Is it too late to be a marine biologist?

This morning I got this email from a SeaMonster reader:

I am the 26 year old daughter of an entomologist and horticulturist who has finally found her calling in marine conservation and a frequent reader of Sea Monster, and have decided to go back to university and get another degree in Biology in order to pursue my dream. The semester just started here in Germany and I just had my second lab yesterday. I left feeling slightly downtrodden, as the professor who held our lab that day started off the class by telling us that if any of us are intending on going down the conservation path and don’t already know heaps about the organisms living in our target ecosystem, then it’s too late to start learning about them now and we should basically rethink our goals. My parents have been teaching me about insects and plants since I could talk, and I definitely know more about them than the average biology freshman, but as interesting as I find them, I would really like to work in marine conservation – particularly in the rehabilitation of fish populations and other aquatic species. At the moment I’m thinking of wetland and coastal ecosystems, possibly mangrove forests or estuaries, but I know that could all change over the course of my studies. My concern is that I really don’t know that much about the organisms inhabiting those ecosystems, at least not as much as other kinds of organisms, but it is what I want to do with my life. Do you think it is too late for me, or that I am being naive in hoping to pursue such a dream?

Dear reader,

People frequently say to me “I wanted to be a marine biologist”.  They are always middle age adults, usually comfortable in life and in their career, but they have regrets for not pursuing their dream.  Don’t grow up to be one of these people!  Go for it now!  

Honestly, you dont even necessarily need a Biology degree to go on to grad school to do marine conservation – the field is so interdiciplinary now.  Many people come from economics or social sciences backgrounds, eg Josh Cinner at JCU or Heather Leslie at Brown.

started off the class by telling us that if any of us are intending on going down the conservation path and don’t already know heaps about the organisms living in our target ecosystem, then it’s too late to start learning about them now and we should basically rethink our goals.

Wrong!  Most students start school knowing little or nothing about what ends up being their study system (often coral reefs in my lab but also estuaries, seagrass beds, algae, mangroves, etc).  They pick it up.  Almost NOBODY in the US comes into college knowing any detail about a system or type of organism.  You can learn the natural history or literature about a system in a year or two (or more depending on the complexity of the system).

Do you think it is too late for me, or that I am being naive in hoping to pursue such a dream?

No.  Not at all.  You prof is a jerk and an idiot.  A high school career advisor (Mr Williams) told me the same thing when I was 17 (“Marine Biology is too hard, you are not smart enough, you should go to trade school blah, blah, blah”).  (Note, Nobel Prize winner John Gurdon was told by a teacher he was “too stupid for science”).  As a result, I put off my dream for years.  In fact, I didn’t even graduate college (with a BS in Biology) until I was 25, started grad school at 27 and didnt get my PhD until I was 35.  Most of my graduate students start on their PhDs in their mid to late 20s.  It isn’t a race.   There is a lot to learn and you will keep learning your whole life.

I’d love to hear the thoughts of current students and other people that are going though this and have experienced some of these issues.

Also, go here or here if you are seriously thinking of a career in marine conservation.


11 Responses to “Is it too late to be a marine biologist?”

  1. Jeff says:

    Not too late at all. I just started marine biology grad school at the age of 23 and trust me, I knew nothing about it before I began. School is for learning. Just try to get hands on and volunteer as much as possible. Classes and field work are completely different and you’ll want to get as much of both in as you can. Oh yea, and it’s amazing 🙂

  2. That prof is giving horribly bad and wrong advice. I switched into an entirely new ecosystem my fourth year of GRAD SCHOOL (age 30), going from temperate macroinvertebrates in shallow coastal waters to subtropical zooplankton on the high seas. With a solid science background – which it sounds like the reader already has – it is not that hard.

    Here’s another example: between college and grad school, I had a job working as a naturalist on the montane alpine tundra. I didn’t even have any terrestrial biology background, never mind any experience in that ecosystem, but by working hard & asking a lot of questions (and living up there) I learned the natural history of that area quite well in about a month.

