SOME COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT A MARINE BIOLOGY CAREER
As Seinfeld said......
Jerry: Now I should tell you at this point she's under the impression that you are a.....
George: A what?
Jerry: A marine biologist.
George: A marine biologist....why am I a marine biologist?
Jerry: I may have mentioned it.
George: But I'm not a marine biologist!
Jerry: I'm aware of that.
Jerry: You don't think it's a good job.
George: I didn't think it was a job.
Jerry: Oh. It's a fascinating field!
Please note: This can be considered an interview of a marine biologist, namely Prof. Jeffrey Levinton, of Stony Brook University, Stony Brook NY USA. I get many requests to do interviews each day and this is my response, as I cannot answer so many different requests individually. If you have 3 questions or fewer that differ from the ones below, I will try to answer them, but by email only. I am sometimes out of town and cannot always be prompt, but I will try. My own research activities are described here.
1. What, in your opinion, are the disadvantages of being a Marine Biologist?
Don't see any real disadvantages at all. Can't complain about freedom (a fair amount), opportunities (lots in everything from government to teaching to popular book writing)
2. What, in your opinion, are the advantages of being a Marine Biologist?
Advantages include doing what you love to do; travel, often to fascinating and lovely places; interactions with interesting folks.
3. If you could do it all over again, would you have chosen this field? Why?
Maybe, but maybe not. Who knows why? Life is complex. I started wanting to be a writer, but found that I loved geology and majored in this in college and in graduate school. It was in graduate school that marine biology took over as my primary interest.
4. I heard that it is hard to get a job as a Marine Biologist because of the few job openings. Was it hard for you?
I was lucky as jobs were relatively accessible in the early 1970s but one should not enter a field without a realistic understanding of the job market. Govt. jobs and academic jobs are very competitive but still available. I have had 22 students get Ph.D.s and all are employed or on the way. I am optimistic.
5. What do you find the most satisfying part of this field?
Following your interests as a researcher, teaching students.
6. What are some related occupations to the field of Marine Biology?
Oceanographer, Environmental Manager, Molecular Biologist
7. What do marine biologists make as a salary?
This is not easy to answer as the variation is great. If you were an average Ph.D. entering a university job these days as an assistant professor, you would earn a salary of ca. 50,000-65,000 USA dollars for the academic year and then could earn a summer salary as well, mainly from grants. Salaries of public school teachers are generally lower and the variation is great. Consulting firms start also in the 40s and above. The upper end is extremely variable but in universities, marine biologists' salaries usually correspond to the average for science professors. A full professor these days in a university is earning 85,000-120,000 and more for the academic year.
8. How did you first get interested in marine biology?
This is hard to say but I am pretty sure that it was seeing Jacques Cousteau's famous film "The Silent World." My father took me to downtown NY City to the Paris Theater to see this movie, which was then regarded as a great artistic film, directed by the great Louis Malle and winning an Academy Award. The coral reef was enthralling and I was hooked. Incidentally, I have to say that I am pretty cross with those marine biologists who dump upon Cousteau and see him as an opportunist who took advantage of scientists and stole center stage; he coinvented SCUBA and has inspired more people in this world to love marine biology than any 100 other marine biologists. As a boy he wrapped an above-water camera in a clear bag and shot many underwater pictures. His obsession has been to our great benefit.
9. What do I need to do to become a marine biologist?
These days the college route is essential, but don't feel that you have to go to a school that specializes in marine biology. Find a college that is first rate in science but has good humanities and communications training as well. In the summer of your junior year or senior year make SURE that you get a summer job or take a course in a marine lab (see marine lab links and internships/ summer course links on the main page of the MBWEB URL). This will do more for you than any 5 marine biology courses in college. After college your marine biology education will be acquired in graduate school. Another good strategy is to be a biology major in a college that has marine biologists doing research. If you wish to become a technician a Masters degree will do, but a Ph.D. is essential these days to become an independent scholar who can supervise research projects be a well-placed official in an environmental protection agency, etc.
