Marine Biologist the Revenge

Pure, safe, wholesome marine biology image

Okay, you’ve made up your mind to be a marine biologist. Never mind the horror in the eyes of your parents, the disbelief on the faces of your “friends”, and that faintly disoriented look your cat always has when she lies on your lap and kneads your abdomen.

You know that you are not going to be a marine biologist in order to talk to dolphins or make obscene amounts of money. Rather, you realize that you are driven by a higher and purer calling. You are like some 6th Century European shepherd who sees an image of the Emperor Justinian on the rear end of a ewe and decides to carry the animal on his back to Constantinople to show the Emperor. The fact that on his way he is waylaid by Lombards, sold into slavery, and winds up as a tax preparer in northern Italy should not in any way dissuade you from your own personal crusade.

Now, however, that sinking sensation has come over you, as a wee voice says:What should I do to prepare myself for what lies ahead? Particularly disconcerting is that the wee voice sounds exactly like Carmen Miranda in The Gangs All Here.

How Do I Become A Marine Biologist?

First, in the words of The Book in the late, extremely lamented Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Don’t Panic.

Almost everyone who wants to go into marine biology can do it. You can take tons of science in high school, you can take the bare minimum; you can get your scuba certification before you are toilet trained, you can never learn to dive; you can go to small colleges where you are treated like a long-lost child, you can go to huge universities where professors spit on you for fun; you can go to colleges that specialize in marine biology, you can go to ones that just have a few, or even no, such classes; you can go to college when you are 18, you can go when you are a ton older.

In the long run, this stuff sort of evens out. Are some of these paths better than others? You bet. Is there only one path to take? No, no, Nanette.

Some Good Things to Know

I. The Early Years

Read a lot. This is good advice no matter how old you are. Much of my career is spent reading what others have written in order to know what is going on in my field, so the ability to read and comprehend is really important. Marine biologists exist to find out stuff and convey it to others. So you will be spending much of your time not only reading what other persons have written, but reading what you have just written to make sure it makes sense. In addition, one of the ways to be a successful writer is to read. Does it matter what you read? Well, I suppose in a way it really doesn’t. On the other hand, reading graceful prose might not be a bad idea. How about the Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Look to Windward by the fabulous Iain Banks, A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, Samuel Pepys by Claire Tomalin, or the various Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman?

2. High School Daze

First, remember that marine biology is really biology that happens to take place in the sea. So, you are a biologist first and a disreputable marine biologist second.

In high school, it would be nice if you maxed out on biology and took chemistry and quite a bit of math. Are you bad at math and thus think your career is over before it starts? Not to worry. I never liked math and still, by some grace of Gaia, sit before you as an official marine biologist. Is it harder for me ‘cause I can barely count on my fingers and toes? You bet. Did it stop me from being a marine biologist? No. What about physics? Should you take that in high school? I don’t know. I really, really hated physics in college. I had to take it to get a degree in biology and I waited until the last possible second, my fifth year in college (second senior year) before bowing to the inevitable. And I really despised it then. So, I’m not one to advise about when to take physics.

I would take a writing class because scientists are often poor at writing.

If you are interested in scuba diving, live near the water, and can afford to take a class, learning how to dive is a good thing. You will find that one of the quickest ways to get in good with researchers in college is to know how to dive. Researchers are always looking for cheap (read free) divers and, once you fulfill whatever requirements the college or university has for divers, you will likely find many happy offers for you to help out with someone’s research. But again, I never learned to dive and though that was a mistake, it was not a fatal one.

If there is a university or college near you, sometimes it is possible to volunteer to assist researchers - you can check that out. Again, it really does not matter if the folks you are working with are marine biologists, terrestrial biologists or whatever. The point is to get some experience with research.

Grades. Ah, you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. Try to get good grades, in fact try to get very good grades. It will help you get into college and, well gee, it’s just the right thing to do. If by some chance you do not get astronomically good grades, do not panic (remember The Book in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

3. The Later Years (Scene here of a page of a calendar blowing off in the wind and the faint, faint sound of the Whiffenpoof Song)

Question: What if, after 1 or 2 or, Gaia forbid, 3 years in college, I decide that I don’t want to be a marine biologist. In fact, what if I decide that I don’t want to be a biologist at all? In fact, what if I decide I want to live in a small town in South Dakota and make lovingly crafted reproductions of Gustav Stickley’s rocking chair #397 (see Catalogue of Craftsman Furniture, Copyright 1910, by Gustav Stickley)? Answer: Excellent. I’m proud of you. You are a rare person indeed. For not only can you perceive your muse, you can walk up to it, put your arms around its waist, and give it a big kiss right on the lips. And in fact, as an Arts and Crafts fan myself, can you put me on your list for two chairs?

You and Your BA

First, it really is necessary to go to college if you want to go into marine biology. That’s just the way it is. In fact, and not to put too fine a point on it, you really should figure on going to graduate school if you want to go very far in the field.

First, let’s address those questions that your unconscious has been pumping out like so much blood sausage.

