I can’t find a PhD on marine mammals. What now?

Finding a PhD on marine mammals is not an easy task, and not everyone succeeds. But that doesn’t mean your dreams of doing marine mammal research have to come to an end! As someone who has worked on marine mammals, birds, and terrestrial mammals, I give you eight reasons for why doing a PhD on a different system might actually work in your favor:

1 – More flexibility

There are only a handful of universities hosting marine mammal research, but there are hundreds of places to study mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. Choosing a different taxon could give you more options and hence choices for example where you want to live and work for the duration of your PhD. 

PhD on marine mammals - Parrot
Choosing a different taxon could give you more options – Photo credit: Pixabay

2– More output (and faster)

Studying marine mammals can be a loooong business. You will spend many weeks in the field each season, several field seasons per year, and often several years until you have collected enough data to write a publishable paper that actually makes a contribution to science. Many other species work much faster, with shorter generation times, opportunities to have captive as well as wild populations, more options for experimental work, etc, the list goes on. This can lead to you having a better publication record when you finish your PhD, and this is very important for securing a post-doc position.

3 – Less expensive

Marine mammal research is often very expensive. In many cases, there is boat work involved, and funding is notoriously hard to come by. Doing a PhD on terrestrial animals can be much cheaper and therefore make your life as a PhD student a lot easier.

4 – Less competitive

Marine mammal scientists receive hundreds of requests for internships, Masters, and PhD programs each year. Usually, they can only accept one or two. You may find that there is less competition for a PhD in a different area.

5 – You will stand out

During my PhD on Darwin’s finches, I was often worried that potential employers (marine mammal scientists) would look down on me because I didn’t do a PhD with marine mammals. However, my personal experience has been quite the opposite. In many cases, it has set me apart from competitors because my background was more diverse. My employers often found it really interesting that I had worked with other study systems.

6 – It’s not about the species

I used to get upset when people told me that ‘real research’ is not about the species, but about the question. I still don’t fully agree with this statement, but there is some truth to it. Your research should be about answering an important biological question while using the best-suited study system. But I have also been a marine mammal enthusiast from a young age, I understand that everything is more fun when you are passionate about the subject. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t get excited about a really cool study, even though it might be about a different animal. My PhD took me to Galapagos, which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

PhD on marine mammals - Galapagos
‘Real research’ is not about the species, but about the question – Photo credit: Pixabay

7 – Your PhD is a toolbox

My PhD supervisor once told me that a PhD is a toolbox. It should allow you to gather the many different tools you will need during your research career. Knowing I wanted a future studying marine mammals, I made sure that my PhD included behavioral, ecological, acoustic, and genetic components. Expertise in such methods is transferrable, so make sure that you do a PhD in the area of your interest. You can then apply the knowledge and experience you gain to marine mammals in the future.

PhD on marine mammals - Toolbox
My PhD supervisor once told me that a PhD is a toolbox – Photo credit: Pixabay

8 – It can make you a better scientist

Many students working with marine mammals tend to only read marine mammal papers. Because of this, they often struggle to see how their research fits into the bigger picture. This becomes very evident during the writing stage of their PhD, when they need to discuss their findings in the broader context. A PhD outside of the marine mammal world will introduce you to different systems, other methods, and new ideas, and open up your eyes to new ways of thinking

Ok, I will do a PhD outside of marine mammalogy. But how do I stay in touch with the marine mammal community?

1 – Keep up with the literature

Even though you might not be working with marine mammals at this moment, try to keep up with the relevant literature in your field of interest. This will also help you to develop project ideas and find people who work on things you might like.

PhD on marine mammals - Seal
Photo credit: Pixabay

2 – Conferences

Nobody will stop you from going to marine mammal conferences, even though you are not presenting anything. In fact, one of my most enjoyable conferences was one where I did not present my own work. Instead, I checked out what everyone else was doing and talked to lots of people about potential new projects. In many cases, you can even volunteer (I did) and thus won’t have to pay the conference fee.

3 – Volunteer

If you plan well and have good time management, a PhD can actually give you a lot of freedom. If you can, spend a few weeks per year volunteering for research groups working with marine mammals. Showing that you have some practical experience will be beneficial in the future. Also, this is a great way of getting to know future employers!

4 – Network & plan

This links in with conferences and volunteering, but it goes beyond that. While you are doing your PhD in a different field, think about postdoc projects early on and contact the relevant people. Establishing a good collaboration, brainstorming project ideas and writing proposals takes a lot of time. Find out what fellowships and grants you could apply for way in advance (I’m talking years here). Very few research leaders will turn away someone who comes with their own project ideas and funding opportunities.

PhD on marine mammals - Orcas
Killer whales – Photo credit: Pixabay

Check out our other posts on how to become a whale scientist.

Katharina J. Peters is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury, New Zeland, and a research associate at Massey University, New Zealand and the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her research interests lie at the interface of animal behavior, population ecology and evolutionary biology and how to apply this information to better manage the conservation of wild populations and their associated environments. Her current projects focus on population dynamics of Weddell seals in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, reproductive success on bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia, and on the foraging ecology and distribution of odontocetes in New Zealand waters.

2 thoughts on “I can’t find a PhD on marine mammals. What now?”

  1. Good points made, you don’t always get exactly what you want. I am a marine biologist and after a post doc in Sweden and a temporary 3 month job on a Salmon farm in Ireland and working 6 years in a shellfish research Lab in Ireland (with 19 work contracts during the time) I eventually got a permanent job as a lecturer in the Environmental Science Department of an Institute of Technology for 27 years (I retire tomorrow). I covered Marine and Freshwater topics related to monitoring water quality and resource management of Shellfish and general first year biology. I would have preferred a job or research in pure Marine Biology, but was luckier than some of my PhD compatriots, many of whom did not remain in Marine Biology (often could not get the right job). As a student I did summer work on a Marine Station, where as well as doing shore transects, where I learned to Identify all Shore fauna and flora I also showed children and general public the zonation and ecology of the shore life (in Ireland). I also managed to participate in a Monk Seal expedition for 3 Months, involving camping on one of the islands,snorkeling into caves around the Deserta Islands off Madera (Portugal), every day. The weather was very windy and we only could examine on the leeward side of the 3 Islands, for the whole 3 months and only found one seal, proving that the species was rare and endangered! I had several trips on research vessels (British, French and Swedish). In the I was a SCUBA diver for 40 + years becoming an instructor, founding and running several diving clubs. While I was lecturing I separately, of my own initiative performed an outreach program taking primary school children on the seashore during my free time. I just describe all this to show that if you love the Marine environment and Marine Biology, you will nearly always find a way to remain in the field, but you may not be able to get exactly what you want.

    1. Katharina J. Peters

      Exactly right! It’s good to have a broader range of expertise as it makes you more flexible to take available options as they arise. Science is a competitive field, and especially at an early career stage I believe it is good to keep an open mind 🙂

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