A masters degree will usually take about 2 years to complete. It is important to choose a university where the program has substance. You want to pick up a core education in marine biology, but, depending upon your career goals, you may want a very specific set of courses and an opportunity to do some research. It may be possible to rapidly complete a masters but you may have no substantive education to apply to a job. This will especially be true if you want to work in a specific field, such as shellfish mariculture. The Ph.D. degree will take an average of six years in a United States graduate school, but there is considerable variability around the world. In the United Kingdom and Australia for example, Ph.D. degrees tend to take 3-4 years, as they tend to omit formal course work, emphasizing research. In the USA many Ph.D. programs take good students right from their undergraduate school, but a substantial number of students take a masters degree first, to see if they want to go through with a Ph.D. Institutions such as the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook and the Virginia Inst. of Marine Sciences have dual programs, which allows a smooth transition from Masters to Ph.D. student status.
10. What do you do as a marine biologist?
I am a university instructor who gets to spend a substantial time doing research, writing textbooks and working with other groups interested in marine problems. My research may seem obscure to many, but it involves understanding how the functioning of individuals can be connected to population fluctuations. An example of this is to study how the feeding and burrowing activities of marine clams, worms, and other sediment-eating animals affects the environment by helping decomposition of organic matter, stirring and oxygenating the sediment, and controlling the particles in the sediment. If you ever walked on a gooey mud flat you are on my territory! I also have been very interested in how filter feeding oysters and mussels affect their ecosystem by rapid filtration of the water column; filtering of such creatures is very efficient and inland waters may be stripped clean of food particles. I also have been working on the effects of pollution on marine bottom populations, particularly with regard to resistance to toxic substances. Often a toxic pollutant will kill all but a few individuals, who are genetically distinct and resistant to the substance. These individuals reproduce, leading to a genetically resistant strain. This can be bad because such individuals may concentrate a toxic substance and transfer it up the food web, sometimes to be eventually consumed by human beings.
11. What types of problems do you encounter?
A major problem is balancing responsibilities, e.g., teaching time against research time. Also, for much research grant funding is essential, but also very competitive. I have been reasonably successful in getting grant funds, but it becomes more difficult as time goes on.
12. What type of actions do you take to solve those problems?
Working on research away from campus helps deal with time use conflicts. I spend every summer at a marine lab nearly 3000 miles from my university. This makes it easier to return and devote time to students without feeling that I am missing something. Applying for grants is a time-consuming process and one has to be creative in finding funds from different sources and getting involved with different projects.
13. Does this profession require any traveling?
Marine biology and marine science tend to be strongly rooted in international research and cooperative planning for research programs. My own work has taken me to long stays in Denmark, Sweden, the U.K., and southern France. I spent 5 months in Australia in 1999, about a month in 2009, and hope to return soon. Such travel is quite common for research marine biologists. Of course, biological oceanographers are often on deep ocean cruises and ply the waters of all oceans. Attendance of scientific meetings allows one to present research results and keep on the newest findings.
14. How have the duties of this job differed from what you had anticipated they would be?
All university scientists complain about the large amount of work that is neither teaching nor research; committee work, filling out lots of forms, doing various types of service work for your profession. Otherwise, it is very much what you make of it. There is a lot of freedom to chart your own course, although I have to admit most professors choose a fairly dull path.
15. To what type of people would you recommend this profession?
You have to like the outdoors and you have to like repetitive work. You also have to like to communicate and have the facility to write and speak well. Most important of all, you have to like to THINK and have NEW IDEAS. These traits are to be found in many types of personalities, although the painfully shy have to find a crevice in which to hide if they are to succeed. This can be difficult in a college environment.
