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It is common for us to get requests for interviews in email. Please use this page for putting together interview reports for school projects. If there is a question that is not already answered substantially in the rest of this page, please send email to us requesting answers to that question or questions only. We want to help as many students as possible, but we do have limitations on our time for correspondence. Your patience and understanding are appreciated. The Q&A format followed below is derived from answers we've previously given to questions.

If you use this page in fulfillment of a classroom assignment, I request that you print the Open Letter to Educators... page and turn it in with your assignment as a courtesy to us.

Wesley R. Elsberry and Diane J. Blackwood

Q: How did you decide to get into zoology and what steps did you take to do so?

[WRE] I got interested in marine life in junior high school. I took a SCUBA course and got certified at age 12. I kept salt-water aquaria and collected mollusks, crustaceans, and the occasional fish through high school. I read about the species I collected, and I pestered the local university biologists with questions. The advice I got for college was that just about any four-year zoology program would be good. I think that I might have made an error in attending a college that was not on the coast, but things have worked out pretty well despite that.

Q: How long have you worked in this field?

[WRE] Off and on, since 1983.

Q: Why did you want to be a zoologist?

[WRE] It was the the kind of thing that I did for fun on my own time. I went collecting myself, kept aquaria, and read technical sources about what I had found. Why not turn it into a career?

Q: How has your career progressed?

[WRE] In fits and starts. I worked my way into a lab tech job, then a research assistant job. I took a bit of a career shift, getting a degree and a couple of jobs in computer science. I then went back to graduate school in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences.

Q: What skills do you use in your job?

[WRE] I use my computer skills a lot. I also do statistical analysis, technical writing, and various other bits that I didn't think that I would see again outside of classes.

Q: What are the tasks you do in a typical work day?

[WRE] I help make sure that the computer systems and software stay in shape to collect data. I design and implement software for data collection and data analysis. I discuss research issues with my colleagues. I help out with fabrication of equipment and electronics that aid in training the subjects.

Q: What training or steps would you recommend for someone wanting to enter this field? What type of experience would you suggest to prepare one for this field?

[WRE] Zoology requires a lot of education to get a reasonably well-paying job, and those jobs are pretty scarce. Count on a BS making you qualified for lab tech or research assistant jobs pretty much at best. MS degrees are not all that common; most jobs beyond the lab tech level are going to require a Ph.D. In my own case, the fact that I had computer skills in addition to a zoology background is what I attribute getting admission to graduate school to, and also what has gotten me my employment during grad school. It may not work that way for everybody, but it has helped me. Experience in any sort of scientific research is a plus. Volunteer to assist with research projects wherever you are, if none are paying. Try to find projects that are interesting to you.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

[WRE] I am doing the kind of work that I want to do. I work with people who are interested in many of the same topics. I get to be around marine mammals.

Q: What do you enjoy least about your job?

[WRE] Stress. There are deadlines and time limitations everywhere. But I could have all the stress, and be working in a job that I didn't like on top of that, so this isn't something unique to where I am working now.

Q: What are some different areas of work that a zoologist could enter?

[WRE]Topics include physiology, anatomy, husbandry, embryology, ecology, ethology, psychology, and taxonomy. Pretty much anything that deals with the biology of animals is fair game.

Q: What are some positions that a zoologist could have?

[WRE] Positions include those at field stations, agricultural research stations, physiological and medical laboratories, research asssistant jobs in academia, and teaching at the high school level (some states allow certification with a non-education major BS and passing a test) are all possible with a BS degree. With a Ph.D., faculty positions at junior colleges, colleges, and universities become possible, as well as laboratory management, lab director, and various government positions relating to wildlife management.

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages to working in this field?

[WRE]Advantages: Get to work with and about animals.
Disadvantages: Can't always find a job, and even when you do, it doesn't pay much.

It is a wonderful field for people who like the work. It is a terrible field for anybody else, since the positions are far fewer in number than the qualified candidates to fill them. In line with the concept of "supply and demand", zoologists get paid little. You do the work because you like or love doing it, not because of the paycheck that comes with it.

Q: What recommendation would you have for an entry level person considering this field?

[WRE] Make sure you really, really like doing the work. Have a secondary skill that can support you while looking for work. (Mine was photography; I worked in a photo studio for a year and a half while applying for jobs at the local university.) Get involved in research projects. (That's one thing I did not do, and regret now.) Read all you can in the technical literature; this will let you know which subjects are interesting and which are not. It will also put you one up on many another applicant.

