The Day Job – Or What I Do To Earn A Living When Writing Isn’t Enough

26 Jun

Like many authors, I don’t as yet make enough money from writing fiction to have been able to give up my day job completely. Even if I did, though, I don’t think I would. You see for the last twenty years I’ve worked as a marine biologist who specialises in studying whales and dolphins. Now I know what you’re thinking, that sounds idyllic and that I must spend most of my time swimming in the waters around some tropical isle somewhere watching the dolphin play. While there have been times in my life when this was true, life as a jobbing marine biologist is usually much more mundane. I do, however, find it quite fascinating. So what would my typical work day consist of?

Well for a start, I don’t work Monday to Friday, nine to five. Depending on exactly what I have to do, some days I’ll work nine till twelve, giving me time to work on my fiction writing, others, especially if it involves field work, might run from sunrise to sunset, and in Scotland in summer, that can be as much as 20 hours seven days a week for several weeks at a time! If I’m working at sea, much of the time will be spent on the bridge of a ship, binoculars in hand, staring out to sea, looking for whales and dolphins. It’ll generally be two hours on, one hour off and while at times it can be very exciting, mostly when there’s animals around, at others it can seem like the ocean is dead and there’s nothing but endless rolling seas out there. Every fifteen minutes, I’ll log the position of the ship, so we know where we’ve surveyed, as well as information about the weather. Whenever I see something, I’ll log the position again, along with information about what species it is and how many there are. If I get the chance, I’ll take a few photos or shoot some video. At the end of the day (and before going to bed), this information is all transcribed into a spreadsheet and a summary of the day is written.

If I’m not working at sea, like pretty much everyone else I’ll start my day by checking my email. A lot of it will be fairly boring, routine stuff like requests to review academic papers or people asking to data, but every now and then it’s something much more interesting. The ones I like best are the ones where people are asking me to identify something. Sometimes it’s living animals, sometimes it’s a dead one on a beach or a skull. These always present a bit of a challenge but it’s like trying to solve a mystery from a load of little clues. You see, I happen to be a bit of an expert on an obscure group of whales known as beaked whales. There’s 21 species in all (or at least as far as we know at the moment!) and we know very little about them. In fact, some of them have never been seen alive and a few are only known skeletons found cast up on beaches. This makes identifying them a bit tricky, hence the reason my expertise is requested, and I may spend a happy hour or two pulling out books and academic papers, looking through photographs and digging up old measurements trying to work out which one it is this time. Much of the time, I can get an identification, but at others there’s no way to know because a vital piece of information is missing from the photos. One notable occasion it was because I was pretty sure that it was either something no one had ever seen before or that it was in completely the wrong ocean (this happens from time to time!).

Once the emails are out of the way, it’s down to work. Depending on exactly what I’m working on, this can be anything from analysing data and running statistical tests (always a bit boring, at least until you get the result), writing an academic paper or a presentation for a conference, to giving lectures to students, creating maps showing where different species occur and writing articles for magazines, books and encyclopaedias. None of this is necessarily fun but it has to be done. This is because doing science isn’t just about collecting data and hording it. Instead, it’s about communication what you’ve found out to the rest of the world. At the moment, much of my research revolves around trying to work out how whales and dolphins are going to be affected by climate change, and what we can do to stop these things happening; unfortunately, so far the rather depressing answer to this is not much unless we address climate change itself but I, along with many others, none-the-less keep trying in case we can come up with something that will work.

It’s my research on the effects of climate change on whales and dolphin which has probably led to the biggest change in how I do my work over the years. You see scientists like doing two things: science and flying to interesting places to talk to other scientists about science. This means that going to academic conferences and meetings to present your work to others is a big part of being a scientist (it’s also a great excuse to get drunk with friends and colleagues from far off places who you don’t get to see very often). However, this means a lot of jetting all over the planet. A few years ago, I took the decision that I couldn’t really criticise other people for their impacts on whales and dolphins which I was studying when I was part of the problem. This means I now only attend these meeting if I can do it remotely through video feed over the internet rather than in person. It’s not as much fun (having a beer at lunchtime with a bunch of old friends is one thing, drinking it at home on your own is quite another!) but it keeps my carbon footprint down.

Anyway, that’s probably enough about what I do to earn a crust when I’m not writing about zombies. While these may seem like quite different worlds, there’s a surprising amount of overlap. For example, while academic papers and talks can be quite dry and boring, they actually have a very similar structure to works of fiction. Both need to tell a story, have interesting characters, and have a beginning a middle and an end. It’s just that in academic writing, the story is the hypothesis you’re testing, the characters are your study animals and the beginning, middle and end are called, introduction, methods and results, and discussion. Similarly, it takes the same type of discipline to sit down and write a scientific thesis as it does to write a novel. You also need to know how to edit your work so that it flows nicely, and get used to dealing with both rejections (from publishers for fiction writing and from journals for academic writing) as well as hatchet-job reviews from people who, for whatever reason, don’t want you to succeed. Actually, I’ve had a lot more of that in academia than I’ve had with fiction writing – academics tend to get very territorial if you show that the cherished theory they’ve based their entire career on is wrong!.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

6 Responses to “The Day Job – Or What I Do To Earn A Living When Writing Isn’t Enough”

  1. Jack Flacco 26/06/2013 at 16:43 #

    Great getting to know more about you, Colin. Wow, a marine biologist. For some reason I thought of George Costanza from Seinfeld–but only for a brief moment! You sound like you have an interesting and fulfilling life. So much is involved in your job I can’t even fathom how you can find the time to write. But you do, and that’s wonderful time management. Kudos! I also had to google beaked whales. From the term I didn’t know what they were until I saw a photo of them. The question came to my mind and it went something like this: “Aren’t all whales the same?” Boy, was I wrong. I’m a guy who takes great pride in research, but when I saw all the different species of beaked whales, it blew me away!

