*i.e. things I wish I had known when I started my BSc.
By Emily G Cunningham (@EG_Cunningham)
With Freshers’ Week a fading memory and those exciting first lectures, practicals and field trips afoot; we thought we’d pull together 10 hot tips that we wish we’d known when we started our marine biology degrees (back in the noughties).
Over the course of your degree, you will hear how competitive marine biology is as a career about a million times. I won’t sugarcoat it, it is. Out of our year groups (we graduated in 2010 and 2012 respectively), less than 5% of our peers are now working (paid) in the marine sector. So, we thought we’d share a few things we’ve learnt along the way to help you make the most of your time at uni and walk into a job/PhD on the other side.
In your first lecture, look around. Count how many people are doing your course. In 3 years time, you will be competing not only against them, but against the thousands of other graduates clutching their BSc Marine Biology. To succeed, you need more than just your degree.
The good news is, you’ll have a lot of free time over the next 3 years. Compared to A Levels, first year is a doddle. Some of this free time will be taken up with important tasks like napping, learning how to use a washing machine and trying all the different flavours of Supernoodles. But, you’ll still have time in spades. Here’s how to use it well and ultimately live those dreams.
- Get involved
If you want to become a scientist (i.e. pursue a PhD and work in research), get involved with the research going on at your university. PhD students, Postdocs and even research staff always have tasks that they need willing help with. One word of advice, if you commit to something, make sure you turn up – if there’s one surefire way to blacklist yourself, it’s saying you’ll help with sampling and then cancelling last minute or not turning up at all. Valid excuses include: real illness (hangovers don’t count), real unavoidable appointments (dentist – yes, rugby social – no) or death.
You’ll hear this a lot. Volunteering gives you real-world experience, as well as adding credibility to your CV and getting your name known for the right reasons. It also shows you have real passion for what you study – and in the conservation sector in particular, that can go a long way. Remember, volunteering often opens the door to a job – so if there’s an organisation you want to work for after graduation, look into volunteering for them whilst you have your student loan behind you. (Volunteering is much more difficult when you have bills to pay and no income.) Word of warning, turning up twice/late/sporadically and then applying for a job/asking for a reference probably won’t end well.
A note on paying to volunteer. There are many organisations, most in exciting, exotic places, that will charge you a small fortune to “volunteer” or join “research expeditions”. Be wary – these are undoubtedly amazing experiences, but they won’t add much weight to your CV.
- Get a job
Not only will you have more money for beer but it adds experience to your CV. I know waitressing doesn’t seem like a vital pre-requisite for a career in marine biology, but it gives you lots of “soft” skills (teamwork, working under pressure, etc) that make you more employable. Also, that extra money will come in handy for…
- Learn to drive
Not dive, drive. The vast majority of jobs in the environment sector require a driving licence. I avoided the driving seat until I was 22 and a job I wanted required a licence; so I pulled my finger out and ended up passing my driving test 4 days after the interview (okay, a bit of bluffing may have occurred). Fitting my theory test and driving test around my job was a pain and I wished I’d done it at uni when time/student loan was plentiful.
- Learn to dive
Disclaimer: you don’t have to be able to dive to be a marine biologist. Lots of marine professionals never dive. But, if you are able to learn to dive, do! Diving allows you to experience your new world of study for yourself. Yes, you can read books, dissect fish and chuck quadrats at rocky shores, but diving let’s you immerse yourself in marine biology. Literally. Most universities have a Sub-Aqua Club (SAC); if yours doesn’t, your local town will. This is the cheapest and most thorough way to learn to dive – though brace yourself, UK seas are a tad nippy come wintertime.
- Get out on boats
If you’re a townie like me, getting your sea legs can be quite the experience. My first time out on a research vessel, I discovered I got seasick. Badly. I also learned that lots of marine biologists get seasick – it won’t end your career, you just have to learn how to deal with it. Here’s how I avoid chundering on my colleagues/samples:
– Take travel sickness tablets 2 hours beforehand.
– Eat a good breakfast beforehand but avoid coffee
– Take ginger snaps (or crystallised ginger) and graze on them
– If you start to feel sick, look at the horizon and step out into the breeze
Getting out on boats also helps you to understand boat processes – casting off, harbour rules, ropes and fenders, etc. The more you’re out, the more you pick up – though if your career aspirations include boat sampling, a boat handling course would be a good investment, e.g. RYA Powerboat Level 2.
- Spend as much time as possible in/on/under the sea Go rockpooling, go crabbing, watch how the birdlife changes with the seasons, go porpoise spotting, go snorkelling. It all adds to your understanding of how the sea really works – and you never know what you might spot or discover.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of oceanography, ocean chemistry and all that other “boring stuff”.
I started my degree with the sole desire to learn about marine mammals. And when my first few lectures were more about ocean circulation than whales, I wondered what I had got myself in for. Stick with it – you need to understand the system as a whole in order to properly understand your species. Daniel’s PhD looks at dolphins – but he uses oceanographic data to understand the frontal systems that affect the dolphins. It’s a necessary part of the puzzle (promise).
- Use social media
By this I don’t mean spend all day on Facebook at the expense of your assignment. Social media is a fantastic networking tool – many scientists use it to promote papers (and themselves), most conservation NGOs use it to promote their work and it’s a great way to keep up to date with marine news (new MPAs around the world, new species discovered, etc). It’s also a great way to get yourself known – create a Twitter account and link it to your blog (yes, start a blog). We both use Twitter professionally and have found it a great way to connect with other scientists – we just wish we’d known about it earlier! NB: Employers often check social media, so be careful what you post/share/retweet. (Give us a follow, we are @EG_Cunningham and @DanielMMoore_ )
- Don’t spread yourself too thin!
All that being said, there’s only 24 hours in a day and you’ll (hopefully) only do your first year once. Be strategic in what you sign up for and if you don’t like it, then walk away and try something else. University is as much about finding out what you like and what you want to do as it is about studying textbooks and learning new skills. My career aspirations changed about a million times during my BSc; and they were only honed by trying a load of things, most of which turned out to not be right for me. Most importantly, university is probably the most fun you’ll ever have – so make sure you keep some time free for all of the random craziness that awaits (foam parties, staying up for sunrises, ski trips, summer balls and pretty much everything and anything in between).
How do I know all this?
I’m Emily, a marine biology graduate working in marine conservation. I have been consistently employed since I graduated (4 days after my graduation, to be precise) 7 years ago and have experienced some incredible things: biopsy sampling bottlenose dolphins in Sicily, monitoring nesting sea turtles on Ascension Island, meeting with Ministers to advocate for more MPAs, being interviewed on BBC Breakfast about UK marine life, writing for national magazines, talking about dolphins to over a million people on national radio and collecting genetic samples from fish markets (and supermarket fish counters!). I didn’t have any connections in the marine world when I started my degree. I just worked hard, volunteered a lot and got involved with pretty much everything going. That’s all there is to it.
I make up half of Marine Biology Life alongside Daniel, my partner and a PhD student researching genetics of marine predators.
We’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We share our adventures, escapades and mishaps – as well as lots of photos of marine life, marine news and good opportunities. If you have any questions or would like some advice from a pair who have been there and had the hangover, drop us a comment.
Best of luck with your marine biology degree. ENJOY!!!!!