Q: My school doesn't offer a degree in zoology. What about biology or psychology degrees?

[WRE] A biology degree is no limitation. A psychology degree will likely limit a person to work in ethology or behavioral ecology. A biology degree is a good general substitute for a zoology degree. If you are interested in ethology or behavioral ecology, then the psychology degree is a better preparation. A psychology major may have slightly better prospects in finding non-animal related jobs, should it come to that.

Q: Was the the school of your choice hard to get into?

[WRE] For my undergraduate work, not particularly. I had reasonably good grades and very good entrance test scores.

Q: What field of research are you most interested in?

[WRE] I am interested in animal cognition. I have been doing work on animal sensory systems, which is closely related.

Q: Did you want to become anything else besides a zoologist?

[WRE] I did pursue a career in computer science for a while, but came back to zoology.

Q: What field are you currently researching/working on?

[WRE] Acoustics of hearing and biosonar in marine mammals.

Q: What education do you have to have for your job?

[WRE] I have a BS in Zoology (1982, U. of Florida), an MSCS in Computer Science (1989, U. of Texas at Arlington), and I am in a Ph.D. program in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M University. With the BS degree, I had a lab tech and a research assistant job. With the Ph.D., I hope to find a faculty position somewhere.

Q: How long did it take you to get it?

[WRE] The BS was a four-year degree. If I had wanted to stay working as a lab tech or research assistant, that's all that was necessary. It is possible to go directly into a Ph.D. program following the B.S., which would typically add another 3 to 5 years of school, but would mean that one would qualify for jobs at the faculty level, management, or research director.

My career path has been a meandering one. I'm still in process. I hope to graduate sometime next year, perhaps take two years of postdoctorate research somewhere, and then start hunting for a faculty position in earnest.

Q: What advice do you have for young people who want to be zoologists?

[WRE] Make sure that it is really what you want. If it is what you want to do, then the poor job prospects and lousy pay won't be an impediment. Have a secondary skill so that you don't starve while looking for a job. Get involved in research projects early; volunteer to help if there are no paying prospects. Read the technical literature to find out what subjects are interesting and who is doing that work. You'll want to learn from them or do research with them later. Read the Strategies page carefully for further advice.

Q: What courses should I choose in college?

[WRE] If you are pursuing a degree in biology or zoology in college, it is likely that many of the core science courses will be required. It would be typical that you will have a certain number of in-department electives and other elective hours to fill in order to meet a total course hour count for graduation. The electives that you choose in the department (biology or zoology) would reflect your personal interests and possible specialization. For example, I took all the courses that were offered in invertebrate zoology, including a graduate-level course by permission of the instructor. (Now I work with dolphins -- go figure.) The electives that you take outside of the department can help define your own set of interdisciplinary skills or knowledge. If I were re-doing my undergraduate coursework, I would probably skip the photography classes I took and substitute computer science classes instead.

I've had good luck with combining computer skills and biology. Biology departments are changing, and I am hoping that the attitudes are changing as well which used to discriminate on the basis of the "purity" of the degree that one got in the life sciences. The time of the inter-disciplinary researcher may well be at hand -- or at least that's what I am hoping.

Q: What is the field of zoology like?

[DJB] Zoology is a very diverse field and quite competitvie to get good positions. I am involved in bioacoustics currently. In the past year I have been on a few trips to collect data that I found satisfying, exciting and hard work with long days. These were done in San Diego so no field conditions to rough it or enjoy.

Right now I'm processing data. I have 16 tapes that are about 20 minutes each. It takes a full two days to process each tape (sometimes longer). This is just to get the data in a format that I can analyze. Analysis will be another few days per tape. This is the tedious part that you do back at your home lab. The processing I'm doing now is pretty straight forward. A few disappointments when a section that I thought had good data did not turn out.

Data analysis can be exciting because that is when you start to find out if the data suports your hypothesis or contradicts it. After signal analyisis is done, there will be statistics to run. That is when you can reject a null (thus hopefullly supporting the hypothesis you set out to test) or fail to reject the null. If the null is not rejected, quite often the hypothesis is not supported and you have to figure out if something else is going on. Sometimes you need to redesign your experiment and start over. Sometimes you throw out your hypotheisis and form a new one based on the data. Then you start over collecting new data to test the new hypothesis.

