Taking a deeper dive into coastal, ocean and marine careers

By Hannah Mone, 2021 PSO Student Scholar

When people hear of coastal, ocean, and marine career opportunities, many think of an aquarium employee or a marine biologist. However, there are many other careers beyond the scope of what initially comes to mind. Whether you are a scientific diver collecting data, a government employee writing policy to protect marine environments, or an engineer at an offshore oil company providing technical support, you are working in a coastal, ocean or marine-related career. This broad group of careers spans multiple sectors including academia, government, nonprofits, businesses and corporations. Despite the diversity of these career pathways, they each have a similar common goal: to protect, utilize, and better understand coastal, ocean, and marine environments, and biotic and abiotic resources.

Over the course of my internship with UGA Marine Extension and Sea Grant, I have had the opportunity to participate in the National Science Foundation (NSF) INCLUDES planning grant titled COME IN (Coastal, Ocean, and Marine Enterprise Inclusion and Network-building). The goal of this project is to, “develop a national ecosystem that nurtures the growth, persistence, and success of students from historically underrepresented and marginalized groups.” As part of my internship, I compiled and analyzed nearly 175 career profiles to understand the multitude of career options in coastal, ocean and marine sciences. In addition to looking at careers, I also analyzed the professional development opportunities and background experiences that lead an individual to a position in one of these fields. These career profiles were obtained from the Oceanography magazine, marinecareers.net, NOAA Ocean Exploration career profiles, and profiles of Black marine scientists. Characteristics analyzed from each profile include education level, participation in internship and fellowship opportunities and other professional skills. I also looked at similarities and differences among careers of different individuals. Outlined below are some key findings from my data analysis. These findings are organized under the following categories: education level, internship and fellowship experience, and professional skills.

Education Level 

My analysis of employees in coastal, ocean and marine careers found that the highest education level ranged from an associate degree to a postdoc position. A majority of the career profiles in our sample size were of individuals with doctoral degrees (48%) and postdoctoral (25%) experiences (Figure 1). A doctorate is often required for academic positions such as a professor or researcher in coastal, ocean and marine sciences. Individuals with a bachelor’s or master’s degree often qualify for these positions, and many employers may be more interested in an individual’s professional experiences rather than education level. Many careers did not appear to require a Ph.D., with 56% of those who received a master’s as their highest level of education from our sample size working in government and 20% working for a corporation, such as an oil company. There were also tracts that required more specialized degrees including a D.V.M. or Juris Doctor, though there were few from this sample size that followed career paths requiring these degrees. Therefore, it is important for individuals interested in coastal, ocean and marine sciences to recognize what level of education is required for a specific career.

In addition to analyzing the highest level of education individuals obtained, the type of major completed within each degree was also assessed. Before looking into these percentages however, it should be noted that some profiles only indicated majors from their highest degree, so some data was not able to be included in this report. Of those who obtained a bachelor’s degree, 24% majored in biology (33% with the inclusion of marine biology), 11% in geology, and 11% in physics. The majority of individuals from our sample size continued their education after receiving a bachelor’s degree and continued to grow professionally and change in their expertise and interests, so there appeared to be little overlap between the type of bachelor’s degree obtained and their current job title.

Of those who obtained a master’s degree, oceanography was the most common at 23%, followed by geology and marine sciences, both 7%. Again, there was little correlation between the major that an individual chose and their career from this sample size.

Finally, of those who obtained a Ph.D., 41% majored in oceanography, 15% majored in marine science and 12% majored in geology. These were also the top three majors obtained by master’s students. Most of the individuals studied who work in academia obtained a doctoral degree and went on to serve as postdocs. By attaining a degree in any coastal, ocean or marine-related field, one gains broader skills to apply to one’s career which will be discussed below.

Internship and Fellowship Experience

In addition to formal education, it is important for those interested in coastal, ocean and marine careers to gain real-world experiences prior to entering the workforce. There are many different types of internships and fellowships that provide workforce development opportunities and help young professionals build networks and establish connections that aid in their career search. From our sample, there were multiple internships and fellowships that individuals participated in, both at undergraduate and graduate levels. Below, I will discuss some of the leading internships and fellowships from the career profiles analyzed.

Undergraduate internships and fellowships are funded by many sectors, from universities to government organizations, specifically NOAA. Many individuals from our sample participated in coastal, ocean or marine research experiences, either at the university where they pursued their undergraduate degree or through the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program which is available at universities across the country. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) appeared most frequently in our sample size as locations where undergraduate internships took place. The NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship and Sea Grant internships were two undergraduate internship opportunities that several individuals pursued.

From the 175 career profiles, most individuals who participated in an internship or fellowship program did so at the graduate level. The leading graduate fellowship from our sample size was Sea Grant’s John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship which provides those interested in the intersection between marine resources and national policy decisions with first-hand experience in Washington, D.C. The AAAS Science and Technology Fellowship is another common internship completed from those sampled, and NSF Postdoctoral Fellows were also recurrent among those who completed a postdoc.

Professional Skills

Formal education, internships and fellowships are designed to equip individuals with skills that can be showcased when applying for a future job. Despite the broad range of coastal, ocean and marine careers that one can go into, the skills which are important for these careers can be boiled down to a few key ones, namely, problem-solving and collaboration. This is followed by more technical skills including data analysis, communication skills, presentation skills and project management. This is one of the major reasons why it is not uncommon to find an individual in coastal, ocean or marine careers (as well as other career paths) who is working in a different job than they originally intended or studied for. There are some individuals from our sample size who started out in a coastal, ocean or marine-related field and transitioned away due to better career opportunities or evolving career interests; however, the fundamental skills they learned during their education or internships provided them with the necessary means to then apply these skills to other jobs.

My analysis also found that there were other individuals who started out in a different field altogether or a broader field of biology or geology, and overtime narrowed down their interests to encompass marine careers. Therefore, by participating in a variety of opportunities, one is able to gain experience in what interests them and learn necessary skills to then be applied to a future job setting.

In addition to conducting this analysis, another aspect of my work on the NSF INCLUDES planning project has been to develop a Qualtrics survey that is being administered to coordinators and managers of coastal, ocean and marine-focused internship and fellowship programs, including the Knauss Fellowship, and the NOAA Coastal Management and Digital Coast Fellowship. The purpose of this survey is to gather baseline information to understand who is applying for coastal, ocean and marine science professional development opportunities, and who gets selected as finalists. Information on the number of applicants received for a particular internship or fellowship program, the number of finalists, the educational background of the applicants and finalists, and demographic information is being collected through the survey. I am currently analyzing data from the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. We are particularly interested in understanding whether or not students from minority serving institutions apply and get selected for coastal, ocean and marine professional development opportunities, and explore barriers to their participation in such programs.

During this internship, my awareness of the diversity in coastal, ocean and marine careers has expanded greatly. The analysis of a large sample size of individuals in these careers has also made me understand how non-linear career paths can be. The skills one gains throughout their different academic, job and life experiences is as important as one’s major. Each individual career path is unique.

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