Great! Sharks are cool. I get a lot of questions about starting off in shark science, so here are some thoughts on the matter. I’ll update and expand on these responses on an ongoing basis. Hopefully, these tips will be broadly relevant to anyone wanting to be a field biologist…
What should you study at school?
Sciences are, of course, required. Biology in particular. Statistics, or general mathematics, are also extremely useful. Don’t neglect writing, either. Scientists are effectively professional writers. Learn to write well.
What should you study as an undergraduate?
Almost any biological or environmental major is okay. It doesn’t have to specifically be marine biology. I studied ecology, and barely did any marine courses (they weren’t offered at my university at the time). I had a lot to learn when I switched to studying sharks, but learning is fun.
Where should you go to university / college?
Anywhere with a good program. If you know you want to study sharks (or insert any other animal here), then ideally you would choose a university that has academics or students that are studying sharks. That will give you the most relevant project / volunteering experience, and there is likely to be more shark-related material in lectures.
Should you do a postgraduate degree?
If you actually want to work as a scientist, yes. You will need a postgraduate degree. Be aware that undergraduate study helps a lot of people realise that they *don’t* want to be a scientist. That’s not a problem. There are lots of great career paths that don’t require a postgraduate degree.
In New Zealand / Australia, where I studied, if you want to do a PhD then a good Honours degree is a short-cut to entry. If people want to work in more applied science, such as conservation management, many opt for specialised Masters courses that focus on their specific interest.
In the US / UK, to do a PhD you typically do a Masters first. I imagine that if you can pick a Masters project that will give you the background required for a PhD, in terms of subject matter or skill set, it would be a good move.
How do you find a supervisor / project?
There are two basic means of finding a project. Either find an academic you would like to work with, and discuss potential projects with them, or develop a project outline and find an academic with similar research interests.
Choosing the right supervisor is important. If they already have a few students, see if you can have a quick (postgrads are busy) chat with one of them about what it is like to be part of that lab. Maybe offer to buy them a coffee. Postgrads often drink a lot of coffee.
This should be a really obvious thing to say, but you also need to develop a practical project. If there’s a project that fits in well with what the lab is already doing, there is funding available, and you have or can quickly learn the skills required, life will probably be a lot less stressful.
Part of this equation is being the student that academics want to work with. Get experience. Have great references. Work hard.
How do you get experience, and a job?
Many (probably most) shark scientists have done some voluntary work before, during or after their postgraduate studies. It’s a great way to build contacts in the field, develop relevant experience and skills, and decide what you would specifically like to do.
There are few paid shark science jobs advertised. Most will go to people who are already familiar with that organisation, or to at least some of the people that work there.
Can you recommend any good volunteer programs / internships / organisations that may host a student project?
I’m going to stick to organisations that I know well here. If you would like to learn to dive and basic field research techniques, you may be interested in our research experience in Mozambique, Underwater Africa. If you’re sure you want to be a shark scientist, and want specific experience, try the Large Marine Vertebrates Project in the Philippines or the South African Shark Conservancy in Hermanus, South Africa.
But nobody will reply to my emails!
Read this. Be very aware that if you’re asking for a student project, internship, or even a voluntary position, these are often extremely competitive. Do your homework before even thinking about getting in touch, be literate, and be considerate of your recipient’s time.
Brutal truth here: you are being judged on first impressions.
Also, everyone is very busy, and they simply may not have read it, or had a chance to respond yet. Being gently persistent is a useful life skill… but ensure you’ve covered all of the bases above first!