3 things to know about working in marine conservation

The following op-ed by Predator Ecology & Conservation Lab Ph.D. Candidate Erin Spencer was originally published in Ocean Conservancy.


Erin Spencer with shark

If you want to work in the field of marine conservation, it can be difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to get involved, from conducting hands-on research to managing grant funds to meeting with policy makers. Here are three things to keep in mind as you dive into marine conservation.

Just a note—these are based on my own experiences and advice from incredible colleagues in the non-profit and academic space. Everyone’s path to and through this field is different!

There are a lot of ways to get involved.

When I was in high school, I thought the only way to work on the ocean was to become a marine biologist. Although that is one path, it’s not the only path! Our ocean is complex, and it takes a complex array of skills to protect it.

You could apply almost any interest to ocean conservation, whether that is science, marketing, writing, law, policy, graphic design, project management, communications, web and app design or public speaking. There are countless jobs that intersect with ocean conservation, from doing scientific research at a university to being a producer on a television show that raises awareness about ocean issues. Think about what you enjoy and what you’re good at—odds are you can translate that to working in government, business or the non-profit sector.

Keep an open mind and look at job boards like SEVENSEAS and Schmidt Marine to see the range of positions available. Remember that even if you hated high school biology, you can still work on the ocean (I can’t tell you how many undergrads I meet who think this, but that is a rant for another time!).

If you want to go back to school, know your options.

Some jobs in marine conservation require advanced degrees. Not all of them do, so make sure to do your research by reviewing requirements on job postings and chatting with people in the field first. Don’t be afraid to shoot an email to someone asking for an informational interview, but come prepared with good questions.

If you decide you do need to go to graduate school, you have a few options. There are professional degrees that can be applied to marine conservation, like a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA, or business degree) and a Juris Doctorate (JD, or law degree). But there are also degrees tailored specifically to marine science and policy.

Some master’s degrees are primarily classroom based, where you have a full schedule of classes for a year or two. Other master’s and doctoral degrees are more research-based, where you have fewer classes but need to write a formal thesis or dissertation to graduate. Each has its advantages, but in many research-based degrees you get a tuition waiver, meaning your tuition is paid for, and make a stipend or salary by teaching or conducting funded research. Research-based degrees often require you to contact potential advisors before applying, and they need to commit to working with you for you to be accepted by the university. Also, not all marine science programs are focused on conservation, so be clear with your research interests when interviewing.

If that all sounds confusing, it’s because it is. If you don’t know someone who has gone through the process before, it can be hard to know where to start. There are many resources online.

Remember, grad school is a BIG investment—make sure it’s the best fit for your job aspirations! Also, you can also decide to do it down the road—it’s never too late to go back for a grad program. Better to make sure it’s the right choice than jump in too soon.

Be passionate, but know it’s a job.

It is a luxury to work on a topic you’re truly passionate about. Passion in the field of marine conservation is important—it keeps you going through the tough days when it seems like we’re fighting an uphill battle against all the threats facing our ocean. But it can be easy to let your passion overshadow the fact that it is a job, and you should get paid for your work.

Although the field is better at offering paid internships and opportunities than it was even five years ago, there are still a lot of unpaid gigs out there. I am not condemning anyone who took an unpaid internship, but those who offer such opportunities need to realize that offering unpaid “jobs” is inherently exclusionary and keeps passionate, driven and smart people out of the field—especially people of color, people new to the country and those from low-income communities.

For job-seekers: If you’re interested in a job posting and they don’t disclose compensation, ask. Be especially wary of anyone who suggests that if you really love the work, you’ll do it for free—this is not at all the case. Of course, there are lots of great reasons to volunteer your time (beach cleanups, mentoring early career folks, etc.) but be prepared to draw the line.

At the end of the day, marine conservation is a rewarding field that requires a diverse range of voices and skills. Are there additional questions you want us to tackle about the field? Let us know on Twitter @OurOcean.