Pursuing a career in marine biology and conservation can be a long and challenging road to travel. Being an endless and intricate field of study, becoming a Marine Biologist has become so much more than simply obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree at University. Employers and graduate schools value ‘getting your feet wet’, and gaining experience in the field just as much as they value your education.

You are officially entering the fight to protect the world’s oceans, understanding what knowledge and experience you need to bring to this fight, is vital.

Nowadays, there is a vast array of research assistantships, internships, and fellowships all over the world that provide opportunities which allow you to build your Marine Biology resume, whilst attempting to preserve marine ecosystems and sustain livelihoods all over the world. Choosing the right organisation or institution to volunteer your time at can become a difficult task. The Institute for Marine Research have put together a list of 5 questions you should consider when searching for your next experience!

1. WHAT does the organisation study, and HOW do they study it?

Marine conservation organisations are typically built around a research focus, or an ‘area of concern’ which needs to be studied further in order to provide evidence that this concern a) exists, and b) can be overcome with strategic conservation management solutions. With this in mind, when looking at organisations to volunteer for, you need to look at WHY they have been established in order to then understand their subsequent research focus. It is also important to understand the organisations approach to their research topic, and the difference between citizen science and more advanced research methodologies. Whist citizen science is a broad and widely used method for monitoring reef health, if you are looking to advance your career in the world of research and academia, then learning this methodology may not be the path for you. You can decide for yourself if their focus is relevant to you, and matches with your interests and career prospects.

Deciding whether an organisation matches with your interests is easy. It’s deciding whether the organisation matches with your career prospects that is difficult, and is what gets entry level Marine Scientists caught in the never-ending cycle of volunteering.

Future employers want to see that you have been gaining field experience in the area that you seek to work in. With that in mind, its important to first do your research about the different jobs that are available in your field of interest, and what experience you need to obtain to become eligible for these positions.

By having this career insight, you can start exploring the different marine conservation organisations with a research focus that you share. This part can be surprisingly difficult, as there are countless marine conservation organisations around the world that share a similar research focus, and may even share the same research methodology. If the organisation is somewhere that you would esteem to work at one day, then go for it! People that start out as volunteers or interns can be offered paid jobs by the same organisation. Since you have already “worked” there and learnt their methodology, you now have the exact skill set and experience they are looking for, and will already have confidence in your work ethic.

2. WHERE does your money go?

Whilst marine conservation organisations all over the world require volunteers to add manpower to their projects for data collection and outreach activities, these internships and volunteer programs are rarely free. WHY? A combination of the operational expenses added by having volunteers on site, as well as the training expenses required to ensure you are skilled in their research methodology and data collection make it very difficult for marine conservation organisations to fund your stay. So how do you know if their fees are just covering these expenses, or charging unnecessary amounts?


Understanding the research

Go back to question 1. Understanding the research they do can drastically alter the cost of your stay. What kind of equipment do they use? Is diving involved? All of these factors can increase the operational expenses of the organisation.

Knowing the location

Where is the organisations Head Office (HO) based? Is it in the field, where cost of living may be relatively low, or are their significant overheads based in Europe or USA where salaries and logistical costs are higher?

Get properly equipped

What equipment will you need to provide for yourself, and what are they including in their price package? It’s very important that the organisation is up front about any additional costs.

At the end of the day, its up to you as the individual to decide what experience you wish to get and how much you are willing to invest to receive the associated training. Marine Biologists usually expect to pay an extensive amount of money for an undergraduate and masters degree, sometimes choosing a masters degree over internships and practical experience. It is the conventional path, but it’s not the only path to obtaining a career in marine conservation.

3. WHO is teaching you?

Understanding the research project and methodology of the organisation you are volunteering for, can take a couple of weeks to learn in the field. Understanding who is teaching you, and what their background is, will help you gauge not only how much they value the training of their volunteers, but also how much you will learn and grow from the training. Are the science staff short-term volunteers themselves, or long-term staff? Organisations that have a high staff turnover every couple of months, may not have the most reliable standards with regards to their teaching practices. Get to know the people behind the organisation, they become one of the most inspiring parts of becoming a marine conservationist!

4. WHAT is their community and environmental impact?

Understanding the organisations path from research to policy is key, as ultimately the goal of good marine conservation research is to eventually influence long-term conservation management strategies. Check out the partnership page on their website to see if the organisation works closely with their local government, and what community outreach activities they are initiating to reshape the communities behaviour towards the organisations research priorities.

Naturally, it takes a long period of time for organisations to become integrated into the community. In order for environmental education to be effective the organisation has to be present for not just one, but multiple school years in order to gain the communities trust and acceptance. Understanding if the organisation is operating all year round will give you an insight into what sort of impact they are having in their region. Whether this impact is community based, environmental, academic, or all of the above, it is important to know what your volunteer experience will look like.

5. WHERE is it?

Understanding where the organisation is based will give you a more realistic understanding of expenditure expectations. Not only is this important when it comes to flight expenses, but also the cost of living and visas. Whilst food and accommodation may be covered by the organisation, there are times when you will want to leave site with fellow volunteers and go to a local restaurant etc. Looking into this in advance will help you to avoid any unexpected surprises.

Undoubtedly when you travel you will encounter the need to obtain a visa. It is important to understand what visa you need to get, how long it applies for, and if the organisation will cover these expenses. If your visa will not last for the duration of your intended stay, contact the organisation to see how you go about obtaining a visa extension. Visa extensions themselves can become quite an expensive trip depending on a) how far they are from the closest immigration office, and b) what the visa extension requirements are of that select country. In some countries, visa extensions can only be obtained by physically leaving the country. Have all of the above questions answered so you don’t run into any unexpected problems or expenses, and have all relevant documentation with you.

With experience the positives and negatives of marine conservation organisations become clearer, but when you’re just starting out it can be confusing. By asking these 5 simple questions, you are sure to be on the right path to building career prospects in your chosen field whilst having the time of your life and preserving marine ecosystems all at the same time.

Chelsea Waters

Chelsea Waters

Chelsea created the Institute for Marine Research (in collaboration with Rafael) after seeing the critical need for greater attention, and upgraded research methodologies to be brought to the remote island communities of the Philippines to ensure fine-scale data analysis of coral reef dynamics could be assessed, and improved coastal management decisions could be made alongside the islands local government unit. Chelsea has spent the past 4 years studying coral reef dynamics, from completing her Thesis on Heron Island’s Research Station (GBR, Australia), to Madagascar, Honduras and the Philippines. Through this experience she has been able to study methodology effectiveness, whilst understanding the importance in building both governmental and community relationships to ensure findings aren’t lost in realm of Marine Biology, and localised management practices are implemented to ensure social and economic security for these remote island Nations.

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