16. How demanding and stressful is this field of work?
Like all science, it is demanding, because productivity has a simple measure in terms of quality and quantity of journal papers you produce. Planning for field work or cruises also involves an organized person. I have to say that the potential stress in pulling schedules together is more than compensated by the fun of doing it. It's not like arranging for a business trip meeting with a bunch of dull people; more like arranging the road schedule for a good baseball team.
17. What is my occupation and title?
I am a Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution
at Stony Brook University.
18. What opportunities are there for advancement in the field of marine biology?
It depends on your track. If you are at a university, you might ascend the ranks from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor. If things are going a bit wrong for you, you could choose to be an administrator. This will lead you to being a Dean, or even a Provost (the second ranking officer in a university). You can even grow up to be university president (but there is no oval office).
If you enter the field of environmental management, one usually works plowing the fields of environmental impact statement construction (if a private company employee, as in a consulting company) or evaluating such statements (if in government). If you are very capable, you will, like two of my exgraduate students, be extremely influential as a government agency officer (EPA in this case, in Australia and the United States, depending on the student), bringing together many constituencies to solve important problems. One other student in our program worked as Assistant Director in the Science and Technology Office of the White House.
19. Are there any fringe benefits involved in your work?
I can't really admit to it easily, but the paid travel to go to meetings, field work in great places, etc., is a real pull. Can you imagine being paid to work in Provence? The lovely San Juan Islands of Washington? Australia? Denmark? Jamaica? These have been among my experiences and I envy others who have been much more successful than that. Also, marine biology is a very international field. I take pride in having good friends around the world. Finally, I have to say that my position as a state employee ain't bad either. I get very good retirement and health benefits, and I also have a state bureaucracy to complain about daily. That is a psychological fringe benefit that keeps on giving.
20. What happens during a day of a marine biologist's life?
This is, as you might expect, quite variable. If you are really lucky, you can do whatever you please. Write, work in the lab..teaching is also usually very rewarding.. but reality sets in. Most professors have lots of committee work, meetings and encounters with bureaucrats. To me, nothing is better than summers at marine labs. There you work hard, have lots of good conversations with colleagues (also friends) and can socialize.
21. What are some of the jobs a marine biologist might aspire for?
-Teacher in university or high school
-Researcher (University, oceanographic laboratory)
-Laboratory technician in university, oceanographic laboratory
-Resource manager for public agency such as fisheries agency, a state
dept. of environmental protection
-Technician or field worker in consulting company
-Biologist working in environmental advocacy organization
-Biologist working in aquarium or zoo
22. Are there any humorous moments?
23. Would it be a good idea to seek out internships?
Internships are an ideal way to get introduced to marine biology research. Many marine laboratories have internships for college students. Internships for high school students are less common. One of the most successful systems is the Research Experiences for Undergraduate Programs, run by the National Science Foundation. The REU program pays a stipend plus expenses for a summer of research. REU grants are handled by marine laboratories in some cases (e.g., Friday Harbor Laboratories in Washington State) or by individual researchers.
24. Do you receive any bonuses where you are employed?
Bonuses are not given at universities, but they are often part of working in a private firm, such as a consulting company.
25. What does it cost to be educated to be a marine biologist?
This is not easy to answer, because the range is so great. Many, if not most, graduate students getting a Ph.D. are supported by the University they enter. Tuition is usually free and the student gets a stipend (not very much money but enough to live). The going rate these days is 16,000 to 30,000 dollars per year. Quite a range, but it depends on region and to what degree universities acknowledge the value and needs of their students. On the Masters level, it is common for the student to have to pay tuition, which can vary from ca. 3,000 per year in a public university to 30,000 in a private university.
26. How does marine biology contribute to society?
Many marine biologists are academics and therefore contribute to knowledge and teach students. Is that a contribution? Not always sure! Many others work in government agencies monitoring pollution and fish stocks and making policy to manage fisheries and pollution control. Some work in conservation organizations that seek to protect marine environments and endangered species.
