Marine Science Maestro: Part 2

Life Science Graduate Student : Careerfinder Program : Career Change to Marine Biology Research

September 2011

Dear Anthony,

You’ll be glad to know that I have made a lot of progress in my career planning/exploring since we spoke by phone back in July. You may remember that I had a few career options that I wanted to investigate further: biologist/scientist, marine conservationist, scientific advisor-consultant, and science writer.

I agree with you that there are three primary things that motivate me:

  1. to try and understand the world around me = researcher/scientist,
  2. to solve problems, think creatively and strategically, and to apply my expertise in a some way = consultant-adviser and scientist, and
  3. some type of self-expression that enables me to pass along what I know to other people so they can benefit (mainly through writing and education).

After some preliminary research, I struggled to narrow these options because I liked certain facets of all of these careers. Then it dawned on me that I might be able to combine these roles into one wonderful careerÖa primary role with some smaller, supporting ones.

What would my roles be? 

So far, this has been the easy part: scientist, some kind of education work (public/informal or higher education), advisor-consultant, writer/author.

My primary role: I think it will be that of some kind of researcher — likely working as an academic or with a research/university-affiliated institution. If a research career related to marine biology doesn’t work out, I could potentially see myself in other “research roles”… there are even people who “do research on scientific research.” Other scientists become “desk scientists” where they synthesize and interpret scientific research, but I think I would be happier if I was doing original research . . . chasing novel questions/problems. I also think that I will want a fairly large amount of control over what topics I study — either as an independent researcher or working with other organizations whose interests closely align with my own.

A position as a professor might be a good fit for me. I am very passionate about marine biology and student education, but I need to talk to more faculty to learn how much the “teaching-advising” component can be customized. Large lecture classes would probably be more draining on me, but I might do fine with smaller, discussion-based classes or overseeing courses where I could do some one-on-one student projects. I might also be able to contribute by doing some undergraduate or graduate student advising/career planning after going through the process, myself, I think I would be good at that. Of course, the other critical component to the “academic scientist bargain” is supervising a lab of graduate students and/or undergraduate volunteers. Right now, I am having a hard time seeing myself in this leadership-people management role. While I am trying not to eliminate any scientist-career path yet, this is one of my major reservations about pursuing a career as an academic scientist. Other people don’t seem to perceive this as much of a concern as I do, but knowing myself as well as I do, I don’t think it is something to be taken lightly.

My other roles: While I do not have a business bone in my body, being some sort of scientific consultant-adviser on creative projects in science education or entertainment would be very interesting and help to satisfy those “need to apply and share what I know” and artistic tendencies that I sometimes feel. Some academics periodically consult, without the requirements of having to run a business. My former Master’s advisor says his involvement in consulting is increasing. I also think that there will always be ways for me to also satisfy any writing urges I get — through society newsletters and publications, writing articles or book reviews about nature/animals/science, or even writing a book down the road. Writing career advice/development articles for students or spending time as a writing tutor might also be interesting.

Last weekend, I had a very nice, open conversation with my Master’s adviser about all of this. He’s a very sharp fellow, thinks and explains his thoughts very clearly, and has a great perspective to share. It was funny how many of the themes that you and I talked about also came up during this chat. Included among them were themes of creative thinking, ability to synthesize and draw on multiple fields, and the literalism that is necessary in science but can get in the way of “out-of-the-box” thinking.

My adviser said that the career roles I was describing to him sounded like “bush-wacking” — very much the notion of customizing a career — and that, in this day and age, that might be a good idea perhaps a very good idea. According to him, the PhD route is for people who like the creative part of science and who want a large amount of freedom in their research. After a couple of days to think this over, I explained to him that this sounded a lot like me and that I thought I would have more options with a PhD. He has never pressured me to follow a certain career path, but – as you also pointed out – he said that, in many ways, I am the quintessential “scientist.” I think most people who “get me” already knew that a PhD is the next step on my career journey — I just had to be ready to admit it to myself (and other people).

The next big question: 

If I go the research scientist route and I have control over what topics I research, what would I study as a scientist? 

This has been harder to pin down . . . I feel that I need to get a good sense of this in order to “set myself up for success” as a scientist and to choose a good PhD program/adviser.

In terms of your Major Aptitude Profiles, you said that I fit well into the Life Science AND Social Science-Humanities Profiles. At first, I didn’t realize the depth of this observation. Sure, I am interested in the behavior of animals as well as humans, but aren’t most people? A long story made shorter: I think you were right, Anthony — I am very interested in why animals and people do what they do — the underlying motivations for their behavior, why people think the way they do. I just have never thought of doing research in the realm of human psychology until now — but I have been trying to understand those different perspectives since I was young. You said it — multi-/interdisciplinary.

You should also know that I also shared my new multidisciplinary interests with my former Master’s adviser, and as I expected, he was very open to my thoughts and gave me some examples of how my interests apply to problems in fisheries management today. In his deep and unassuming way, he also told me that he thinks I have the cognitive ability to tap into fields “outside my comfort zone.” That was big for me — to know that other scientists perceive me as having those creative and integrative tendencies that are crucial to multidisciplinary research.

His final thought: At some point, I’ll just have to trust that it’ll work out. Although taking big risks can be challenging for the strategic planner in me, I’m starting to see the sense in this attitude. Following my curiosity and what I love have gotten me this far, and if I can make a living out my interests and desire to tackle juicy scientific questions, well, that might make for a pretty special future. We’ll see what happens next. Thanks again for your help and taking so much time to reflect on my situation.

Marine biologist
P.S. My first scientific paper was just accepted for publication – a major milestone!

——————Kate’s Breakthroughs——————–


In my readings and talking with people over the last few weeks, I feel like I have made a few breakthroughs about scientists and my personality — perhaps these thoughts might be helpful in your career coaching someday.

I think I understand how my love of learning and ability to draw on multiple fields fits with my love of language, quotations, movie dialogue, new ideas, etc — it’s the power of analogy— relating new learning and domains/disciplines to one’s current knowledge or problems to be solved. Finding beauty in the commonalities. This hunch was confirmed in a book I was reading about the “psychology of science” and I have also realized how much my former graduate adviser uses this technique to communicate with people. I was aware of it on some level, before, but he does it in such a natural way that I don’t think I was fully aware, before I was actively listening for it.

Second, for introverted people like myself, who see themselves as private and needing a lot of quiet time and space, well, it’s not just that we need personal freedom. We need mental freedom, too. Freedom for the mind to wander, explore, and fit new thoughts into our past experience. It sounds odd, but we feel imposed upon by too much external stimuli because our cognitive capacity gets used up by all the sensory information streaming in. When we don’t have the opportunity to reflect and integrate, we seek out time and space to preserve the “autonomy of the mind.”

With much gratitude,


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