Read as Marine Biologist graduate student David Shiffman gets JobShadowed. You can find him at www.southernfriedscience.com and on his Twitter feed @WhySharksMatter(also in the sidebar of this interview).
What do you do for a living?
I am a marine biology graduate student with the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami. My research focuses on shark behavioral ecology from a conservation and management standpoint.
How would you describe what you do?
I am studying what happens to coral reef fishes when sharks aren’t there anymore. Where I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, the deer populations are growing out of control because we got rid of the wolves long ago. Something very similar is happening in the oceans as apex predators (like sharks) are being overfished.
What does your work entail?
No two days are really the same. I can be either taking classes, teaching classes, writing grants or papers, processing our biological samples in the lab, analyzing data using computer software, or in the field catching sharks and taking samples. I also do public education and outreach in person and using social media, teaching people about sharks and the important role they play in our oceans, and I present my research at conferences all over the world. Some days are wall-to-wall meetings, and other days I can work from home.
What’s a typical work week like?
As I said above, there really isn’t a typical work week. Every day is different and every week is different.
How did you get started?
I feel like most boys go through either a shark phase or a dinosaur phase- I just never grew out of mine. I’ve been interested in sharks and marine biology since I was a toddler. I studied biology at Duke University, including a study abroad semester on the great barrier reef, and got my Masters in Marine Biology at the College of Charleston.
What do you like about what you do?
There’s a lot that I like about being a scientist. I get to create knowledge, figuring out aspects of how our world works that no one has ever known before. I get to spend my time working with a subject that I am passionate about. I get to (for the most part) create my own schedule. One or two days a week, I’m on a boat in the Florida Keys catching sharks and teaching high school children about the oceans. There’s a lot to like.
What do you dislike?
Relative to the amount of time it takes to get trained in the sciences and the amount of hours we work, scientists don’t make very much. That’s really about it for my dislikes.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I’m employed by the University of Miami as a Research Assistant during my graduate education. I help out in the lab and on the boat- which I would be doing anyway as part of my research.
How much money do marine biologists make?
(editors note: The BLS site says the median salary is $57,000 and 90th percentile is $94,000. Please comment on what you know based on your experience and knowledge of the industry.)
Those numbers seem plausible for scientists as a whole. As a graduate student, I make a LOT less. It’s enough to live on, but not enough to raise a family on or invest much for the future. I’m not starving or living on a diet of ramen noodles.
Graduate student biologist typically make under $20,000 but it varies a lot by program. My stipend as a Ph.D student is about $30,000 and it’s relatively high.
How much money did/do you make starting out as a biologist? (comment on what someone could expect as well as your personal experience),
In the sciences, “starting out” means graduate school. In most Masters programs, you don’t get paid, you pay tuition. Sometimes you can pick up a Teaching Assistantship or Research Assistantship, and these vary widely but generally don’t pay very much.
Most Ph.D. programs offer a research assistantship.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
Depending on what you want to do- lab/field technician vs. running your own lab- you’d need a Masters or a Ph.D., and maybe a PostDoc. I’m on track to finish graduate school and PostDoc at around age 33, which isn’t atypically old.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Finding funding for research projects (as well as my own salary) takes up a lot of time that I’d like to be spending actually doing the research.
What is most rewarding?
I could talk some more about the thrill of discovery, and that would be true, but the most rewarding thing to me is when my lawyer friends and business friends- who all make more money right out of school than I likely ever will- express a little bit of envy that I get to wake up every day and do something I love.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Not all marine biology involves working with sharks, sea turtles, and dolphins- and those are some of the most competitive sub-disciplines within marine biology. Make sure that you like doing science and enjoy the often extremely busy lifestyle- one shouldn’t get into this line of work simple because “dolphins are cool”. The first few years of internships and graduate school will be extremely time intensive and won’t pay you much for your trouble, and many people burn out. However, it can be extremely rewarding for a lot of reasons, and I wouldn’t trade my job for anything.
How much time off do you get/take?
I largely get to make my own schedule, but if I take too much time off the workload piles up. I generally take 2-3 weeks a year of vacation, not including work trips away from the lab (conferences, training workshops, etc).
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Marine biologists aren’t dolphin trainers at aquariums.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I plan on working in academia and doing university-level research and teaching. I hope to have graduate students of my own.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
If anyone has any specific questions, I’m happy to answer them on twitter @WhySharksMatter