Working in Marine Science
Working in the marine sciences is wonderfully appealing to many people. They sometimes envision a life of diving in warm clear water surrounded by tropical fish, or descending to the seabed in an exotic submersible outfitted like Captain Nemo's fictional submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or living with intelligent dolphins in a marine life park. Then reality sets in. There are rewards from working in the marine sciences, but they tend to be less spectacular than the first dreams of students looking to the ocean for a life's work.
A marine science worker is paid to bring a specific skill to a problem. If that problem lies in warm tropical water or in a marine park, fine. But more likely the problem will yield only to prolonged study in an uncomfortable, cold, or dangerous environment. The intangible rewards can be great; the physical rewards are often slim. Having said that, let me add that no endeavor is more interesting or exciting, and few are more intellectually stimulating. Doing marine science is its own reward.
Training for a job in marine science
Marine science is, of course, science. And science requires mathematics -- you need math to do the chemistry, physics, measurements, and statistics that lie at the heart of science. Your first step in college should be to take a math placement test, enroll in an appropriate math class, and spend time doing math. Math is the key to further progress in any area of marine science.
With your math skills polished, start classes in chemistry, physics, and basic biology. Surprisingly, except for one or two introductory marine science classes, you probably won't take many marine science courses until your junior year. These introductory classes will be especially valuable because a balanced survey of the marine sciences can aid you in selecting an appealing specialty. Then, with a good foundation in basic science, you can begin to concentrate in that specialty.
Other skills are important, too. The ability to write and speak well is crucial in any science job. Also critical is computer literacy -- preferably DOS as well as Macintosh, by the way. Expertise in photography, foreign languages, or the ability to field-strip and rebuild a diesel engine or hydraulic winch will put you a step above the competition at hiring time. Certification as a scuba diver is almost mandatory -- you can never have too much diving experience. (Remember, though, diving is only a tool, a way to deliver an informed set of eyes and an educated brain to a work site.) You should be in good health. Indeed, good aerobic fitness is essential in most marine science jobs; stamina is often a crucial factor in long experiments under difficult conditions at sea. It is also desirable to be physically strong -- marine equipment is heavy and often bunglesome. And it helps greatly if you are not prone to seasickness.
Deciding what school to attend will depend on your skills. Readers of this book will probably be enrolled in a general oceanography course in a college or university. The first step would be to discuss your interests with your professor (or his or her teaching assistants). You'll need to attend a four-year college or university to complete the first phase of your training. If you're attending a two-year institution, picking a specific transfer institution can come later, but keep a few things in mind: No matter where you take your first two years of training, you need thorough preparation in basic science. You should attend an institution with strengths in the area of your specialty (geology, biology, marine chemistry, etc.). And you should be reasonable in your expectations of acceptance if you're a transfer student (that is, don't try for Stanford or the University of Rhode Island with a B- average).
Another thing: most marine scientists have completed a graduate degree (a master's degree or doctorate). Most graduate students hold teaching or research assistantships (that is, they get paid for being grad students). In all, progress to a final degree is a long road, but the journey is itself a pleasure.
If the thought of four or more years of higher education doesn't appeal, does that mean there's no hope? Not at all. Many students begin our program at Orange Coast College with the goal of becoming marine technicians, animal trainers at Sea World, marina or boatyard employees or managers, crew members on private yachts, and other fascinating jobs. Those jobs don't always require a bachelor's degree. Jobs at Sea World and other marine theme parks do require athletic ability, extreme patience, public speaking skills, a love of animals, and, usually, diving experience. Few positions are available, but there is some turnover in the ranks of junior trainers, and being hired is certainly possible.
Becoming a marine technician is an especially attractive alternative to the all-out chemistry-physics-math academic route. For every highly trained marine scientist, there are perhaps five technical assistants who actually do the experiments, maintain the equipment, work daily with organisms, and build special apparatus. Marine technicians tend to spend more time at hands-on tasks than marine scientists. Most of these folks (including the author of the letter that ends this Appendix) have the equivalent of a two-year technical degree, usually from a community college.