27. Is writing a big part of the job?
Writing skills are CRUCIAL to marine biologists. In my course, I make students write three papers. Being able to communicate in writing makes a difference between those who succeed and those who wind up on dead end jobs with relatively little reward and advancement (personal and financial). Whether you are a consultant or an professor, you will find yourself writing many reports and papers. This is the way you convince the public to preserve a marine environment, the way you get money for your research, and of course the way that you convince your peers that you have learned something interesting.
28. What skills are needed to be a marine biologist?
On the professional side of matters, an academic marine biologist usually has earned a Ph.D. in the subject and usually has had at least 2 years of postdoctoral training. During this time the skill required are very broad, including education in broad areas of biology and marine science, learning of associated areas of science and mathematics (calculus and statistics are both very desirable), a facility with computing and preferably programming, experience with at least some instrumentation techniques, both in the lab and in the field.
On the personal side, science is a subject that involves far more communication and cooperation skills than most people realize. If you are a difficult person, you had better learn to get along with your peers and supervisors. I do have to admit, however, that one in a thousand can be a perfectly awful person and succeed, providing he or she is a genius or really sneaky.
29. When working as a marine biologist, do you get transferred to different parts of the United States?
This might happen if you worked for a federal agency, although usually the transfers are voluntary. This also may happen in industries with operations in different locations. In University work, it is common to have a summer field site, often at a marine lab, but this is not a permanent situation of course.
30. Does working as a marine biologist interfere with your family life?
There is travel and that is a drag. Everyone encounters the problem of having to work off hours, which interferes with family responsibilities. But this is not much different from many other jobs. The travel can be a real joy for your family if you bring them along!
31. Would you say that most marine biologists prefer working in the lab or out in the field?
There is no simple answer to this, but one can be sure that many marine biologists love their work because it involves being in the field and often traveling to very interesting and lovely places.
32. Are there any specific working hours?
No consistent answer. Depends upon the specific job.
33. How do the attitudes and behaviors of workers affect the climate of your workplace? What are the people you work with like?
Marine biologists are more or less like most academics. They are very middle class by and large and have fairly average opinons, generally resembling those of university staff. On the other hand they are generally passionate about conserving the natural environment and tend towards the side of behaviors that avoid exploitation of people and natural resources. The workplace is achievement-oriented by and large. Academics are to an extent individualists, which makes them a difficult lot to move as a group. Mass persuasion is not likely for such a group.
34. Is community service an important part of a marine biologist's activities?
Yes. Marine biologists are often asked to serve on public committees, especially related to environmental matters. Marine biologists often give public lectures. Also, marine biologists often find themselves as advocates for protection of the marine environment, because their expertise makes them more sensitive to the dangers of development and industrialization.
35. Why is chemistry important to know in order to be a marine biologist?
I cannot overstress that marine biology requires sound training in the science of biology and biology requires a sound grounding in general science. Chemistry, for example, is extremely important because one cannot understand how life functions without understanding the building blocks of life: DNA, RNA, proteins, hormones, sugars and many other compounds. Inorganic chemistry is also crucial because the interactions of ions in cells is what makes nerves and cell membranes work, among other things. This may all seem technical, but if you are not knowledgable about chemistry you will fail to understand crucial aspects of life's functioning. Think of how atmospheric chemicals are changing global climate and you will soon worry about anything from gas exchange of plants to cows farting! This, my friend is chemistry! Think of how sewage reduces oxygen and how reduced oxygen affects marine organisms and you get to the same conclusion. I could make the same argument for physics and mathematics. And genomics. I know! You want to avoid these things and get to the fun stuff...as you get more mature you will realize: This IS the fun stuff!
36. Do I need to be computer literate?
There are two types of computer literacy. First, there is microcomputer literacy, which includes: being able to use a word processor, entering data in a table (spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel), and presenting your thoughts in a presentation program (like Microsoft Powerpoint), and finally being able to connect to the web (via a browser like Google or Safari) and using email. This set of skills is standard for all educated students. As you get into college, the web will be essential for dealing with your college library and for finding scientific publications. You will learn that web sites are often very incomplete and that primary scientific sources are very important to learn about a field of science.
