So you want to study dolphins....

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Nerd Stuff
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 elsewhere. 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.

Ask what 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 together well. 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 later on.