It’s inevitable that in all walks of life, someone at some point will ask you what you do for a living. It’s the world’s most classic icebreaker. And if you are like me and have to answer “I’m a student” there’s no doubt the follow up question will be “what do you study?”. When I follow that up with “Marine Biology” it usually warrants a response of “Wow!” followed by one of two exclamations; “I bet you get to travel everywhere!” or “Does that mean you swim with dolphins?”.
And in short, no, and no.
Conjure up the words “Marine Biologist” and the image of a tanned young woman leaping from a yacht into a vibrant coral reef, where she immediately begins a happy dance with a friendly dolphin comes to mind. Sadly, that is not marine biology and trust me, if I could get paid to do that, I would! Marine Biology is a huge, diverse subject covering a range of environments, animals, plants and ecological systems. It is not just cuddling dolphins in warm climates. If that’s what you want to do, save your money. Don’t go to uni. Get on a plane and head to the States and get a job at Seaworld (and don’t update me on your progress because I hate Seaworld! #EmptyTheTanks!).
So, what is Marine Biology? The dictionary definition is that it is a branch of marine science that deals with the study of animals and plants in the ocean and on the shoreline, and how they react with their environment. And I have to say, that’s a pretty narrow definition! Marine Biology involves a great deal of knowledge of not just biology but also zoology, ecology, chemistry, mathematics and statistics, and that’s just scratching the surface.
When studying Marine Biology, it’s important to note that the ocean is a pretty big place, covering 71% of the surface of the Earth. And of that, humans have only discovered 5% of that! So there’s a lot we don’t know. But what we have uncovered is vast and confusing! Every 10 metres of depth changes the pressure, temperature and atmosphere of the oceanic layer, and no two spots are the same. There are also different types of oceanic systems and coastal features, and the positioning on the Earth of these sites affects them massively. For every ecological process on land, they’ll be hundreds of different examples of how it works underwater with a lot more factors to consider.
So, if Marine Biology isn’t cuddling dolphins, what animals am I expected to cuddle? Well, that depends what’s on offer! It might be a crab, it might be a fish. And the likelyhood is that once you’ve finished cuddling them (Disclaimer: DO NOT cuddle a crab! They are very territorial and will likely try to angrily maim you! Cuddle as many fish as you like, but be warned they’ll likely be dead and will stink!) you’re going to measure them, weigh them, and then cut them open. This is not a subject for the faint of heart!
If you’re not quite at uni yet, make sure you look into the modules and research specialties of the universities you want to apply to. It’s no use going to the uni with the highest grade boundaries if you won’t be interested in any of the subject matters! I chose Aberdeen University for it’s heavy research background into marine mammal behaviour, despite originally wanting to go to Essex University and Aberdeen being 600 miles from home. But without that research area, I wouldn’t be smashing my dream right now!
Field work and lab work is a factor and it’s not some glamorous lab set up. Think lab coats and goggles hair tied firmly back and you’re halfway there. Think being ankle deep in mud on the banks of a river and you might be the rest of the way. You’ll be outside in all seasons and elements, come rain or shine, digging through all kinds of dirt in search of any forms of life. There’s also having to handle a lot of dead stuff, which can’t really be helped and at times can be distressing, as well as gross. You need a strong stomach and a strong mind to get by. Although, if you can’t stand the thought of seeing a dead animal in front of you for any reason, your uni should make allowances and give you an alternative – they can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do (but I do think it’s much more informative to do the dissections – some areas of marine biology still involve a huge amount of it and you need to be prepared for that. Be realistic about it!).
If you want to succeed in Marine Biology, you’ll need to pick a specialist subject. I can guarantee about 80% of people studying marine biology will walk into their first tutor meeting and firmly declare “I want to work with dolphins!”. But although that might be the dream it’s a really hard specialist subject to get into! So keep you mind open and take in all the subject areas uni has to offer you! Read around them and find your niche! Once you’ve found a subject you really want to know everything about, do a little research and find out if anyone at your uni is researching it. Approach them and ask for them for a little info on their work. They will be more than willing to talk you through and you may even get a chance to look around their lab or go with them on field work! If no professors or staff at your uni are researching it, look elsewhere. They’ll be someone actively researching the subject and getting some outside networking in never hurt anyone!
It’s also essential to get some volunteering under your belt. I volunteer for a cetacean research charity, acting as both a researcher and a Wildlife Officer, which gives me essential experience in field research and public engagement and means I’m always up to date with what wildlife exists where. It’s also opened my eyes to the importance of not settling on one specific species to study about. The experience I have is unique because I’m one of the only people in my class to have such a job, and will give me the edge when it comes to applying for that job or masters program later on. And I found it through a simple Google search!
You also need to think about extra-curricular activities that give you a boost in skills to add to your CV when you’re out of uni. Driving is an essential skill you really should have for any biological science based career, as so many field sites will be in more open areas without public transport. For marine biology based careers, diving is a good skill to have, but only if it’s tailored to where you want to work. Having a PADI Open Water certificate that you got in Mauritius may seem impressive but it’s expensive to do and isn’t going to help you get a job back in the UK! Make sure you invest in a diving drysuit and a course to know how to use it and dive in it. If you want to learn to dive in the UK then research the various diving schools on offer. There’s more to diving than PADI, such as BSAC or SSI and each is tailored to different diving needs. Sadly, diving based jobs are becoming few and far between now, as robotics are being developed in the place of human divers. It’s also an expensive hobby, so don’t jump into it without doing a little research first!
When it comes to getting that diploma, an actual Marine Biology job is not so easily achieved on a Bachelors Degree alone! To do actual Marine Biology work, you need a postgrad in your preferred subject. So research what’s available and in areas you’re prepared to travel to long before your final year at uni, and keep finances in mind! Don’t just travel to a foreign country because it seems cool only to discover you can’t afford the living costs. And don’t put all of your hopes into one program, especially if it’s at a more prestigious institution. Always have a back up plan. And remember, there’s no requirement to do a masters. Don’t do one just because you don’t know what to do next, or you may up heavily qualified for a field you have no interest in, and it’s too late/expensive to change that fact.
Of course, most of this is based on advice I’ve been given through research and speaking to people. I’m still an undergrad, but I often have a lot of people simply marvel at how cool Marine Biology must be. Main things to take on board:
- You will not be spending all day swimming with dolphins (In fact, let’s leave it at don’t ever swim with dolphins – it’s dangerous!)
- It’s not a jet-set lifestyle.
- You will have to dissect a lot of fish (and it stinks)
- It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to pursue this subject, there is no shortcut.
- It’s pretty bloody cool!
Hopefully this post has helped some people thinking about taking up a degree in Marine Biology, and dispels a few of the myths associated with the subject.