Don't quit your job, burn your bridges, leave your family, sell your possessions, and dedicate yourself monk-like to marine science. Do some investigation. Nothing is as valuable as actually going out and talking to people who do things that you'd like to do. Ask them if they enjoy their work. Is the pay OK? Would they start down the same road if they had it to do all over again? You may decide to expand your involvement in marine science in an informal way -- be becoming a volunteer; joining the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Greenpeace, or other environmental groups; working for your State's Fish & Game office as a seasonal aide; or attending lectures at local colleges and universities.
If you decide to continue your education, don't be discouraged by the time it will take. Have a general view of the big picture, but proceed one semester at a time. Again, remember the educational journey is itself a great pleasure. Don Quixote reminds us of the joys of the road, not the inn.
Marine science is very attractive to the general public -- people are naturally drawn to thoughts of working in the field. Unfortunately, there are not great numbers of jobs in the marine sciences. But there will always be jobs, and people will fill them. Those people will be the best prepared, most versatile, and most highly motivated of those who apply. Perhaps not surprisingly, marine biology is the most popular marine science specialty. Unfortunately, it is also the area with the smallest number of non-academic jobs. Museums, aquariums, and marine theme parks employ biologists to care for animals and oversee interpretive programs for the public. A few marine biologists are employed as monitoring specialists by water management agencies like sanitation districts that discharge waste into the ocean. Electrical utilities that use seawater to cool the condensers in power generating plants almost always have a handful of marine biologists on staff to watch the effects of discharged heat on local marine life and to write the reports required by watchdog agencies. State and Federal agencies employ marine biologists to read and interpret those documents and to set standards. Relatively small businesses like private shipyards, agricultural concerns, and chemical plants can't afford their own staff biologists, so private consulting firms staffed by marine biologists and other specialists have arisen to assist in the preparation of the environmental impact reports required of businesses under the 1972 California Coastal Zone Initiative and similar legislation in other states.
There are more jobs in physical oceanography: marine geology, ocean engineering, and marine chemistry and physics. Thousands of marine geologists work for oil and mineral companies -- indeed, with the increasing emphasis on offshore resources, the market for these people may be increasing. Marine engineers are needed to design, construct, and maintain offshore oil rigs, ships, and harbor structures. Marine chemists are hard at work figuring ways to stop corrosion and to extract chemicals from seawater. Physicists are vitally interested in the transmission of underwater sound and light, in the movement of the ocean, and in the role the ocean plays in global weather and climate. Economists, lawyers, writers, and mathematicians also work in the marine science field.
Many biological and physical oceanographers are teachers and professors. Indeed, there are nearly as many marine scientists employed in the academic world as there are in private industry and government. If you like the idea of teaching, you might consider this avenue. The demand for science teachers at all educational levels is already great and is expected to increase.
Four factors will be significant in influencing your employability:
- Experience. Employers are favorably impressed by experience, especially work experience related to the duties of the position for which you are applying. Volunteer work counts.
- Grades. Good grades are important, especially for positions in governmental agencies. A GPA of 3.0 or higher in all college work increases your chances of employment and should give you a higher starting salary.
- Geographic Availability. Don't restrict you acceptable areas of employment.
- Diversity. Again, mastery of more than one specialty gives you an employment edge -- being a plankton connoisseur and being able to repair a balky computer while ordering in-port supplies over a radiotelephone in Spanish makes a lasting impression.
Covering two-thirds of the Earth's surface, the ocean offers many career opportunities. Marine biological consulting companies, public aquariums, ocean theme parks, marine research laboratories, marine departments in Colleges and Universities, and Federal and State marine resource conservation and management agencies are all potential employers.
Many of our undergraduate students have gained local part-time employment at marine biological or oceanographic companies as they complete their studies at Orange Coast College. These experiences help tie the theoretical discussions of the classroom and laboratory to the real-world experience of marine science.