    Ecologists learn new systems ALL THE TIME. The key is getting enough science training so that you know what questions to ask.

    Man, now I’m all pissed off at that professor.

  3. Great advice John. I got a similar “studying marine science is a dead end” schpeil from various high school and college advisors.

    The reality is that we’re in the midst of the biggest experiment in the history of science and the ocean is playing a starring role. We need everything from invertebrate zoologists to human geographers working on marine science and conservation issues. There’s plenty of niches still waiting to be filled by curious and committed students.

    And what kind of advisor tells introductory students they need to pick a “target ecosystem” right off the bat? The ecosystem is determined by the questions you want to answer, not the other way around.

  4. John Bruno says:

    Thanks tweeps! Great advice. Miriam and Andrew are right on target about not having to even decide your study system as a student and being able to change into new systems as your career progresses. This is very common. I did my PhD research in wetland plant communities, then I worked in temperate estuaries, now I mainly work on reefs and mangroves and the Galapagos!

    I also wanted to add that you don’t need a PhD to do meaningful and rewarding marine conservation and management. Iv’e had plenty of students get great jobs with a BS or MS. And I recently called my friend Stephanie Wear at the Nature Conservancy for science and career advice. Steph has an MS (from UNC!) and is an internationally recognized expert in coral reef conservation and a big shot at TNC.

  5. I completely agree with this post.

    The bottom line is that the point of education in general – and science education in particular – is not to know all of the facts about a topic. Not only is it impossible for a person to know everything that is known about a topic, but scientific facts are constantly changing. Even if you knew everything about nutrient cycling in mangrove swamps when you graduated from college, you would still need to keep learning more throughout your career if you wanted to be an expert. In education, we refer to this as “life-long learning”. Life-long learning is fun – I highly recommend it.

    Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate the point: I was recently hired to do research in Australia, where I would be responsible for knowing the local botany. When I was hired I knew nothing about Australian flora, but I was hired because, through my education, I had demonstrated the ability to learn new material quickly. My training as a botanist in North America gave me a framework for quickly learning and organizing information about dozens of new plant species, and by the time I got there, I was able to do a pretty good job.

    The point of an education is that you learn something about a particular topic, but more importantly, that you learn how to teach yourself. That skill will allow you to continue to do new things throughout your career, and it will also to do the same things as the world changes. If you are planning on a career in any scientific field, I can guarantee you that you will need to work constantly to stay current on the latest research and developments. Your expertise on a particular topic as you leave college is therefore only of secondary importance.

    Ignore that grouchy professor, ace the class, and continue studying what you love. Good luck!

  6. Holly Bik says:

    I just wanted to add two things:

    1.) Your professional network of contacts is what often gets you the job. If people know who you are (and are aware of your career goals), they will keep you in mind for any future opportunities that might crop up. I personally think your network is much more important than your specific research background. Try to interact with people who have jobs that mirror your long-term career interests. Interact with them (online via Twitter, or at conferences) or set up informational interviews (arrange to meet over coffee with a list of questions about their job and research background).

    2.) All fields of biology are becoming much more interdisciplinary – and funding agencies want to see more talk between different fields. So there’s career advantage to NOT restricting yourself to one topic or study system. You’ll be more marketable this way. A diverse knowledgebase will allow you to approach questions from a unique perspective, and your background in disparate fields can often complement your work in a specific system. You can use this as a selling point when you’re scouting around for jobs. I’m someone who completely changed fields during my postdoc, moving from wet lab biology to computational biology; I had to retrain myself and learn the ins and outs of computer skills. It was hard, of course, but I think it actually makes my research have a wider impact because I work at the interface of so many different fields.

    Gather information, make a plan (and review it every 6 months or so), and be persistent. And remember that most successful scientists never followed a “standard” career path!

