistic view of what it took to become a marine biologist and what kind of positions were available. Grade school and most of the high school students had a strong desire to work with dolphins, whales and sea turtles at marine aquariums. I told them marine mammal and turtle efforts were a small niches in the spectrum of marine biological work and that jobs were few. There are scientists with multiple graduate degrees lined up ten deep to work at places like Sea World for free or for a non-living wage. My work with dolphins and sea turtles was solely to answer calls about dead dolphins and turtles on the beaches, identify the carcasses to species and call our conservation enforcement officers to haul them away. I would then tell the students what it took just to get in the door as a marine biologist.

I came from working class family with no money to send me to college. So, I sat down and thought of a way to earn it (education and a skill set). With that as my focus, I dropped out of high school after the eighth grade (1965) with my father’s enthusiastic permission and started trade school for electronics. I progressed quickly from vacuum tubes and transistors to the first digital integrated circuit chips (one nand gate on a single chip!). Learned not only fix TV’s and radios but digital logic and circuit design. On graduation I joined the US Navy (at 17) and was assigned to communication intelligence for four years. My naval service provided me with the GI Bill (the old one) to fund college and kept me out of Vietnam.

Pausing for a moment, you can see that I worked on my backup plan first, electronics, so I would always (eat) have a career if I was unable to continue on the marine biology track. After the Navy, at 22, I started college earning an AA, BS, MS and PhD over ten years. Whew, what a rush!

The pursuit of letters after your name takes a lot time, money and effort. Economizing in every facet of your life to have the money for things you need to reach your goal rather than for things you want will become second nature. Included in these are vacations, new anything, a spouse, children and pets. Sounds rather draconian but that’s what I and a majority of my colleagues did. Remember, no Daddies’ money!

Work as a marine biologist encompasses a wide range of training, abilities and talents. As an undergraduate you’ll need to include courses most people in the sciences don’t take including public speaking, writing, statistics, accounting and personnel management. Don’t forget computer courses not only for use online but for doing quantitative analysis of data from your projects. Oh, there’s more. I don’t know of any state conservation department that doesn’t require an MS degree for an entry level position, so … grants and assistant-ships as an undergraduate and graduate student will come in very handy. Volunteering or working on your off time in an area that’s related to your interests in the field will come in useful later on. Sleep is optional.

Become a member of the American Fisheries Society – it’s our professional ‘club’. The contacts and friendships you’ll make there will be helpful throughout your career. Be very flexible in where you look for a job. I wanted to stay North of the Mason-Dixon Line but that was unrealistic given what was available at the time. Getting in the door is what matters.

In the beginning as a junior biologist you’ll be primarily involved in field data collection and may have your own specific project to work on. You’ll be supervised by a senior biologist and usually work with biological aides in the field – listen to them – they’ve probably been doing sampling for many years. Spending a lot of time in an open boat in all kinds of weather will be at the center of your operational wheelhouse. There are no rest stops at sea. If you’ve never handled a small boat, learn – there are courses. You’ll probably be using a pickup truck to haul boats on a trailer and be backing them down boat ramps. Never backed a trailer? Learn and don’t jackknife the trailer. It bends them and will bend your boss out of shape.

Let’s talk money. To be right up front about it you’ll be paid considerably less than if you had a master’s in other fields like electrical engineering, marketing or nursing. The only field where the pay is worse is teaching. Federal and state governments, which are by far the major employers, are short on funding so there will be freezes on raises and hiring. Medical and retirement benefits vary widely by organization. Do your research into each one because you and your health will change. The Winter of your life comes much sooner than you’d like to think. I’ve not been as emotional supportive as many might have liked in this article but I’ve given you the truth about a career in Marine Biology as I and many others have experienced it.

Where’s the up side? You’ll see and do many things that others have only dreamed about. They can include watching sea turtles hatch, dolphins playing around your boat for hours and seaweed glowing in the dark to name a very few. Once you start rising in the hierarchy within your organization and AFS there will be travel both nationally and internationally. Publishing professionally and for the public is something you’ll do. Public speaking will be part of your job and you’ll be asked to speak constantly. Ever been on TV? You will be.

I feel the most satisfying thing about being a marine biologist  is knowing that the work you did helped to make a difference in our world. And, that in the fullness of time as you lay dying, you can smile knowing you left the world a better place than when you arrived.

Good Luck!!

Think Global – Act Local!