    You know what also blows me away about the ocean? Mariana Trench. Who know what species of fish and mammals live in that depth. I remember seeing the movie Titanic. James Cameron used real footage he shot 2 1/2 miles to the ocean floor where the real Titanic rested. I couldn’t believe crabs living in those depths. How can they survive that water pressure?

    Anyway, I think you have a phenomenal job filled with lots of interesting experiences. Wonderful, in fact.

    • cmdrysdale 26/06/2013 at 21:12 #

      Hi Jack,

      Glad you like this piece, it’s one I’ve been thinking about doing for a while now. The beaked whales certainly are a weird and wonderful bunch, and it’s one of the things that first drew me to them. It’s not too surprising that you had to Google them to find out what they were as very few people outside of marine biology have every heard of them, but they’re some of the most interesting animals on the planet (at least in my opinion!).

      Fitting writing around work is difficult, but I really enjoy doing it. It makes a nice change of subject, which is always good (a change, as they say, is as good as a rest!).

      The crabs and pressure thing is an interesting one. It’s not the pressure that causes animals problem, but a change in what they are used to. These crabs, along with other deep water animals, only know a life at great depth, and under great pressure, so that’s what they’re adapted to.Since they are mostly seawater anyway, there’s no difference between their inside and outside pressures so they don’t really notice it. If you bring them to the surface, however, they’ll basically explode because the pressure inside and outside is no longer balanced (just as if we stepped out of a spaceship without a space suite!).

      The beaked whales are different, though, they move between the surface and the depths (diving a mile or so down every few hours and staying there for 90 minutes or more) and somehow they managed to cope with both the low pressures near the surface and massive pressures at depth. It’s still not really known how they managed to do this. It’s one of those unanswered questions that will keep me beavering away in marine biology for years to come!

      All the best,


      • RStorey 29/06/2013 at 16:02 #

        I know it sound somewhat cliché, but I really did want to be a marine biologist since I was a little girl. Unlike most little girls, I never wanted to be a ballerina or a nurse. And as I grew older my interest in marine life grew, as did my interest in facts and figures. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in my stars to pursue that dream and I drifted, trying to find something. I eventually landed in the IT field: testing and reading code; reporting errors, and working to find the best solutions; and occasionally writing documentation. While I do not get to work with marine life, I do enjoy what I have found.

        Reading you summation really took me back to the days when I was realizing that what I wanted to be didn’t fit with reality. I am 35 years old and if the opportunity presented itself I would take that leap. Data mining, research, patient observation, meticulous reporting…but above all, a passion to help those animals that cannot help themselves.

        I applaud your choice to reduce your carbon footprint by reducing your travels to conferences. And I am also happy to hear that your colleagues support this decision.

        I am glad you have found time to pursue other interests like writing. I only began reading “For Those In Peril On The Sea” last night but I am hooked. I have had thoughts of being published, but mostly I read and wonder “what would love as a book editor be like”? Maybe someday I will have the courage to take a leap of faith.

      • cmdrysdale 29/06/2013 at 17:02 #

        I grew up around the sea so was drawn to being a marine biologists from an early age too. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been very lucky to end up being able to be what I always dreamed of doing as a child, and also that it hasn’t always been easy. I spent much of my 20s being pretty broke because before you could get paid jobs, you had to have experience but you couldn’t get the experience without having a job (a classic catch 22 situation!). I had to sell my beloved motorbike at one point to be able to pay for field work and I was always having to do odd jobs, like work as a juggler and a magician, to keep money coming in and fund my research. Luckily, after sticking with it for a number of years, I started getting recognition as a bit of an expert and could finally start making a living out of it, and it’s been a pretty good life for the last decade or so as a result.

        Good to hear you’re enjoying ‘For Those In Peril On The Sea’ so far. I’d written off and on for years and had always wanted to write a novel, just to see if I could do it. Last year I found myself approaching forty and I thought if I didn’t get off my butt and do it then, I’d probably never get round to it. This, it turned out, was the push I needed to sit down and do it.

        In terms of life as a book editor, this is something I’ve been talking to my girlfriend about as she does a lot of the editing for my book and short stories. It’s not something she’s trained in, but it turns out she’s exceedingly good at it and she’s having thoughts about seeing if she could make that into a career too. Having looked into this a little, we’ve found that good editors are always in demand, and I think it’s something you can start off doing in your spare time to see whether you enjoy it or not before gradually building it into a career. This makes it much less of a leap of faith than packing in the day job and striking out on your own from the start.

        Anyway, I hope you enjoy the rest of ‘For Those In Peril On The Sea’.


  1. How Does Creative And Scientific Writing Compare? | Colin M. Drysdale - 16/09/2013

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