  7. It is amazing to me that people still say things like this! If you look on most marine biology career advice sites, especially concerning mammals, people say that it is highly competitive and to consider other fields of study. When reading this advice as an undergraduate I avoided marine mammalogy, even though I thought it was really interesting, because I thought I couldn’t make the cut. I just finished an internship this past summer researching Southern Resident Killer Whale decline in the San Juan Islands. I am applying to internships this winter that my classmates were doing 3 years ago, but I am bringing things to the internship they had not had the opportunity to experience yet.
    Robin Baird’s advice page ( suggests working with someone outside your field of focus and instead focusing on those who are working with the same type of questions; the questions, not the area of expertise, is what really matters! It is never too late, just get busy!

  8. Andrew (SDJ) says:

    Prof is wrong. I started my biology degree when I was 31. Before then I was a social worker. I had no background in biology. I just wanted to be a biologist. First two years I won monetary awards for academic excellence. Next four years I was working part-time with a consulting ecologist while doing school full-time.

    I graduated, went to work, and found I knew as much and sometimes quite a bit more than others in the field. I moved around taking jobs for 6 years before I decided I wanted to upgrade to a PhD. At age 43 I moved across the country and started my degree. Thanks to all the experience I had, I did very well in the program and was considered the go-to guy by other graduate students (who kindly adopted me and made this ‘old’ guy feel welcome).

    So, do not believe your professor. I knew I was 10 years behind in knowledge compared to other biologists my age, yet within a few years I had closed that gap, and a few years later am considered quite knowledgable in a few areas, and an expert in two (in reality, it is expertise in just one area, not two). And all it took was an eagerness and passion for what I wanted to do…no extra brains needed (although if you have them it no doubt will help).

    In short, if being a marine biologist is your dream, then make it your passion too. Once it is a passion (or obsession) you’ll rocket far ahead of those who are lack the passion for it. Go for it, and in a few years make that prof eat his words.

  9. David says:

    Good grief! I hope she shows this posting and the subsequent comments to her professor. It is never too late to start grad school. I was on my University’s tenure committee for three years, and about half the new applicants were older than me — in their *60s*. (My institution clearly does not practice age discrimination!) I was 30 when I started grad school, and well into my 40s before I started on the tenure track.

    And I second what Southern Fried Scientists says: you choose the system to study based upon the problem; the other way ’round is not as productive. Because I follow this approach, I have worked on coral reefs, deep-sea hydrothermal vents, rocky intertidal organisms (all the above studies focused on invertebrates), and (most recently) striped bass! I’m considering a new line of inquiry into… symbiotic paramecium. Not even a marine organism! Tell THAT to your prof!

  10. Nikki says:

    I’m turning 26 soon and just finished a Masters degree in tropical marine ecology earlier this year. When I started that degree I really didn’t know a lot about coral reefs. My undergraduate degrees were in anatomy and cell biology and world religions! Ok yes, I knew basic biology and had a broad understanding about earth sciences, but did I know anything about coral reef organisms? Nope. And when I got into the program did I feel overwhelmed by all the experience I thought everyone else had? Definitely.
    But I genuinely loved what I was studying and I wanted to do well in the program because of it. So,I did the reading and I picked up the content and in the end, I did do well. Along the way I also realized that several people in my program came from different undergraduate backgrounds like law and politics..a few of whom were much older than me. Some of these people had given up successful careers in those fields to go back to school and they ended up doing really well in the program also.

    So my point is that it’s absolutely not too late for the reader. Although the transition between fields may be harder at first, I think if they really have found their calling and are willing to persevere through all the times when they feel like the underdog, in the end, they’ll succeed. What I learned from my Masters is that you can’t sacrifice your passion for the sense of security that comes with sticking with what you know.

  11. Ryan Knowles says:

    I have had a similar experience as Andrew (SDJ), I’m just much earlier in the process.

    I quit my previous career as an accountant at 30 to switch to Marine Biology. Less than two years later, I am just finishing up my Masters and while I had to do a little catching up on some basic biology and chemistry concepts, I am at least as prepared as my colleagues to move on to a PhD.

    If you want to learn the basics of several different ecosystems, I have to recommend the Three Seas Program through Northeastern. It was certainly the best year of my life and it gave me a very broad knowledge base to easily branch out into any area of marine conservation and ecology.

Leave a Reply to Amanda Phillips