Telling people you are a marine biologist is like injecting your ego with steroids. I’m not sure when or how it happened (the early 90s may ring a bell), but marine biologists are apparently – somehow – cool. We have cred. This is odd to me, since we are all nerds of the highest order, but I’ll roll with it.
It’s seen as an amazing and desirable job. People imagine we spend our research days on the beach, in the sun, in the water, while they are cramped up at desks or behind cash registers or stoves.
I actually feel a bit guilty at pointing out that, technically, I don’t have a job. I have contract work because my taxonomic training fills a particular niche. When people have crinoids (feather stars) that need identifying, and they are in Australia, and they have funding for taxonomic services, I get work. At the moment there is a bit of a boom going on, thanks to mining in the north west of the country and the associated marine ecological surveys, but honestly, there’s not usually a big call for that skill (not by people who can pay me, anyway, and it is really the kind of thing you should not do for free).
I feel like I might be a bit of a downer if I point out that, far from roaming the beach in the sun while gentle waves roll up the sand, fieldwork generally involves rough, cold, murky water, wriggling into wet neoprene, cutting one’s hands up on rocks and getting covered in bruises (that’s not including walking extensive distances carrying up to 26kgs of lead and steel on one’s back). I love fieldwork, don’t get me wrong, and sometimes the water is warmer, and calmer, and clearer, and sometimes I’m not getting rained on, and sometimes it’s a very short walk to the water and I may only be wearing about 20 kgs of lead and steel, but my point remains.
And I feel like I’m bursting the bubble of fun and dreams if I then point out that, far from being on fieldwork all the time, most of the time I am hunched over a lab bench or a computer just like everyone else, collecting data or analysing it, wrestling with niche software that was developed almost accidentally for someone else’s project and then subsequently released for other people to use, covered in bugs and with poor error-checking.
And then I feel like I’m just the party-pooper of all party-poopers if I point out that, not only are there very, very few jobs, the results of the recent Australian election have made it clear on several levels that there will be even less jobs in my field than there were before (cuts to research funding, cuts to conservation, suspension of marine parks, etc. etc.) and that, even if I am exceptionally lucky and successful, the longest term job security I will ever ever have is most likely to be about three years at a stretch; and I chose this path more or less knowing that this was going to be the result, so I don’t actually complain about it that often.
So often I don’t point these things out. I just smile, mention that it is pretty awesome (despite all that, it really is) and accept my brief moment in the slanting sunlight of cool.