It can be daunting searching through the hundreds of different options online; gap years, voluntary trips, internships, field courses and committing your time and money. You probably have many questions, like which company should I choose? What will I learn? Which country should I choose? How much should I spend? How long should I go for?
Well, in this blog, Cape RADD’s course director Mike Barron tries to give you some of his advice in picking the right trip for you!
Firstly, it’s important to think about what YOU want out of this experience and time away.
You are most likely looking to experience new cultures, to meet new like-minded people. For new experiences. And you will find all of this in most well-run trip options. Are you looking for some chill out time away from your studies and career, to just get away from it all and do something completely different? OR are you looking to develop your skills, knowledge and experience in your field of interest, to further your employability and add great professional skills to your CV or resume? This is what a good field course or internship should offer.
Which organization is right for me?
If you are looking for the latter, then it’s really important you chose an organization which offers a specific outline of projects, activities and skill development. If you can’t get an answer when you ask for more detail on the specifics or there isn’t a clear course curriculum/ prospectus sent to you, then this might be a warning sign as to a lack of structure and organization to the company. Field courses or good volunteer programs should give you the module topics, details on the practical elements and be able to outline the trips content.
Some organizations offer eco-tourism volunteer programs where you’re basically a tourist everyday doing what tourists do with some extra chores e.g. helping out on cage diving boats, or cleaning scuba diving gear. This can be fun but it can get boring pretty quickly, and isn’t going to give you any benefit for your career development as a marine biologist.
Speak to the course leader/director and ask lots of questions about what you will learn and the specific skills you will gain. Check out the website and YouTube channels, make sure the company are legit and look for previous reviews from past students/volunteers. A good company will have valuable content and a personal touch. Keep in mind what you are looking for from the experience.
Often the large organizations are corporately run volunteer factories, churning person after person through in a mass scale touristy way. The smaller organizations which are actually run by the conservationists or marine biologists will always be much more personal and give a greater level of mentorship and community. This means you get the most out of your trip. They usually have much more flexibility to adhere to specific needs and interests of their students, rather than putting you through a ‘made for the masses’ program.
Another important thing to think about is, if you want to get the most out of an experience and gain as much tuition, mentorships and development, don’t pick a course/volunteer program which has really big student intake each month (>10-15). You will not get the same attention and will become just another number (this relates to the bigger organizations). I also found in my previous experiences and from colleagues, that the organizations with large monthly intakes tend to turn into ‘party houses’ and take the focus away from the learning itself. Which may or may not be something you are looking for.
What part of the world should I go to?
This depends on what you’re looking for, there may be a specific animal you want to work with and so obviously you have to go to a specific spot (if you want to work with koala bears, you go to Australia) or maybe a certain type of habitat (coral reef, rainforest, desert, kelp forest), in this case this will drive your decision as to location.
In terms of taught field skills, some areas use specific techniques based on the specific research being done or the area they are working in, and if you want to learn these specific skills then you will obviously need to choose a specialist course. However, there are fundamental well published sampling techniques which are used in most field surveys and are applicable globally, and which you will no doubt use throughout your career. As an early career scientist, you will want to learn a broad spectrum of new skills and techniques to increase your experience and knowledge and your employability. So, it’s a good idea to choose a program which offers a broad spectrum of training. You also don’t want to be doing the same thing everyday of your trip, for example, as fun as being on a cage dive boat every day might be, it’s really not doing anything for your future development as a marine biologist.
Keep in mind, some areas have more challenging changeable sea conditions than others, but this is not a bad thing. It’s always tempting to head to the warm tropics with palm tree lined beaches and turquoise waters, and these places do offer amazing diving and great for tropical studies and coral reefs. But one piece of advice, bare in mind there are lots of different ecosystems out there to experience and you’re not looking for a place to sip cocktails and sit on the beach. You are training and developing yourself as a field biologist and SCUBA diver. Use this trip to network with other scientists and institutions, meet with other organizations, Universities, researchers, or visit networking events whilst on your trip to build contacts for future jobs or study? Just something to keep in mind. So, training in tropical warm and lake like sea conditions in the middle of nowhere is great, but when you get that job which means you need to dive in more challenging conditions it won’t be so easy, and if you want to make more networking opportunities bare this in mind.
Side note* Although you won’t ever dive in very dangerous or to extreme conditions as a student or intern, it is good experience to learn in changeable sea conditions, and will make you a much better diver and researcher being able to achieve your dive objectives in more challenging situations.
How much should I spend?
This is a big one for everyone. Of course, we all want the best for the cheapest, but unfortunately, scuba diving, boat expeditions, equipment and high-quality training experience isn’t cheap, and just like most things in life, you get what you pay for.
You have to ask yourself, do you want cheap, low quality, inexperienced facilitators? Or high-quality professional training with the best equipment and facilities? These courses are expensive because it’s important to have good equipment for safety, nice accommodation for rest and experienced training staff to learn and develop as much as you can.
Having said that, you have every right to understand where your money is going. If you pay all that money and you get picked up from the airport in a clapped out rust bucket of a car, or turn up and your accommodation is a shack with a mattress on the floor and your equipment is falling apart, and your instructors are clueless, then you have to ask, what did all that money go towards?
But if you have carefully chosen the right organisation, you will quickly realise that your money is well spent and hopefully going towards the cause you intended it for. Courses in or nearer urban areas tend to be more expensive due to general higher cost of living in towns and cities. But generally, the conditions and facilities are to a very high standard, and it gives you much more option for recreational activities. If you are looking for the more rustic adventure style accommodation, go for it, but take a mosquito net!
There’s no getting around it, internships are expensive, which means many people don’t have the opportunity to do these trips. Marine biology is an incredibly competitive profession and things like previous field experience and travel really help you stand out from the crowd when applying for jobs and post graduate positions. So, if you can do it, do, it will be worth it. If you need financial help there are lots of websites you can check out HERE to assist with your course costs. There are lots of opportunities with varying price levels so you just have to find the one which you feel comfortable with.
How long should you go for?
This is an easy one, you should go for as long as you possibly can! The number one feedback comment we get from our field course is ‘I wish I could stay longer.’ Or ‘Can I come back again?’ and I am sure this is the same for most students on other courses and trips offered. The bottom line is, the longer you stay, the more you’ll learn, the better experience and understanding of the subject you’ll have and the more people and networking and life experience’s you will gain. Combining travelling and education or career development at the same time is a fantastic way to travel the world, spend your hard-earned money and gain as much life experience as you can.
If you would like to receive more information about the Cape RADD marine science field course options and course curriculum please get in touch