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How to apply for a job working with sharks

A few weeks ago, I listed several common mistakes that people make when applying for a job in the field of shark science. This led to a lot of laughs and commiseration. It also led to a series of e-mails asking me how to apply for a shark science job.  These e-mails came from people in various stages of their lives, all the way from children to adults who already have another career. Since I had some laughs at the expense of people who apply for jobs incorrectly, it seems only fair that I offer my advice on how to do it correctly.

This photo of me with a sandbar shark was taken while working for the South Carolina coastal shark survey

It is important to note that I am describing the path that worked for me. There are many other paths, though there are likely lots of similarities with mine. Some may seem pretty straightforward, but what seems obvious to some can be a life-changing revelation for others. Most are applicable to science in general and not just sharks. Similar advice can be found on this excellent website from the Love lab.

If you are in middle school/high school:

Study hard and get good grades, particularly in math and science courses. Writing and communication skills are also extremely important, as is computer literacy (i.e. typing, Microsoft office or equivalent).

Some summer programs exist for those interested in marine biology, and I recommend trying to participate in some. Personally, I attended SeaCamp in the Florida Keys for five years, and took a class through the Sea Education Association.  These programs can give you some great experiences, and while they can be expensive, many offer scholarships.

Depending on where you live, there may also be free opportunities, such as volunteering at a local aquarium or laboratory.

You can also learn a lot about marine biology from books, documentaries and nature channel specials, and even some video games (i.e. Endless Ocean). In many cases, these resources can be extremely helpful. For example, about half of my examples on the essay portion of the AP Biology test came from National Geographic Explorer episodes and were never covered in class. Also, I aced the AP European History exam despite never opening a book because I played Civilization 2– not science, but you get the idea.

SCUBA diving, though expensive, is a great way to experience the natural beauty of the oceans. If possible, I recommend getting certified. Some colleges offer SCUBA certification programs as PE courses if it isn’t an option where you are now.

If you are applying to college:

Find a school that has a marine biology program (believe it or not, that isn’t strictly necessary- many of my colleagues studied “regular” biology and did their undergraduate research on terrestrial systems before switching over to the sharky side of things). Personally, though my major at Duke was Biology, I spent a semester and a summer at the Duke Marine Lab and I studied abroad on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Undergraduate research opportunities are arguably more important than classwork. Ask about them when you are touring and applying colleges. Even if you are at a school that doesn’t have undergraduate research opportunities, you can still apply for summer research programs (like the Research Experience for Undergraduates). I can’t emphasize this enough- if you want to get into a competitive science graduate school program, you’re going to need some research experience.

Though you may get ten opinions if you ask ten people, it’s probably fair to say that someone who excelled in science classes and has lots of research experience at a second-tier school is more likely to get a job (or a graduate school position) than someone who was mediocre academically and has little research experience at a top-tier school.

The Love Lab’s website points out something extremely important.

“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.”

If you are in college:

Once again, study hard and get good grades in math and science classes. Learn how to write, communicate, and use basic computer software.

Once again, research experience is extremely important. You’re probably not going to be able to get a high-paying lab assistant job as an undergraduate, but many labs will give you great experiences that will help you later on. Many schools offer “independent study” as well. Summers can be used for this purpose as well, through programs like the REU mentioned above or directly through labs.

Get to know your professors. This won’t always be possible (such as in a 500 person introductory chemistry lecture), but these are your future colleagues. They are the people who will write you letters of recommendation, which are more effective if they come from people who actually know you. They are the people who can offer you research experience in their labs, or in the lab of a friend of theirs.

Attend conferences. This is something I wish I had known about when I was an undergraduate. Conferences are a great way to meet the leaders of your field, as well as a great way to learn about current research. They can help you narrow down your research interests. For example, if you tell me you want to work with “sharks”, it tells me that you haven’t thought about your future career very much, but if you tell me you want to study the population genetics of endangered whale sharks, I’d know just who to tell you to contact. Also, most professional societies go out of their way to welcome and orient undergraduates who have never been to a conference before. Many have travel scholarships, almost all have room-share bulletin boards to save money, and all have cheaper registration fees for students.

Applying to graduate school

Applying to grad school is very different from applying to an undergraduate college or university. Basically, you’re applying to work with a person and not applying to a school, kind of like a medieval apprenticeship. You should identify a list of potential advisers far in advance of applying. You can find these at conferences, by asking a colleague, or by reading scientific papers.

Once you have identified a potential adviser, you need to speak with them about what opportunities exist in their lab (ideally in person, but over the phone works, too. E-mail is not ideal). Tell them about your background and interests, and ask about theirs. Plan a possible project. Repeat with several potential advisers, and then fill out your applications to all of those programs.

Applying for a job after you have a graduate degree

I’m not there yet, but if anyone has any advice, I’d love to hear it…

Getting into the world of sharks later in life

If you are already done with college and didn’t major in science, it’ll be a lot harder to get into the field of shark biology. However, some opportunities may still exist. You can get a crash course in field skills by volunteering for a shark survey, and many field research programs need non-scientist assistants to help run the boats. Similar opportunities may exist for lab work.

In conclusion

Once again, this advice comes from my own life experience and is far from universal. You would do well to seek advice from multiple sources before making major life decisions. I hope that you find it useful, because sharks can use all the help they can get!

Please let me know if you have any questions. I’ll ask some of my fellow shark scientists to join in the discussion as well.