The second type of computer skill involves what is traditional computing: Using a computer to write programs that allow you to solve problems, simulate processes going on in the natural world, and using statistics to analyze the data you collect. It is important to learn a programming language and to learn how to use programs (=software) designed to solve scientific problems, plot graphs, and do your own original research. Students proficient in computers often learn a programming language these days in high school, but in college it is often essential to do this.
Therefore, a typical marine biologist will have her/his own desktop or laptop computer and probably access to a larger mainframe computer, where larger databases are stored as well as a variety of exotic programs.
37. What is the job security of being a marine biologist?
You can ALWAYS get fired! But generally, job security is pretty much the same as the TYPE of employment you have. Thus if you are a marine biologist teaching in college, your security is the same as that of college teachers (who strive for tenure, which gives them security). If you are an environmental manager working for the federal government (e.g., U. S. Environmental Protection Agency), you have a federal job classification and you have the same job security as other federal employees of your classification. Same for private industry, where I would suspect that responses to a bad economy would be quicker and job security therefore would be somewhat less than college or government employment.
38. OK, I am in High School. What courses should I take to be a marine biologist?
If you want to be a marine biologist, you are preparing for a life in science. Science education in high school is a must. Nearly all school systems in the U. S . teach biology, chemistry, earth sciences, and physics. All are essential for an understanding of the natural world. Many high school students avoid physics because they see it as too hard and abstract. I promise you that you will regret passing physics up if you are serious about science. It is also crucial to take mathematics, as much as possible. If you do not start calculus in high school, you will need it in college. You must learn to write and courses in English are very important. In summary, high school is the time to get a firm education. Don't worry about taking courses or groups of courses in marine biology. If your school has a marine biology course, then of course take it. You might also consider summer courses, camps, and internships in your area. As an example, my university has a summer residential research program for high school students. Your local college may have a similar program. Even if it is not in marine biology, it may introduce you to the wonderful world of science and research.
39. Do marine ecologists work alone or in groups?
There is a place for the marine biologist who does research alone. Many fine studies are done by a single individual, who is often a remarkably well-trained generalist. But more and more scientific problems in all fields, marine biology included, are being addressed by teams. Some of this stems from more and more specialized training needed to do a particular job well. Also the great size of marine systems, working on ships, and the internet all combine to make collaborative research an outstanding way to achieve much.
40. Do I need to take a foreign language to become a successful marine biologist?
That is not an easy thing to answer, because it depends upon objectives.More and more, nearly all scientific literature is in English, so only older papers and monographs are in foreign languages. Therefore the main motivation to learn a foreign language would be to interact effectively with colleagues or to travel to field sites. In the new world, Spanish is the clear winner, but French is a very widely spoken language in Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia. Those would be my choices, unless you had a special inclination to work some day in parts of Asia.
41. What are some examples of equipment used by marine biologists?
Field collecting equipment: plankton nets for sampling the plankton, bottom corers for sampling sediment in the sea bed, bottom grabs for sampling the bottom for bottom creatures.
Direct Sampling and Automated Measuring equipment: thermometers, salinometers to measure salinity, "ibuttons" to continuously record environmental temperature.
Laboratory equipment: particle counters to count microorganisms in the water; fluorometers to measure fluorescence of chlorophyll in water when hit by beam of blue light; oxygen meters used to measure respiration of marine organisms; DNA extraction and thermal cyclers for PCR.
I also have been lucky to be able to teach college students for many years at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which has a Marine Biology Major. As I recommend above, it is preferable to have a sound grounding in biology and Stony Brook has a fine Biology Major. I greatly enjoy seeing them learn about the marine environment and sometimes decide to embark on a career in marine biology.
If you want to know more of the gory details of my research you can do so by following this link.
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