The WhaleFest, now an annual feature in Brighton has become two of my favourite days in the calendar. The vision of two men, Ian Rowlands and Dylan Walker, it has now in the space of a few years become the marine wildlife equivalent of the British Bird Watching Fair. It has become a hub for families, wildlife enthusiasts and holiday makers to mix with professional scientists, conservationists, authors, publishers, photographers and tour operators. It is probably the biggest event of its kind in the world. Unlike the ‘Bird Fair’, it is staged as an indoor event. This means in addition to the exhibitor stalls of sellers of holidays and other merchandise, they can have a number of activity areas for children and also make the talks a key feature of the event. Celebrity speakers can be on a stage with an audience of a thousand people whilst in parallel, talks also take place in a science and discovery arena and in a travel talks arena. Anyone with a serious interest in whales and dolphins seems to be at WhaleFest and picking the people they want to listen to.
One of the features which I have participated in during WhaleFest 2014 and WhaleFest 2015 is the Marine Careers Speed Dating. This is another clever feature of this event which allows aspiring biologists and conservationists, to meet a cross section of people with a professional interest (or semi-professional as in my case) in conservation or marine biology. A chance to ask people how they got into it and to ask for some tips.
About 50-70 people get the free tickets for this event at WhaleFest. But I will use this article to share my thoughts with a wider audience. Although my tips below are referenced to careers in biology and conservation, many of the points have a wider generic application.
You must be passionate if you want to go into a career with long hours, difficult conditions and uncertain income, all because you want to make a difference. Let’s take passion as a given. Most potential employers would be looking for someone who reduces their work load not increases it! How can you persuade them that you are ready to hit the ground running?
In some city job interviews, even for some middle to senior roles they ask a candidate to prepare a PowerPoint presentation on a topic of the candidate’s choice. They are evaluating the following.
In short, will you be a useful addition or a burden to an already stretched team?
Demonstrating that you have these skills is not as hard as it may seem. Select a topic in the kind of work you want to do. This could be the management of marine protected areas or social behaviour in cetaceans. Set yourself a target of preparing 5 to 10 slides as a tutorial on key messages on which you want to brief an interested audience. You can keep this in hand (see next point) or upload to something like Google Docs for people to find you online.
Let’s say at WhaleFest, or some other forum or through an introduction, you happen to run into a potential employer.
I doubt if NASA asks anyone of prior astronaut experience before they take someone on to be trained as an astronaut. There are so few opportunities to work as one. It is so expensive to go out to sea, it must be just as hard to find someone aspiring to be a marine biologist who has prior experience that is similar to that of a professional marine biologist or conservationist. Therefore consider acquiring transferable skills on the cheap which show that you can make the switch to being in the marine biology or conservation sphere.
A relevant degree in itself may not be enough. Join a local wildlife trust or society (e.g. If you are a Londoner, join the London Wildlife Trust or London Natural History Society) to participate in field work and a chance to listen to some great speakers who are experienced in science and conservation. The conceptual technical skills you gain in doing a butterfly or bird survey is transferable to marine mammals, but easier and cheaper to acquire. This might be the stepping stone to get a paid or voluntary job in marine science and conservation.
It’s natural to feel shy. It’s generally true that in the UK people will find it uncomfortable if strangers attempt to engage in a conversation. But at events like WhaleFest, people are more accommodating and may positively welcome it. So overcome your shyness and don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation by asking someone what they do. You won’t be worse off than if you did not strike a conversation. Remember conversations lead to opportunities.
So you meet a bunch of useful people and exchange emails etc. How do you keep in touch in a useful and relevant way, but without being a nuisance by sending unwanted emails? There are a few things you can do. Keep a mail group of contacts, loop them in if you see an event or talk that is relevant, or an interesting publication. Maybe once in a while you can write a review on Amazon of a relevant book and share it. If you keep your points of contact relevant and not too frequent, people will remember you and opportunities may arise. You can also use social media where people will pick up on the occasional posting by you without it being a direct email.
Jobs in marine biology are thin on the ground. Have as a back-up plan to get other work if need be. You will get both money and work skills in doing another job until the opportunity works out for your preferred career. And maybe, when you start earning good money, you may find that you prefer steady and good income to the glamour of being a marine biologist.