Question: What if I go to a community college for a few years before going to a four-year institution? Answer: Nobody cares.

Question: What if I go to a small college instead of a big prestigious university? Answer: Nobody cares.

Question: What if it takes me 5 years or more to get a BA? Answer: Nobody cares.

Question: What if I am 25 or 30 or 35 years old before I start college? Answer: Nobody cares.

Question: What if I don’t like going to the College of My First Choice. What if I go there and then realize that after dreaming about this place for 4 years, that after joining the damn Glee Club to make my high school transcript look better and then having to sing the entire damn score from The Sound of Music about 150 times because that’s all that Glee Clubs do, and that after sitting in a dark, dank room on 13 successive Saturdays taking a class in how to do well on my SATs, that after doing all that and getting accepted here, and taking the greyhound here with my cardboard valise in hand, that this place sucks big time. Is it okay if I transfer to some place else? Answer: Nobody cares.

I went to UC San Diego in 1965 and that place was a living hell. I lost 30 pounds my first quarter and they ran out of transfer forms; I had to wait for another batch before signalling my intent to vacate the premises as soon as the year was up. They were trying to create Renaissance people there. For instance, all freshman, regardless of major, had to take calculus and physics in their freshman year. Oh, and did I mention that the physics textbook was the same one used in the honors physics class at UC Berkeley? And so, because the last Renaissance person was Da Vinci, many of us got the hell out of there while the getting was good.

A Few Words About Your First Years as a Biology Major

First, I realize that you were just hot potatoes in high school. I know you won first place in the Dismal Seepage High School Science Faire with your very creative diorama “Twelve Useful Things You Can Do with the Horrible, Horrible Gunk that You Find in the Trap of Your Bathroom Sink.” And I’ve read the newspaper article about your award-winning essay “My Country, Right, Wrong, or, Gosh, Somewhere Just Out There in Right Field with the Gophers” for which you received $75 and a very handsome plaque from the Right and True Order of Ocelots (not to be confused with the Real Order of Ocelots of which we will say no more). And, I fully understand that throughout high school, despite truly Herculean temptations, you eschewed any psychoactive substances up to and including leaving out nutmeg in your alcohol-free eggnog, in order to protect that well-oiled machine, that (to quote Saint Augustine) Temple on the Hill, your mind. But the thing is, well, the thing is that you may find that your chosen Citadel of Higher Education is a whole ‘nother tube of cheese wiz. It just may be that you will find yourself surrounded by people all of whom won first place in the Science Faire, got the check and plaque, and all of whom realized that they could ingest nutmeg, among other substances, without necessarily pulling Their Temples on the Hill down around their scapulas.

What this translates to is this: Your freshman year, or for that matter your sophomore year, just may be a rude shock. Of course, what with being away from home, having a truly big hunk of freedom (Free at last, free at last, thank god almighty I’m free at last), and being able to stay up later than 10 PM, this is true for any student, of any major. But my experience is that this is particularly true for biology majors. You see, for most of us biology majors, there are a whole bunch of prerequisites to take before we can take ichthyology, algology or marine ecology. There is inorganic and organic chemistry, calculus, introductory biology, physics, not to mention English, art history and all the rest. So, at some point, oh around 1.5 years into it, aspiring biology students may justly feel that “This is just painful. Is this what the rest of college/life is about? If so, perhaps I’m going South.” And the answer, you will be relieved to know In fact, some of us have had the sneaking suspicion that the first several years of college has been designed to weed out those who are not truly dedicated to biology. At the end of my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara I gave myself one more year and if my junior year was not a huge improvement I was going to be a commercial fisherman. And my junior year, filled with ichthyology, cell physiology, oceanography and the like, was just glorious.

So hang in there. Be of good cheer. Of course, having said that, if you truly feel that you are on the wrong path, as we have noted before, bailing out is perfectly acceptable, honorable, and, in fact smart.

A Slight, But Crucial Digression

Question: If I only take the minimum number of classes required per quarter/semester in order to graduate, will something bad happen to me in later life? Answer: Nobody cares.

If it is a matter of doing well at 4 classes per quarter/semester or doing mediocre at 5 classes a whack, take whatever is the minimum (always assuming that you are making the requisite progress towards graduation). A degree in biology can be very, very rugged. Do not underestimate the time and energy it will consume, particularly in the first 2 years.

Question: Well, that’s fine for you to say. But what about my fellow students who just glide through? How can they take 18 units, hold down a job as a software trouble shooter, teach salsa at the community center on weekends, and bring baskets of food to shut-ins? I’m just barely hanging on with 4 classes, 2 meals a day, and a level of hygiene that would make James Boswell blanch. Answer: Ah, I see the problem. It may surprise you know, but those people are androids. Really, they are skillfully crafted half humans and half machines, produced deep within the Rocky Mountains at the Strategic Air Command headquarters near Colorado Springs. I repeat, for those of you who are not androids, At Least In the Beginning, Take The Minimum Number of Classes Required per Quarter/Semester. Forget Taoism. When it comes to your first year or two of college, this is truly The Way.

