The marine sciences offer many educational and employment opportunities. But what are the chances of finding a job in your field of choice?
Your ability to land a job in the marine sciences will depend on many factors. And, while some of those factors will be out of your control, it's important to prepare yourself as best you can. Throughout this website, a few key messages were repeated by several of the scientists profiled in their responses to the question about what advice they have to offer. Their advice is based on experience, so you may want to heed their advice as you make important educational and career decisions.
Students interested in pursuing a research career may find opportunities in academia, industry, government, non-profit and non-governmental organizations, consulting firms, and owning their own businesses. Many factors influence job opportunities in these areas, including the economy, funding and distribution of government support. In addition to being good scientists and engineers, today's researchers must also be good writers and speakers. Not only do researchers need to submit proposals to funding sources in an attempt to get financial support for their research, they must also present their results to colleagues, decision-makers, students and funding sources.
Careers in Academia
Within an academic setting, there are basically three possibilities for employment: research and training, teaching and research, and teaching and modest research. Most positions require at least a master's degree, and preference is generally given to those holding a Ph.D.
While a research career at a university (consisting of research and training) was once considered the "traditional" career path for Ph.D. graduates in the marine sciences, changes in the academic world coupled with funding uncertainties have made this path far less predictable. An increasing number of Ph.D. graduates are working in colleges where teaching is the focus of the position and research is secondary or minimal. Such settings include four-year colleges, junior colleges and community colleges.
A study commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found that Ph.D. graduates are finding non-academic jobs more easily than academic research positions. According to the study, that includes jobs in nontraditional occupations -- patent law, science policy and administration, the media, investment firms and novel educational settings. Also noted: a growth of employment in medical research industries including biotechnology, research supplies and pharmaceutical companies.
While academia is still the largest employer for Ph.D. recipients, statistics may be misleading. The NAS study identified a recent trend that may be boosting employment figures for graduates: the "postdoc" or postdoctural position.
Traditionally, a postdoc is the first job taken by a Ph.D. graduate in a research or academic institution. Some graduates find that they have to take back-to-back postdoc positions to stay employed. And postdocs, once seen as a fall-back job, are getting harder to come by.
Careers in Industry
Numerous opportunities for research careers in industry exist within environmental departments and R&D divisions of large corporations. Within industries such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, construction, manufacturing, energy production, and resource exploration and development, scientists and engineers provide important data to company managers. This research can be used to create new products, improve existing products, or discontinue ineffective products.
As a rule, industry tends to be dependent on external factors such as the economy and consumer-driven market demand. Other characteristics of industry research careers are regular hours and the importance of teamwork. Because teamwork is important, communication skills and the ability to relate to and interact with peers are highly valued by employers.
Other opportunities exist in nontraditional private industry, outside the realm of R&D. Insurance companies rely on oceanographers to predict and understand weather-related hazards and natural disasters. Transportation-related industries, such as airlines and shipping companies, also rely on advances in oceanography and engineering -- weather forecasting and navigation technologies, for example -- to run their businesses efficiently and safely.
Careers in Government
As with research jobs in industry, those in government are difficult to generalize. Jobs for scientists and engineers exist in government research labs or departments and in areas such as policy and management. These jobs exist at the federal, state and local levels. With the current push to downsize the federal government, many believe opportunities at the city, local and state government levels will increase, while federal opportunities will decrease.
Being a government scientist differs from being a scientist employed by a university or private research facility. Government scientists perform research that is relevant to the missions of their agencies. While this research may still be in areas of fundamental science, the agency must be able to envision an eventual societal benefit and may sometimes require the individual to direct his or her inquiries in a certain field. In return for this, government scientists are granted certain freedoms, most notably a certainty that they will indeed be employed in research.
Careers in Nonprofit and Non-governmental Organizations
Nonprofit and non-governmental organizations provide additional career options for scientists and engineers, in addition to the many opportunities they offer non-researchers.
Some of these groups are similar to academia in their research-based missions [for example, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the largest independent oceanographic institution in the world, is a private, nonprofit research facility, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is a part-science, part-engineering institute that develops instruments, systems and methods for scientific studies of the deep ocean and specializes in exploration with remotely operated vehicles]. Other nonprofit organizations concentrate more on environmental advocacy (well-known examples include the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Foundation, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club).
A non-governmental organization (NGO) is generally defined as a nonprofit group or association organized outside of institutionalized political structures. Many NGOs have social objectives, while others serve particular constituencies. NGO activities range from research, information distribution, training, local organization and community service to legal advocacy and lobbying for legislative change. NGOs range in size from small community groups to huge organizations with national or international memberships.
Because there are so many nonprofit and non-governmental organizations, there are many choices in terms of specialty area, size and geographic location. A concern for many in these sectors is funding pressure and competition, the relatively small number of pure research positions available, and the salaries, which tend to be lower than in industry or academia.
Careers in Consulting Firms or Private Enterprise
Environmental consulting is another career option for research scientists. Consulting companies range in size and scope from large, international multi-specialty firms to small companies specializing in one field. Consulting careers have offered researchers many opportunities in the past. Whether or not this trend will continue is hard to predict. The field is highly competitive and, as such, often requires competent presentation skills. Keep in mind that most consultants have prior experience in some aspect of research or teaching before venturing out on their own or joining a consulting firm.
An increasingly attractive option for many scientists and engineers is starting a business. This allows for flexibility and may be a way to combine a part-time teaching position with independent research and "research for hire." On the down-side, one should be willing to put in long hours and a fair amount of unpaid work in order to get established.
A research career is certainly not the only option for students interested in the exciting field of marine science. In fact, the possibilities for a non-research career are as varied as one's desires and imagination.
Changes in the economy and politics can impact non-research marine careers in much the same way they impact the research community. A common example is federal support for education, which, in times of budget cuts, generally translates to cuts at the state and local levels. Eventually, federal budget cuts reach the small, community-based programs such as after-school science clubs, science museums and nature facilities as well as educational programming on science or the environment.
With projections for the U.S. labor market favoring the information, service and technology sectors, what will this mean for students interested in a marine-related career? For one thing, more opportunities in the information and mass communication sectors seem likely, as do opportunities in marine industries, such as marine electronics, aquaculture, environmentally based recreation and tourism, engineering, hydro-geology, water quality management, and environmental education and communication.