Tag Archives: Being a scientist

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!.


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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 www.forthoseinperil.net 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.

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