So, You Wanna Be a Shark Biologist
I receive queries about how to become a shark biologist at least a dozen times a month. The assumption seems to be that, since I am out there doing it and apparently quite successful at it, I must know "the secret".
I am a little uneasy about answering questions about how to become a shark biologist. This is in part because I get the distinct impression that most question askers have a somewhat glorified or idealized perception of what shark research entails and partly because I'm not sure that how I got where I am is a reliable path to recommend others to follow. My own path has been a strange mix of very traditional and highly unorthodox steps, requiring equal parts perseverance, hard work, and sheer luck.
About half of all queries about breaking into shark research ask specifically how to get be a Great White researcher. These make me very nervous. Sure, working with White Sharks is really neat, but setting out to be among the very, very few to study these rare and elusive creatures as a full-time career is a bit like setting out to become an astronaut. Frankly, you have a significantly better chance of becoming head of a Fortune 500 corporation than you have of becoming a full-time White Shark researcher.
For those of you who are unwavering in your certainty that shark research is what you really want to pursue as a career, I offer the following advice based on my own experience as well as that of many of my colleagues. It is offered in good faith and to the best of my abilities. But I cannot guarantee that if you follow my advice you absolutely, positively will end up a shark biologist.
Your best strategy is probably to blend my advice with that of your parents, professors, and friends and — above all — trust your instincts to help you find your own path … just as I have done.
Shark Research as a Career
Shark research isn't as glamorous as many people imagine. Sure, when working with these animals in the wild, there are moments of startling discovery and high adventure. But, for the most part, shark research is like any other job: mostly hard work and drudgery. For each moment of you get to examine rare specimens, conduct experiments in the lab, or observe sharks in the wild, you have to invest hundreds or thousands of hours in teaching, crunching numbers, writing reports, obtaining permits, and begging for funding or equipment (or both). Done properly, dissections are not a lot of fun; each is a slow, painstaking, smelly affair that can take days of concentrated effort; you'll need to do dozens or hundreds of dissections to obtain both a good understanding of biological variation and publishable results. Lab work is meticulous and highly repetitive, often frustrated by equipment that won't work or samples that have become contaminated somehow or are otherwise useless. Being out in the field can be uncomfortable and loaded with frustrations: often the weather won't cooperate, your equipment doesn't work, or the sharks simply are nowhere to be found; learning something new and significant about shark behavior or ecology can take years or decades. No matter how you go about it, shark research is very difficult to break into and there are no short cuts — it takes many years of dedication, persistence, hard work, and luck, and even then there are no guarantees.
Despite technological advances that open new ways to explore and study the natural world, studying sharks is tougher than ever before. Many shark populations have been reduced to a fraction of their historical abundance, making it increasingly difficult to find enough individuals on which to base a good, statistically sound study. Government funding available to support pure research is decreasing and the number of qualified scientists clamoring for their share of those funds is increasing rapidly. Consequently, competition for research funding is much more intense than ever before. Most funding for shark research is poured into collecting basic data needed to manage commercially exploited species, with precious little remaining to support other shark studies.
Shark research is expensive and few things are harder to do than to get someone else to pay to satisfy your curiosity. In many cases, officials in charge or granting funding for scientific research do not understand the science a fraction as well as the applicant, so the onus is on him or her to explain convincingly why a proposed line of research is significant, what results can be expected, why this knowledge is important, how much it will cost, and — above all else — why it is worthy of their financial support. It is therefore not enough to know your field and be able to explain it clearly but also to be able to pitch a proposed line of research with all the skill of a top-ranking salesperson. This is much easier said than done and competition for an ever-shrinking pool of research funding becomes more intense with each passing year. There are a growing number of ways to fund many types of grass-roots research privately and thereby circumvent the whole grant proposal obstacle course, but doing so to the extent of being able to produce publishable results is very, very difficult. As I said: shark research is expensive.
Publishing the results of research is how a shark biologist advances his or her career. This requires a whole different set of skills. First and foremost of these is the ability to organize raw data into a standardized format followed by scientific journals. This format usually breaks down into four main parts, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Introduction describes how your work fits into the existing body of knowledge in the scientific literature, Methods explains how you carried out your research, Results reveals what data those methods yielded, and Discussion examines weaknesses in your methods and/or results, how your results add to the previously published body of work, draws conclusions, and makes recommendations for future work in the relevant field. Central to organizing raw data for publication are the abilities to analyze the results using appropriate statistical methodology and to write clearly without digression or excessive verbiage.
