Advice For Students

People often reach out and ask questions including:
  • I am a high-school student, can I do research in your lab?
  • I am an ASU undergraduate, can I work with you to gain research experience?
  • I am looking for graduate schools, are you taking students?
  • I want to enter a career in marine biology / biosciences / research, what should I do to prepare?
  • Will you write me a letter of recommendation?
If you have questions like these, I hope you will read on!

How can I work in your (or other faculty's) lab?

If you want to gain research experience, yay! Welcome! It is really best if you have a few years of experience, so that you can learn the laboratory basics, apply them, and works towards asking and answering your own questions. If it is your Senior year in college and you are just now getting to this step, don't despair. There are still opportunities out there. But, if you are a freshman or sophomore, once you have taken the first year Biology sequence, you really are ready to start looking for opportunities. Don't be afraid to start reaching out.

How do you find someone to work with? If you found your way here, you are already doing great! You want to peruse the list of faculty in the department that interests you (our list is here), and write to them. Introduce yourself, and your experience so far. Make sure you know a little about them and what they do, and let them know why you are interested in working with them. This doesn't have to be long. But, a form letter to every person you are interested in also probably won't work well. Check out their webpage, their directory information, and their publications to learn more about them.

If you are worried about being able to work independently in the lab, don't. We expect to train you. We just want you to be reliable, and willing to do work that is hard, and sometimes unrewarding (as that is real science), and open to learning new things. You don't have to know everything, but you do have to be willing to try. Failure is a part of science, and we expect it. But, if you can communicate well, you really have the main skill that you need already.

If you are still in high-school, and are looking for a research experience or internship, this is possible. The main limitation for high school students is the time that they are available to come to the lab to do work (usually this is in the evenings, when faculty may not be in the lab themselves as they have been there all day already), and the safety training that is required (there is a series of courses that must be completed). However, we have made it work in some cases, and I am certainly open to figuring it out when we can!

If you are a student looking for graduate programs, a lot of this same advice applies. Find someone you want to work with. This is more important than where they work, and what university you will get your degree from. You will work with this person for 4-6 years, if its a PhD, and you want to really like them. You will have a relationship with this person. A professional one, but a relationship nonetheless. Make sure you feel like you can work with this person for the half-decade that you are going to be together.

Where should I go to school to prepare for a career in Marine Biology?

The decision of 'where' depends on what you want to do exactly.

What kinds of jobs are there? There are paid jobs as aquarists and researchers behind the scenes at public aquaria (like the Monterey Bay Aquarium or even Sea World); these folks study a variety of things but often their research centers on the basic biology of organisms that the facility would like to breed, raise, and/or display. There are hoards of volunteers willing to work for free in the lower positions so the upper ones have become highly competitive. You may need to volunteer for a while and you may even need to get a Master's degree to get in the door.

There are jobs with management agencies, such as the National Biological Survey, the National Parks Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service or the Department of Fish and Game / Game and Fish (depending on where you live), all of which deal with species protection and management. A Master's degree can get you a higher-ranking job with better pay and more control over the work you do, there are also some PhD level jobs. Mostly these are jobs that focus on the management of marine resources. The higher your degree, the more you get to design the research that you do, generally speaking.

There are some areas of scientific consulting that now focus on the environment. Such firms write proposals and get contracts from the government and private firms, usually to study the impact of something on the environment, such as deepening a harbor channel or building a freeway through a marsh. You can land these positions with a Bachelor's degree, often a graduate degree will help, particularly if you want to lead the research. Some folks start with a bachelors, work for a few years, and then go back to grad school.

If research specifically is the angle of interest, then you really do need a graduate degree. This path traditionally takes you towards a job in academia (teaching and doing research in the university laboratory environment), but more and more sorts of jobs are being pursued by people with PhDs. Non-traditional routes include taking your PhD and starting your own consulting firm or going into upper level-management (like becoming a science advisor for high ranking political offices) and so on.

There are few schools that have actual majors in Marine Biology. The field is frequently considered too narrow a field for undergrads to declare as a major. Therefore, the best recommendation is to go to a school that has a very good basic Biology program. Take all the math and calculus and physics and all that hard stuff, don't short cut. If you get a solid background, you can go anywhere. Remember: specific experience with particular organisms can be acquired on the job; microbiology, however, typically cannot be learned on the job. And, this route gives you time to define your particular interest without limiting yourself. While most schools don’t have Marine Science degrees, many have courses and concentrations available in these areas. Pick a program that has faculty working on marine organisms or projects that interest you. Volunteer with faculty doing research, even grunt work, for a year or more if you can manage it financially. Such research experience may be the single most important factor in obtaining a job in Marine Biology.

Keep in mind that many, perhaps even most, careers in marine biology will require that you go on for an advanced degree, either for the additional training or to get hired at a decent salary level (be aware that no biology job pays really well, and if you are in it for the money, get out). With a solid and broad background you can get into a graduate program suited to your specific interests. The key really is, wherever you go, get a good, solid background in Biology. Then get research experience by volunteering for a faculty member whose work you enjoy.

Can you write me a letter of recommendation?

Absolutely! If I know you.  Here are my ten guidelines for asking anyone to be a letter-writer for you:
  1. Choose people who can really speak to your skills and talents. 
  2. Choose people that the review panel will expect to hear from (i.e., your adviser, your committee members) if at all possible or reasonable. Customize this to the job/RFP/etc. where possible (if it is a fish job then choose the person who taught your fish class, etc.). 
  3. Choose people who write good letters! 
  4. You CAN usually submit more letters than they ask for. Use this to emphasize experiences or skills that need to be emphasized. 
  5. You CANNOT submit fewer letters, or omit any other aspects of the application that were requested. 
  6. Give letter writers a copy of the ad you are responding to, or the job description. Ideally, paste this into the email message that you send to your letter writers to request the letter. 
  7. Give letter writers a copy of your complete application, or the portion specific to that job/RFP if they already have your CV or resume and it is unchanged. Ideally, attach this to the email message as a word file when you request the letter. 
  8. Ask letter writers to speak to specific strengths as necessary for each specific application - provide them with the materials to do this 
  9. Even if you are asked only to provide a list of letter writers, let the letter writers know that they might be contacted and let them know what you need them to say. 
  10. GIVE YOUR LETTER WRITERS LOTS OF NOTICE! (and reminders) – two weeks is the suggested minimum.