Actually, don’t forget Taoism, as Lao Tzu wrote:
Humans model themselves on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the Way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.

In case you are wondering what classes to take to impress future employers and/or graduate schools, here is what the people who are hiring you or taking you on as a graduate student care about. “Does this person appear to be intelligent, literate, enthusiastic, and does this person have the skills I am looking for.” See, that’s not too bad. And you can spend your undergraduate career honing that stuff a bit - you know, buffing up the old image a tad.

4. And On to Graduate School

It’s true, almost all of the interesting jobs in this field require a graduate degree. But not to worry, graduate school is kilograms (not pounds because now you are a scientist type person and we use the metric system, so forget all that inches, hogsheads, and cubits stuff) of fun. I got my masters and PhD degrees at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and at the end the administration had to push me out of door with me kicking and screaming. There are still marks left on the floor of the biology department, made by my fingernails as they dragged me out.

Tips from the Ol’ Pro on scamming your way into graduate school.

While it might seem crass, it pays to think of getting into graduate school as a game. (Actually, it would be helpful if you thought all of life as a game, with you as the puck). You are in competition with a bunch of folks for a relatively few slots - so you have to stand out in some way.

Rule Number 1. Understand the selection process. What is important is that, in most graduate programs, you have to impress a professor enough for she or he to take you on as a student. But the word “impress” is not really sufficiently descriptive. That professor is going to be selecting someone who will be around the lab for anywhere between 2 and, occasionally,10 years. And not unlike a rancher who is selecting a puppy, the professor has to try to select students with certain traits. Is the puppy likely to grow up to be a dog that is stouthearted, intelligent, and able to be a real help around the ranch? Or will it grow up to be a burdon, a big, flatulent, incompetent creature that spends much of its time passing water on the rug?

So, how is a professor to decide?

And that’s the crux of the matter. You have to make yourself sufficiently different from your peers to attract a professor’s attention. In most cases, the professor has, at the beginning, three pieces of information about you: grades, Graduate Record Exam scores, and letters of recommendation. At this stage, almost everyone who applies has decent grades and usually pretty good GRE scores. So, it is often the letters of recommendation that will first draw a professor’s attention. So, Rule Number 2 - Your Letters of Recommendation Must be Steller.

Who is going to give you those letters? The best folks are people you have worked with in college or on jobs. Think about it, what sounds better? “Dewey took Psychology 8 from me and got an “A”, other than that I have no memory of him.” Or “Dewey was a volunteer diver in my research program and was absolutely marvelous. He is a self-starter, extremely mature, and I am only sorry that I do not have sufficient funds to take him on as a graduate student myself.”

Thus: Rule Number 3 - Hang Around Researchers and Make Yourself Useful. Not only can it get you great letters of recommendation, occasionally it can also get you into graduate school with the person you are assisting. Think about it. If I am a professor, and I have a space available for a graduate student, who am I more likely to take on, some person I know only through pieces of paper and an application form or Agnes, who has worked for me for no pay for 2 years and who is clearly interested, motivated, and hard working? I rest my case.

Rule Number 4 - Have a skill most of your competitors do not have. What kind of skills? Gee, I don’t know, think about it and come up with something. Okay, here are a few ideas: scuba experience, statistical expertise, experience with GIS, experience handling boats, experience with oceanographic equipment, general experience working with other researchers.

And how, other than in college, do you get that experience?

Not a Rule, but a Good Idea for Some People 1 - Get a Job Between Undergraduate and Graduate School.

Here’s why this might be a good idea. If you can get a job doing something even close to your interests you can (1) Find out if you like this sort of thing; (2) Get good letters of recommendation; (3) Prove to a professor that you can actually hold down a job without completely flaking out; (4) Save some money to defray graduate school - see below. What kind of jobs might you get? If you have successfully hung out in the right lab, money often becomes available to hire you, at least on a temporary basis. There are usually a few other things floating around. Recently, I noted that people were being hired to act as observors in some of the North Pacific fisheries (note that folks usually last only 1-2 years doing this before they never, ever want to see another pollock again). Some state and federal agencies, like the California Department of Fish and Game, sometimes have temporary positions and there is often some turnover in companies that do environmental impact work.

Lastly, Not a Rule, but a Good Idea for Some People 2 - Tell the Professor You will not Cost Anything.

I put this last because most folks cannot do this, but it should actually be up at the top of the list if you can pull this off because it can be a very effective lever. You see, most professors, quite properly, feel a responsibility toward their graduate students. But that often translates to, “Gee Melvin, I’d love to have you as a student, but I don’t have the funds to support you.” And that’s when you look her right in the eye and say “That’s okay, Dr. Spalzani, I have my own funds, I won’t cost you a cent!” And, oh the impression that can make. Now, I realize most students can’t say this. But think about it. If you went out and got a job for a few years and lived frugally, you just might be able to save enough to be able to say to Dr. Spalzani, “That’s okay, Dr. Spalzani, I won’t cost you a cent!”

Oh, and did I mention that you should read a lot? Try some poems by Galway Kinnell like “Oatmeal”.

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