Once a paper has been written, it is submitted to the editor of a suitable scientific journal for peer review. Peer review asks established researchers in the relevant field to critically but anonymously examine each submitted paper to ensure it meets exacting standards demanded for publication in the professional literature, identify flaws, make suggestions, and — ultimately — recommend a paper be accepted or rejected by the editor. Next the author of the paper modifies it as suggested by the reviewers and resubmits it, where — pending final approval of the journal editor, receipt of page fees (yes, scientists must pay to have their work published in professional journals), and availability of space — it will be published a year or so later. The whole process, from initial submission to publication, takes two to three years. The main benefit of this long, complex process is that most substandard or sloppy work does not find its way into the scientific literature.
There are many different scientific journals, each with its own emphasis and there is an unfortunate tendency among some shark researchers to spin out one piece of research into several publications. This is good for their careers because it makes them seem highly productive (granting committees find it much easier to count an applicant's number of publications than to evaluate the validity and importance of each one), but it is bad for the scientific community as a whole because it artificially fluffs out an already burgeoning literature. Ideally, when a researcher is ready to publish, he or she should report the most significant findings from a particular line of research as fully and concisely as possible, then move on to the next research project.
Then there's the human side of things. As in every other job, there is dirty politics, cut-throat competition, roaring egos, rampant jealousy, nasty or unfounded rumors, petty grudges, character assassinations, betrayals of trust, theft of work or credit, and other perils of dealing with people. Don't get me wrong, there are also unexpected kindnesses, incredible generosities, mutually beneficial alliances and collaborations, and sometimes deep friendships to distil out of working with other people. But often you never know who's going to do what until after they've done it and it seems that unpleasant surprises are far more common than pleasant ones. Such are the problems inherent to working with others' ambitions and insecurities. The problems seem to intensify in high-profile matters, such as those concerning White Sharks or shark attacks.
There are plenty of ethical, meticulous, hard working, thoroughly wonderful people working in shark research who do what they because they love it. But, far too often, the work of these dedicated scientists seems to be overwhelmed in the public eye by relatively few self-styled shark researchers who are unethical, methodologically sloppy, thoroughly untrustworthy ratbags and posers who care nothing for the ideals and practices of Science but do what they do because they want attention and adulation. Ratbags are often skilled politicians and can be tough to identify until after they've shown their true motives. Fortunately, posers are often easy to spot: they vigorously seek out media exposure, toss around a lot of scientific-sounding terminology, criticize everyone else's work, and do not publish in the scientific literature. It is important to avoid ratbags and posers because, in shark research (as in many other fields), the quality of one's work is often at least as important as with whom he or she associates.
What Courses Should You Take?
The safest, most tried-and-true strategy you can follow is to obtain a graduate degree (a Masters or, preferably, a Doctorate) from an accredited post-secondary institution in marine biology, biological oceanography, ecology, zoology, ichthyology, or some other biology-related discipline, such as genetics or physiology. Earn good grades in high school so you can get into the most prestigious university possible — not only will this expose you to some of the very finest educational opportunities but it will give you a competitive advantage over those from less prestigious universities (it's sad but true: from which university you graduate is often more important than what your final grades were).
If you're still in high school, take advantage of every opportunity to swot up on biology, chemistry, physics, maths, writing, and at least one foreign language. Of these maths are the most important, especially statistics. There's no getting around it: mathematics is the language of Science and those who are not fluent are relegated to the realm of scientific tourists and dilettantes. A solid grounding in biology, chemistry, and physics will certainly hold you in good stead during your advanced education in university. Because writing is the main way you will advance your career, it is important you learn to write clearly and concisely — and the best way to do that is by writing a great deal and striving to improve your writing at every opportunity. Lastly, take at least one foreign language, as many graduate degree programs have a language requirement — if you can get a 'leg up' now, you'll have more time available to concentrate on your other courses later.
