Got Skillz? The Responses so far…

By: Dana Sackett, PhD

There are a myriad of skills needed to succeed in aquatic science; not the least of which include being able to come back from the field sleep-deprived, mosquito bitten, and covered in muck with a commitment to do it again for more data. When it comes to science in general, previous research surveys have demonstrated that graduate school can provide students with more than just the specific knowledge needed for a field of study.  Other useful skills gained in graduate school can include: creativity, flexibility, innovative and critical thinking, career planning, ability to collaborate and work in teams, time management, ability to learn quickly, and project management, just to name a few.  Nonetheless gaps still exist between those skills needed in a science career and those gained in school or on-the-job training. Those missing or less developed skills can make the difference between getting that dream job or not. To make things a bit more complicated the skills most needed by employers in science can vary by field and discipline, ranging from generic skills like networking to specific like knowing the Latin names of local fish species.

The author of this article doing field work an embarrassing number of years ago

To better understand the skills most needed in aquatic science specifically, we at The Fisheries Blog surveyed you, our readers! We asked: which skills were the most helpful in getting your current position, how those most desired skills were achieved, how achieving those skills were paid for, and what skills you wish you had obtained that would have made your job easier.  So far, twenty-five brave souls have responded. (Inspired by this expected taste of reality, I foresee a future article on sample return estimates.)  While this sample size is not enough to make any strong conclusions, I summarize those preliminary results below. Also, with an endless pursuit for more data and better results I humbly ask that our aquatic scientist readers take 10 minutes to fill out our survey:

We will update everyone with the final results in a future post. It is important to note that respondents were allowed to pick more than one answer for many of our questions, which is why some of the percent totals exceed 100%. Also, this survey was not meant to be exhaustive but only insightful to all those current, or hoping to become, aquatic scientists.

The people that responded to our survey:

The majority of our respondents identified as fisheries scientists (44%) and ecologist/biologist (48%) from several different employers: including academia (46%), regional or state government (25%), federal government (8%), consulting (8%), industry, non-government agencies, and tribal governments.  A little less than half (44%) of these individuals had a M.S. as their highest degree (mostly in government and consulting positions), while slightly more than a third (36%) had a Ph.D. (mostly in academia but a few in consulting and tribal government positions as well). We also had a few others that identified as anglers and educators. The vast majority (84%) of these respondents suggested that their higher education degree (M.S. or Ph.D.) was needed to achieve their current positions. Although one person noted that while their degree was not in the field of their position it still helped them to gain skills needed to achieve their position. In addition, the vast majority of our respondents worked in freshwater (88%), while only 16% worked in the marine environment and 12% in estuaries.

The overall proportions of responses to the question: What were the most important skills needed to obtain your current position?

What were the most important skills in getting that job in aquatic science?

Writing was most commonly selected as the most important skill in obtaining a job in aquatic science. Having a working knowledge of statistics and a certain knowledge relevant to the field of study were also more commonly chosen as important to gaining employment than the other choices. So, if you are currently sitting in a classroom wondering if you will ever use the information you are struggling to grasp, the effort is worth it if you plan to be an aquatic scientist. Some other answers that were not listed choices but were written-in by our respondents have also been vital in my own career: the ability to give a good presentation, networking, and being able to manage data, time, and a budget. The importance of these skills seemed to remain the same whether the respondents identified as fisheries scientists or mangers, ecologists, or biologists. They also seem to remain the same whether our respondents worked in freshwater, estuarine, or marine environments.   

Proportions of responses of those most important skills needed to obtain the respondents current position by career field and area of research.

For most, their skills were obtained at no cost to themselves.  Learning those skills were paid for by a previous employer through grants or the job itself.  These skills were also most often obtained in graduate school or on-the-job from a previous employer.  Surprisingly, nearly a fifth of respondents suggested that their skills were paid for out-of-pocket, an investment that not all have the capability of making. I can attest to paying out-of-pocket to fill, what I felt were, knowledge gaps I had in coding and environmental law and policy. 

What were the skills you wish you had gained or honed before getting that job in aquatic science?

The skills our respondents wished they had developed more before getting their job included statistics, a programming language, and knowledge specific to their particular job.  Some of these responses may be a product of the continual development of new statistics, modeling, and programming language techniques used in aquatic science.

Many of our respondents also replied with excellent insight for those planning to enter this field or hone their skills in their current position. For example, one response that resonated with me was that the researcher continued to take courses via webinars, workshops, or self-teaching to maintain and further develop skills as their career evolved.  This respondent also found that writing and communication to non-science audiences was becoming increasingly important as their job progressed.

Another response further supports the importance of statistical skills saying, “a strong background in stats, no matter the field you’re trying to get into, is always beneficial. Take that extra stats course you don’t think you need, because one day you probably will.”  Some other great responses from our readers are below.

  • “Strong stats and writing skills allow you to pivot to research in any kind of system in any location and on any taxa. But to be so versatile it’s important that you have a solid foundation in stats so that you can teach yourself new methods by googling/reading a textbook on your own (or with the mentorship of others) so that you aren’t tied to shelling out more money for more courses/trainings.” 
  • Another response stated that writing and statistics were the most important skills in their current job and helped them to get the job; however, they also noted that internships were “THE BEST way to understand the work to be able to utilize the data appropriately and write scientifically about it.” 

Some resources for skill development that I have found include:

  • While not exhaustive in training or information, webinars are often free. A google search of your topic of interest with “webinar” should provide some options to learn about that topic.
  • There are many statistics and R coding courses that are available online but require payment to take.  If there are any that you know of that are free please add them to the chat below.
  • Many government websites offer course material from past workshops, including videos lessons and course materials.

If you have any additional insight, words of encouragement, or places where any of these needed skills could be honed (especially if they are free and accessible to all) please fill out our survey and share those below.

References and other reading material:

Fischer BA, Zigmond MJ. 1998. Survival skills for graduate school and beyond. New Directions for Higher Education and Beyond 101: 29-40.

Sarkar M, Overton T, Thompson CD, Rayner G. 2020. Academics’ perspectives of the teaching and development of generic employability skills in science curricula. Higher Education Research & Development. 39: 346-361.

Sinche M, Layton RL, Brandt PD, O’Connell AB, Hall JD, Freeman AM, et al. 2017. An evidence-based evaluation of transferrable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0185023.

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