I’ve talked to many interested in marine biology and looking to start a career recently, and it prompted my thinking on what things I’ve learned about working in the field, and what advice I would have for recent graduates (high school, undergrad, or grad school). There are many great sites out there already giving marine science career advice (e.g. LoveLab and Deep Sea News) - so I’ll only try to list advice that might be new or unique to my experiences.
1. Gain experience.
In our early days this does mean working for free – volunteer, unpaid internships, and the like. But that should be short-term and only in the beginning, see #2.
2. Find PAID opportunities to continue gaining experience.
Even if that is working the front desk at an aquarium where you don’t actually work with the fish. You will make connections, and it’s ALL about networking in this field. Look for work/study opportunities at your college. I was able to work at a zoo and fish biology lab in school, gaining valuable experience, while getting paid.
3. Value your time.
You should be paid for all the work you do. Whether it’s a good or bad thing there are a lot of people who are willing to work for free, or very close to it, in marine biology so the wages are low and before you are offered a paid position, you will likely be offered an unpaid one. Once you have the experience and skill set to benefit an organization or project, make the case for how much you would like to earn, and stick to it. Especially for women, we’re still paid less overall, and it’s important to be firm and up front about what you are worth. That being said, I still work for free at times – for causes I’m passionate about, projects that have future potential for funding, projects with excellent career advancement potential, etc. However, I’m always clear that I’m working for free for a set amount of time, I list the reasons why I’m doing it and my hopes for it to become funded in the future.
4. Expand your skill set.
I just told you to negotiate a fair wage for work that others would do for less money, because you have the skills to get the job done, and done well. That’s easier said than done, and we scientists rarely focus on these skills – negotiation, strategic planning, and economic analysis – but we should. We’d be much more successful if we did. So leave the bookstore aisle containing the books of fascinating undersea creatures and move to the business section, and start reading. If I could do it all again I’d take business classes in college as electives, and even consider an MBA (more on that later).
5. Strategic Plan
There are countless ways a career in marine biology can go. They are all exciting and have different rewards and challenges. I think it’s ok to take the most exciting jobs at the start – most time underwater or in a foreign country – even if they pay only covers accommodation. However, at some point it’s time for a strategic planning session. Think about your constraints – for me it is student loans and wanting to be able to visit my family at least once a year (for some remote international posts this wouldn’t be possible). Then think about your goals. What do you want to be doing in 1, 5, and 10 years? Look for your dream jobs online and save the description and requirements – then make a plan to learn all of the required skills by the time you want that job. It will probably also surprise many that the skills aren’t necessarily about diving, knowledge of statistics, and other things we learn in school. They list things like experience in project management, proficiency in another language, experience with multiparty negotiations, and industry experience. We often don’t talk about these others skills in our training to be marine scientists.
As I’ve mentioned before – there are a LOT of marine biologists out there vying for the fun and exciting jobs. The way to stand apart is to have a unique skill set. I’ve discovered we need more people with marine science knowledge that also specialize in law, policy, government relations, mathematical modeling, technology, economics, fundraising, communication, and business. If you are interested in one of those – specialize half in marine biology and half in another topic – the jobs are out there. What interests you that others aren’t studying? What unique skills and interests can you combine to create a new specialty? Some recent examples are Austin Gallagher’s photography and video interests combined with his shark research. David ‘WhySharksMatter‘ Shiffman has found his niche in shark research and social media (blog, Facebook and Twitter). Additionally, science blogging is increasing in popularity – achieving the goals of disseminating science to the public while building the authors’ reputations in the field (Southern Fried Science, Deep Sea News). Similarly, the group at Upwell is tweeting up a storm and showing others how to use social media to get involved in the hot marine science topics of the week.
I just linked to several scientists’ websites – make one! Start to learn now what people are drawn to in your diverse array of experience. Build your reputation via social media, blogging, or linkedin. However, this can’t just be sharing what others already know. Find where you can contribute something meaningful. Be a resource for school kids’ marine science questions, blog about illegal fishing in a country you have always wanted to travel to, or repost marine science jobs for your peers. Write your resume and CV and update them once every six months to monitor your progress towards the skill set that will land your ultimate dream job.
8. Become an expert
I was talking to a friend who works in IT at NASA about career trajectories and goals and we realized that the ultimate goal is to be an expert in something. THE expert in something (it is also important that this something is what you like to do and that people will pay for because it is in demand). Then you’ve hit the jackpot. Clearly this doesn’t just apply to marine science.
I’m not an expert in anything yet, but I’ve started to become one in a few areas, and it’s unbelievable how the contacts and work come to you, because you’re the expert. It can also happen serendipitously, as mine did, so I would caution against focusing on a tiny minute something and trying to become an expert in it, as that field or problem might not exist by the time you are the expert. Just keep your eyes open to opportunities where you can become an expert, even if just for a short period of time. It doesn’t mean that it is now your life’s work, but it could become your career’s most important stepping stone, or launching point.