Once you get to university, the courses you take during first two years or so of an honors science degree are largely dictated by the department or faculty (so-called "required" courses). Following long-established tradition, most scientific training follows a "bottom-up" approach: students gain a broad familiarity with the basics (calculus, cytology, biochemistry, physiology, etc.), then advance to more specialized courses (oceanography, invertebrate zoology, ecology, ethology, etc.). If you make it through the first two years of your degree program, your course options widen somewhat (in the form of "elective" courses). For your electives, rather than take what seem 'easy' courses, seize opportunity to broaden and deepen your mathematical competence by taking as many statistics and mathematical modeling courses as you can. And don't forget to take a foreign language. Some undergraduate science programs afford opportunities to carry out a relatively simple, short-term research project (in which you will design, conduct, and write up an original investigation into some aspect of your major area of interest). Everything you can do to broaden or enrich your education as an undergraduate student will hold you in good stead in graduate school.
Once you get to graduate school, your classwork will consist of advanced and highly specialized courses. Most importantly, with the help of your graduate advisor and thesis committee, you will have opportunity to design, conduct, and write up an original piece of research, hopefully in an area of particular interest to you. This research will form your "thesis", which — again, with the help of your graduate advisor and thesis committee — you should make every effort to adapt for publication in the scientific literature. Once you have completed your graduate degree requirements and been awarded your degree, you may have opportunity to work under an established researcher in your chosen field as a "post-doctoral student". It is during this period that you will learn the nuts-and-bolts of being a professional scientist, including such things as charting a career for yourself, grant proposal writing, writing for publication in professional journals, running a laboratory or research facility, and supervising students of your own.
Many people complete their graduate degrees at the same university where they completed their undergraduate training. But I would advise against this. Learn everything you can from everyone you can at your undergraduate school, then move on. When you settle on a graduate school, repeat the process. This will not only broaden your education but also your list of contacts, many of whom can help you further your scientific career.
Where You Should Study?
Fundamentally, people do research, not institutions. First, familiarize yourself with as much of the scientific literature on sharks as you can and identify in which field would most like to work. Then, of the current material (say, that published within the last five years or so), decide whose work you most admire. Contact them and ask their advice about where you should study, who are some of the other current workers in their field, and whether or not they or any of their colleagues are accepting students at your level of study. Their advice on where to study and under whom will be far more accurate and up-to-date than anything I could provide here. If no one is currently doing the sort of work you want to do with sharks, try searching the general ichthyology or zoology literature for anyone doing related work on other taxa and contact them.
If You're Really, Really Sure
There is no one path to get to be a full-time shark researcher. The safest, most tried-and-true strategy is the traditional academic route outlined above. There are alternative, non-traditional ways to break into shark research — such as through aquarium husbandry, documentary film-making, and eco-tourism — but realize that they are riskier and may ultimately take longer because, in addition to conducting and writing up original research in your "spare" time, you also have to earn sufficient living to support yourself and your research. If you opt for a non-traditional route, be aware that you will have to work extra hard and produce exceptionally good work or you may not be taken seriously by established shark biologists. Academic clubbiness, deep insecurities, and petty jealousies may prevent some workers from ever accepting the validity of your research, no matter how methodologically sound it is. In the end, it seems unwise and ultimately pointless to dedicate your life to a field of endeavor simply to earn the respect or admiration of others. The best, perhaps only, legitimate reason for dedicating your life to a given pursuit is because you enjoy it.
No matter which route you go, breaking into shark biology as a career is very difficult. It will take all the persistence, dedication, and hard work you can muster and still you might never make it. Competition will be intense and your path will be rife with both obstacles and opportunities. Recognize which are which and rise to the challenge. But, if you persist, you just might be among the very few who study and work with sharks on a full-time basis.
I have tried to paint an accurate, pull-no-punches picture of what's involved in breaking into shark biology. Much of the foregoing may seem utterly discouraging. Some readers may have decided that shark research is really not for them after all. Others, despite the foregoing, are as sure as they ever were that working with sharks is what they really want to do and no other career is a viable option for them. As for myself, I've known I wanted to study sharks since early childhood and, if anything, my fascination with these creatures has only increased. I still struggle with problems imposed by too much academic politics and too little funding. But, for me, the challenges and sacrifices are well worth it. I love my work and I cannot imagine doing anything else.
Whatever you decide to do with your life, I wish you the very best of professional success and personal fulfillment.