Then comes the most important part (but the part I don't really like since I don't like to write). You have to write up the resutlts for publication. This is very important so that the rest of the research community knows and can learn from your work. Other wise as far as studying the animals concerned you might as well have not done the work. The problems and questions we study in zoology are too big for one researcher or one research team. By publishing we can share and study bigger problems and ask more complex questions.

Actually I skipped a very important step. I order to be able to do the work you have to write proposals. These are difficult pursasive writing projects. The really sad part is that a 10% (or even less) acceptance rate is typical. That means that of all the proposals written, 90% get rejected and told to try again. I've talked to folks in the proposal review process and they have stated that often 90% of the proposals are good, well written prosals with good ideas, good approaches to attack the question and the right people to do the work and the support equipment needed. That means that about 80% of the proposals were good enough, there just wasn't enough money.

My research partner and i wrote a proposal last August that took at least 50 hours of our time to write, plus another researcher put in 10 hours or more. Then our co-op group at another univerisity had their part to put together. We know we got at least one good review (there are usually 3), but we have not heard back yet.

It is a project I really want to do. In need to plan my life such that I can do it if we get the money. But I need to have other projects in line incase we dont (I need to still be able to pay my bills like rent, food etc).

So the work is hard, sometimes tedious, sometimes exciting and always a bit unpredictable. With soft money (research grant money) you never know for sure about your job next year. Some folks have permanent positions no matter what, they just don't know what work will be doing. Others (like me at the moment) only have a job if the grant money is there. So I always have several proposals in progress, since most don't get funded. The uncertaintly can be worrying, but right now I'm fairly confident for the next few years.

Q: How do I find out which university to apply to?

[DJB] Get a Journal of Marine Mammal Science (or it may just be Marine Mammal Science). Use Interlibrary loan if needed. See what articles interest you. See who wrote them and what university are they at.

The same for Aquatic Animals.

Also look for articles in animal behavior, science, physiology journals, biochemistry journals, etc. See what aspect you are interested in. Do a lit search at the library on what aspect you want to study and see who writes the articles, see what university they are associated with.

The other way is to see what universities/colleges offer oceanography or marine biology as a major course of study - again ask the library. they should have reference books on colleges and univeristies that will include such things as the names of the departments within the school. Write to the ones (or call them) to get more info on oceanography or marine biology departments. OR to biology or chemistry or physics depts with courses/profs with marine experience.

What aspect to you want to study - ecology, chemistry, reproduction, behavior, acoustics, physiology? Think about it. Species is secondary.

Also go to your school Guidance Counselor. And perhaps a college in your local area (Jr. College maybe). You should be able to find a reference librarian to help you find books about colleges. Included in those will be overall school rating and the rating of various departments. Look at Zoology, Biology, Wildlife & Fisheries, Ecology & Evolution, etc. Depending on your interests you also might explore Animal Science depts.

Q: I'd like to specialize in studying sharks. How can I do that?

[DJB] There are several colleges that offer degrees in Marine Biology. Others recomend a good biology degree is better for a good solid background. More quality universities offer biology than offer marine biology.

In general jobs are hard to come by in biology and don't pay well. Engineering and physical sciences pay better. Oceanography focuses is a more technolgy oriented approach to ocean studies that could include sharks, but often focuses more on systems, plankton, currents etc.

Most jobs in marine biology require a PhD, but there are technician level positions that can be obtained with a BS degree.

Sharks, like marine mammals, are very popular and therefore quite competitive to get into to study professionally. Do literatures searches at a community college or University to see who is studying what. Try to contact these people. Some may ignore you, but writing is a good way to show you are serious. Also try to find out what about sharks interests you most (or conversly what gets funding for research). Are you interested in physiology, anatomy, ecology, natural history, taxonomy, parasitology, histology, behaviour, etc? For instance lots of folks want to study behavior but there is very limited funding. While there is not much funding for physiology or parasatoloty there is more, and it is not quite as popular so the chances of getting into the field is a bit better. Actually there is more funding for any of the "cell and molecular" or medical related aspects of biology and you might find some really need shark research in those areas. Sharks are remarkable at healing after injuries for instance.

Lit search on sharks and those aspects of biology that interest you. See who is publishing in peer reviewed literature, where are they located (school, institute what ever), write and express your interests (related back to articals they wrote - ask questions to help understand the article what ever, be specific if you can, not "what are you doing now?" unless tied to something specific. Some may ignore you as most researchers work long hours and are busy, but some may answer or at leasst send general lit.

If a researcher you really like or admire doesn't write back you might try again if you still like there work, months or years later.

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