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Issues and Alternatives

Bachelor of Science

Completing undergraduate school is a good default by almost any metric of the likelihood of success, whether success is evaluated in units of dollars earned over a career or art objects appreciated over a lifetime. But who would benefit from a degree in marine sciences from the University of Maine? Notice the specificity of this question, since there is little standardization of marine sciences programs across the nation.

A relatively small number of students will know from middle school onward that they want to be aquaculturists, marine biologists or oceanographers, and for them the fit and trajectory is obvious. A majority of students entering marine sciences have an interest in science and a mixture of curiosity and awe toward the alien (to them) and under-explored marine environment — but have little specific idea of the direction that their careers may take.

The B.S. degree in Marine Science can be viewed as a "liberal sciences" degree. It offers a taste of a broad range of biological and physical sciences while maintaining the fundamental rigor of a basic-science major. Central to this rigor is the requirement to understand calculus, biology, chemistry and physics at the college level. A key feature of our approach is to exercise quantitative, physically grounded thinking through Integrated Marine Sciences classes that apply basic understanding of biology, chemistry math, physics and geology to marine problems. There is nothing dry about this hands-on, inquiry-based exposure. One learns the sciences by exercising their fundamentals on marine examples and questions.

The Marine Science B.S. prepares a student well for employment at local, state and federal environmental agencies. Small agencies often cannot afford to hire a person with skills in only a single, traditional discipline. By contrast, many environmental sciences degrees do not require college calculus or physics, so their graduates cannot be expected to apply quantitative, physical thinking at the same level. Even if they elect to follow a career path outside environmental science, our graduates will be among the few who appreciate the subtle feedbacks in environmental processes such as those that determine the thermal future of the planet that we inhabit and thus who are prepared to discern and support sound policies. The Marine Science B.S. is an ideal degree for a middle or high school science teacher; it provides a clear view of linkages among all the natural sciences and supplies evocative marine examples for inclusion in a standards-grounded curriculum.  Moreover the School of Marine Science's extensive policy activities provide plenty of exposure for an interested student to the sound application of science to public policy and stewardship of marine resources.

The Marine Science B.S. is also a sampler or smorgasbord for students who may wish to consider graduate work. Its emphasis on the fundamental sciences cracks the door for graduate studies in any one of the component sciences as well as specialties within the marine sciences. Because they obtain and exercise a math and physics background, B.S. recipients in Marine Science are also competitive for admission to graduate schools of engineering. Particularly fertile overlap in recent approaches of marine sciences and engineering is in the area of nanosciences and nanotechnologies, with talent and ideas flowing in both directions.

Marine science careers are experiencing a sudden jump in diversity at all degree levels.  Molecular biology skills have become valuable for commercial endeavors as diverse as finding new sources of neutraceuticals and producing gasoline substitutes from phytoplankton.  There is an unmet demand for research technicians who know how to raise zebrafish, a popular animal model for biological research.  Although zerbrafish are not marine, we have had Marine Science B.S. graduates with fish-rearing experience snapped up at attractive salaries.  New industries using tides and offshore wind to generate electricity will put more demands on workers to have marine skills.

Master of Science

What doors open with the M.S. degree in Oceanography, Marine Biology or Marine Policy? At risk of overgeneralization, a B.S. qualifies a graduate to carry out science projects conceived by others and with considerable input and oversight from others. The M.S. degree in marine science or policy typically carries a project from conception by the M.S. supervisor (advisory committee chair) to written completion by the student. Although the student (may or) may not have a major role in determining the question asked, she or he will have principal responsibility in developing an answer, i.e., testing alternatives and in writing up the introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusions from the work. The reason that the question is generally conceived or at least circumscribed by the advisor is that until a student has taken a piece of research all the way to publication she or he cannot easily determine how much work makes a substantial publication yet can be completed in 2-3 yr.

M.S. degrees qualify students to pursue answers to further questions, but do not usually give much practice in formulating novel questions. They provide ideal training for students who enjoy carrying out science and policy, i.e., the discovery of new knowledge about how the oceans work or how they should be managed, but do not care to master the entrepreneurial, creative hypothesis-generation or upper-level teaching skills needed to pursue most positions that require a Ph.D. The M.S. degree provides a quantum leap for secondary-school teachers. Working first hand on generation of new knowledge brings a brand new perspective on the process of science that will forever change how one teaches science.

Careers include working as research technicians in academic and agency settings, jobs in industries (e.g., scientific instrument manufacturers), and varied positions in education and publishing.

Professional Science Master

A Professional Science Master's (PSM) degree is a professional practice degree designed to allow students to advance their training in science while simultaneously developing or enhancing workplace skills in areas such as communications, economics, engineering, information technology, resource policy, and business or public administration. It is a non-thesis degree emphasizing the application of scientific knowledge, and it requires an internship in an area of application. The training is thus distinct from graduate degrees (M.S., Ph.D.) that emphasize the conduct of original research. The PSM in marine sciences could serve both traditional and non-traditional students and could be a very attractive option for qualified students wanting to complete both a B.S. and a master's degree five years after graduating from high school (4+1 option). PSMs are offered by over a hundred institutions around the country, although only a few offer this degree in marine topics.

Career options include leadership or management positions in a marine-related business, regulatory agency, public policy body, or a non-profit organization.


Ph.D. in Oceanography or Marine Biology

The Ph.D. generally comprises research that leads to three to four publications, closely linked in subject matter, as a research product. The first may well have been part of the student's M.S. research. That is, students often start in the M.S. program and transition smoothly to a Ph.D. on the same general topic, often with the same advisor; in that case the entire M.S. plus Ph.D. should take 5-6 years. By the second year into the Ph.D., the student usually knows more than the advisor about her or his specific problem. The critical skill gained in tackling a series of linked questions, with successively less feedback on the small details and more feedback on the big picture from the advisor, is the capability to conceive and articulate those questions — the creative side of science. Once they are framed, the systematic application of the hypothetico-deductive method works well.

Graduate students and even prospective graduate students often engage in the search for the perfect research question that will lead to instant fame and glory. A better focus is on identifying a pretty good problem and doing a very good job on it as deliberate practice. The practice efforts, i.e., skills and lessons learned, are at least as important as the problem itself. Viewing the goal as succeeding on a good practice problem will make it much easier to get started and hence to determine whether the chosen problem indeed is a good one or only appeared to be so. The desired outcome of a Ph.D. degree is mastery of the skills needed to keep framing and answering cutting-edge problems in marine sciences and the skills to teach others how to do so.

Careers can specialize on one skill or combine several, including teaching, basic and applied research and development, and administration — in academia, in government laboratories and research funding agencies and in industry.  An increasing number of marine scientists are finding more unusual employment, for example as lecturers in ecotourism enterprises (e.g., on cruise ships) where the Ph.D. has a different kind of cachet.  We have recently placed a couple of M.S. and Ph.D. students with energy companies seeking to short circuit the process that originally made oil in the ground by obtaining energy-rich lipids from phytopankton more directly.


Career resources

A great many sites deal with careers accessible with various marine sciences backgrounds. Rather than reproduce them, we provide a small selection of links. To find additional sites, Google (or Yahoo) "marine science career".

Resources compiled by scientific societies

Resources produced by Sea Grant

Marine Science

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