The world of whale science is broad and can seem overwhelming sometimes – there are so many different options you can focus on. Truth is: you can study behavior, diet, communication, microbiomes, evolution, health, migration, reproduction, acoustics, metabolism, pathology, and so much more. Every whale scientist has their own specific niche, just like the marine mammal species we find in our oceans. The choices can seem endless, and this field is one of the most competitive out there. On top of being dedicated and passionate, you need to work hard to discover exactly where you want to fit in whale science. There is an infinity of ways to get there, and hopefully these tips will help you navigate your own journey!
1 – Start Early
You can never start your experience on this path early enough. If you are able to volunteer or intern at a handful of different places, you’ll understand what parts of the field you most enjoy and the associated expectations with each one. Opportunities working with whales don’t come by often, so when they do it’s important that you take initiative and do the best you possibly can. With experience, you’ll gain better clarity as to what type of whale science niche you see yourself in. Join the MARMAM email list to hear about opportunities!
2 – Use your resources
Your professors, supervisors, and advisors have been down their own path to reach their positions. They have a wealth of knowledge, even if it’s just sharing their path to how they found their own niche. So ask the researcher you admire to coffee (virtually!) and pick their brain. Their story may give you insight to your own and who knows, they may even become a mentor or a friend. You can also read our whale scientists stories to get a blog version of different early career scientists paths.
3 – Build bridges, never burn them
It’s a small field, smaller than you could ever imagine. Everyone knows each other, even across oceans and countries, and they will call up an old colleague for a reference. This is why it’s so important to go above and beyond in all of the work you do and build healthy relationships within the field. Collaboration is a significant part of pursuing a career in whale science, and it’s essential you can work well with others. Your network may be how you get your first job, how you decide on graduate school, or just an opportunity to grow as a scientist.
4 – Be realistic
Recognizing what skills and interests you have early will save you a lot of time and help you narrow down what you can see yourself doing long-term. For example, research requires an enormous commitment to statistical analysis and data management, but also literature reviews. It’s important to know that some months, you may spend 80% of the time on a computer. Make sure you’ve read about common misconceptions in aspiring whale scientists. Recognizing your strengths and weaknesses will help to understand what type of position you want in the end. For example, some people can never beat sea-sickness. It is quite alright, but they might not want to go into a field-heavy type of career, where you spend long hours of boats in all kinds of conditions.
5 – Commit for the long-haul
Being a whale scientist doesn’t happen overnight. It’s quite the opposite actually. This career has a very long time commitment compared to other fields, and you will encounter challenges along the way. You may find yourself in school for over 10 years! However, these years will teach you invaluable lessons on what you love, what you hate, and exactly why you want to study whales.
Like I said at the beginning, the options within whale science can seem endless and impossible to choose from. Each researcher is discovering their own special contribution to our understanding of whales, and paving the way with more questions for more scientists to eventually answer. Discovering your place in it all can be the best part!
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I'm a conservation communicator based in Hawaii with a passion for whales, sustainability, and empowering everyone to make change for our oceans. My technical background in marine mammals spans stranding response, education and outreach, field work, and rescue interventions for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and numerous cetacean species found in Hawaiian waters.