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An 8th grade WhySharksMatter gets career advice

A few weeks ago, I went home to Pittsburgh to surprise my mom for Mother’s Day. While there, I had the unenviable task of emptying out my childhood bedroom in preparation for my parents moving to a smaller place. I was apparently a bit of a pack rat growing up- while cleaning the room, I found every birthday card I had received and every test I had taken from elementary school through high school.  I also found the results of my 8th grade career aptitude test, taken in 1999.

Based on my skills and interests, the “Career Futures” computer had recommended three potential careers for me: high school science teacher, military officer specializing in intelligence gathering, and marine biologist. Some of you may also know that three years later, my high school guidance counselor half-jokingly recommended that I consider a career as the leader of a cult, but that’s a story for another time.

While taking a break from cleaning out my room, I looked over the full reports for each career choice. The description of the career of a marine biologist was of particular interest, since that’s what I actually ended up doing with my life (I am definitely not secretly working as a military intelligence officer, nothing to see here, move along).

According to the career computer, a marine biologist is someone who “Studies plants and animals that live in salt water, and their relationship to their environment”.  It recommended that I get a Ph.D, because while “the bachelor’s degree is adequate for some non-research jobs” and “a Masters degree is sometimes sufficient for some jobs in management, inspection, sales, and service”, a Ph.D. “is generally required for most jobs in this field, including college teaching, independent research, and advancement to administrative positions”. The career guidance report also pointed out that the average starting salary for someone with a BS is $25,400, while the average starting salary for a Ph.D. is $52,400. Don’t worry, 8th grade me, it’s been 13 years but I’m working on the Ph.D.!

I was advised to take as many advanced math and science courses as I could, because “numerical aptitude” is one of the most important skills a marine biologist can have. Fortunately for me and my fellow klutzes, “hand eye coordination” and “manual dexterity” are rated as the least important skills. Career Futures also recommended that I try to get some extra lab and field experience in the summers.

Surprisingly, the computer rated marine biologist as one of the fastest growing career paths as of 1999. The National Employment Outlook is rated as “Rapidly Increasing”, and it predicted that between 1996 and 2006, the number of marine biologists with gainful employment in the U.S. would increase by more than 25% (from about 80,000 to over 100,000).

I decided to check current data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to see if I got good career advice in 1999 . There isn’t a unique category just for ocean scientists, and the closest matching category is “Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists” (this isn’t a perfect fit, as there were apparently four times as many “marine biologists” working in 1999 as there are “zoologists and wildlife biologists” working in 2010).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage in 2010 for zoologists and wildlife biologists was $57, 430, and it notes that most of the highest paid jobs are with the Federal government.  This is significantly higher than the $33,840 median salary for all jobs, but a little less than the $58,530 median salary for all life and physical science positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics website doesn’t break down salary by education level, but for reference, the average entry salary for Ph.D.’s in 1999 was $69, 588 in 2012 dollars.

Jobs appear to be relatively scarce. The average rate of job increase for all occupations from 2010-2020 is estimated to be 14%, with a slightly higher 16% increase for all life and physical science positions. The average rate of job increase for the zoologists and wildlife biologists is quite small in comparison- 7%.

It seems like 8th grade me got some good advice in terms of the education and skills I’d need to excel in this field of marine biology, but some really bad advice about future job prospects.