Don't be seduced by the glamour; know that science can be hard work, slow, and NOT groundbreaking
Joey Maier's tips on grad school
and marine mammal research
I used to study marine biology. (My thesis was on variation in the number
of carpal bones in bottlenose dolphins.) While I still enjoy learning about
marine biology, I didn't enjoy all of my experiences in grad school, and
admit that the experiences I had there may have contributed to my career
change. This is
my page for helping other people - especially ones interested in marine
mammalogy - avoid the problems that I had. The
first step is to make sure that you are not doing this for the wrong reasons. Once you
are reasonably sure that you ought to be pursuing this line of work, it is
time to start learning a bit about the job.
What can I do to get background experience working with dolphins?
I used to hear this a lot, and gave out the standard answers involving
volunteer work at your local aquarium/zoo/stranding network, boat handling
and scuba diving. Unfortunately, this type of answer really prevents
people from seeing the other options that are around them. What if you
are in a a rural place that doesn't have these things?
Remember that marine mammal research requires skills that you can develop
A background in sports photography, archery, or working as the sound man
for a local garage band can actually be useful. (The skills you develop in
those areas would be good for photographic identification studies, skin biopsy
testing, or hydrophone/acoustic studies, respectively.) The same is true
for the training/husbandry side of marine mammal work. If you want to
train dolphins, and you live in the middle of Iowa, ask the neighbor if you
can take their puppy to obedience school, and volunteer to work with the clinic
of a large animal veterinarian so that you are not intimidated by things that
are bigger and faster than you are.
I want to get into a grad school where I can study marine mammals. What
should I do?
If you have email access, the first thing you should do is to
subscribe to marmam.
(As always, use proper netiquette; i.e. be quiet and read for a few
months before attempting to post anything. This will avoid many problems.)
I would also look through any publications with coverage on cetaceans and
marine mammal research. Use marmam postings and published articles to get
the names of researchers who are doing things you find interesting
and find out where they are working. That will obviously point to big,
established marine mammal research programs like the one at
TAMU, but it
may also turn up individual professors who are doing really interesting stuff,
even though they are not in an institution with a formal marine mammal
program. Contact these researchers, and tell them that you really like
their work. Ask if they - or any of their collegues - have openings for
grad students interested in similar work.
OK, I've found a prof who seems interested in becoming my advisor.
What's the next step?
Talk to his students. If possible, talk with many of his students. Don't
settle for hearing one person say "I feel like I learned a lot from them"
or "I had a good experience with them".
It is important to ask questions that get below the surface. Ask
the students how their advisor deals with interpersonal relationships, how
they deal with challenges to authority. How offended are they if you
disagree with their interpretation of someone else's research? Do they mince
words and hint at what they expect from you, or do they come out and tell you?
Remember, you will be signing up to work with
this person for 2-6 years, depending on the degree and the complexity
of the project. It is important to make
certain that your learning style and personality are compatible with your
future advisor. Make sure that they have similar ideas, or if not, that they
are open minded enough to tolerate different views.
kind of guidance the student was given in choosing a project. Were they
given flexibility or were they told what to do? (Depending on your goals,
either one can be acceptable, but it is important to know what to expect.)
Find out if any funding or grant money was provided to cover the cost of
the student's research. If money was provided, ask if it suddenly dried
up during the write-up phase of the thesis. (Many research programs
use funding as a carrot to attract new students instead of using it to
support the existing students who are in the program. That is,
unfortunately, rampant within academia, and can be found in all different
fields, not just biology.)
OK, I've found a progam, and I think the advisor and I will work
Are there any other things I need to consider before starting?
The most important thing to remember is that not all marine mammal
research is the same, and that you should enjoy the work that you
are doing. Think carefully about the day to day aspects of your research.
You may be happier doing what you like now, and applying that
to the you like later.
No matter how much you like dolphins, spending every day counting
growth layer groups in teeth under a microscope will become frustrating if
your goal is to do field work. If you want to study marine mammal
behavior, you may be happier studying coyote behavior during grad school
and later applying the abilities you develop to marine mammal behavior