Advice for people interested in a career studying marine mammals

I am often asked for advice by prospective graduate students or others interested in working with marine mammals, so I have included below some advice/comments I've provided in the past.

In terms of my progression in the field, I started working with marine mammals first volunteering with a non-profit research group, and through it started up the research project that would later morph into my graduate work. I was then fortunate to be accepted into a graduate program with a supervisor who was (is) a strong scientist studying behavioral ecology (he had no background with marine mammals). Although I wanted to go straight into a Ph.D. program, my supervisor made me start in a Masters program. Although I was pissed off at the time, it was a good idea - you should learn whether you and your supervisor get along, whether your project is going to work out, whether you like the university, whether you can get funding, etc, before going straight into a Ph.D. program. In my case all of these worked out, I spent two years in the Masters program, and then switched into a Ph.D. program. Rather than just working on my thesis, I started and continued involvement with studies of a diversity of species and questions, which was extremely important in terms of gaining flexibility and experience beyond the somewhat narrow topic of my thesis. For students pursuing a career studying marine mammals, I have some advice (in no particular order):

  • Volunteer to gain experience, but choose the volunteer opportunity not based on an exotic field site or charasmatic study species, but on the type and quality of the science being undertaken.

  • If you are volunteering, ask for feedback on what you can do to learn more, improve your performance etc. It is amazing how few volunteers ever ask for feedback/suggestions. Note this also applies to jobs you are being paid for - ask for feedback on a regular basis.

  • If you are interested in observational studies of behavior, become a birder. Why is this relevant? Birders are good observers, and learning to spot and identify birds will help hone your observational skills. Plus it may help you get a job someday.

  • Subscribe to the MARMAM E-mail list

  • Do your homework. Read everything published (yes, everything) on the species you are interested in, and on the questions you are interested in. Too many prospective students (and current students) are not familiar with the work that has been undertaken on the same topic/species, and spend a lot of time thinking they are answering questions that have already been answered, or end up taking credit for "discoveries" that have already been discovered.

  • Before applying to graduate programs, read "Getting what you came for: the smart student's guide to earning an M.A. or a Ph.D." by Robert Peters. If you are already a graduate student and you haven't read this book, read it anyways.

  • When you are trying to find a supervisor for your graduate work, consider working with someone who does not study marine mammals, but instead studies the questions you are interested in (see below). Then find collaborators/advisors to help out with the marine mammal side of things.

  • If you've wanted to study killer whales your entire life, don't volunteer that information to everyone you ask to work with. There are thousands of people out there who "have always wanted to study killer whales". This desire by itself does not set you apart from the crowd. Learn how to drive and launch boats. Learn how to trouble-shoot engine problems. Learn advanced quantitative methods. These things will make you stand out much more.

  • Develop your quantitative skills, even if it is a painful and unpleasant experience. Not just statistics, but experimental design, modeling, sampling, etc. Too many people in the field do not understand sampling biases and basic principles underlying statistical analyses.

  • Read Stuart Hurlbert's paper on "Pseudoreplication and the design of ecological field experiments" published in Ecological Monographs. Repeat once a year.

  • Attend and present your work at non-marine mammal conferences, not just taxon-oriented (like the American Society for Mammalogists) or regional meetings, but discipline-oriented meetings (Animal Behaviour Society, Society for Behavioural Ecology, etc).

  • Read question-oriented journals, not just taxon-oriented journals.

  • Join the Society for Marine Mammalogy, as well as appropriate question/topic-oriented societies, such as the Animal Behavior Society, the Ecological Society of America, or the Society for Conservation Biology.

  • Focus your work as much as possible on the questions, not on the species.

  • Publish your work, and do not wait until you have answered all the questions. Publish notes on unusual behaviors or observations, or new techniques, or what you've learned after a year or two on a particular field project. The process of having to defend your work in a peer-reviewed journal will make you a better scientist and help you realize what types of data you should have been collecting the previous year or two.

  • Aim for the best general (question-oriented) journals, and do not be discouraged when your papers are rejected - learn from the reviews and re-submit to a new journal quickly. The next day if possible. Publishing gets easier with experience, and having one or more publications by the time you finish your graduate work is going to greatly increase your chances of getting scholarships, post-docs, jobs, etc. Plus if one of your thesis chapters is published before you defend, it is harder for your examining committee to criticize it.

And before you ask whether I am accepting graduate students, although I have affiliate positions with two universities (University of Washington, Hawai‘i Pacific University), I cannot accept graduate students, although I can serve on graduate student committees. Do you want to work with killer whales? While admittedly I have spent much of my career studying killer whales, my primary research interests relate to biology and management of Hawaiian odontocetes, and I am not interested in supervising or co-supervising students working on killer whales or taking on any new projects with killer whales. Want to do an internship related to killer whales? We do accept interns but not to work on killer whales - if you are interested in an internship related to Hawai‘i odontocetes or (non-killer whale) west coast species see our intern page.

Updated March 2014