Research opportunities for women

Marine and maritime sciences research

Dr Gillian Glegg, Associate Head of Marine Science at Plymouth University, discusses the opportunities open to women – and indeed to men

Marine and maritime research can cover a plethora of different career opportunities open to individuals from a very wide range of backgrounds. The Oxford English Dictionary defines research as ‘the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions’, and in the area of marine and maritime research these sources and materials can range from water samples, through composites used to build boats, to attitudes to safety aboard tankers or yachts. But whatever the subject, there is one thing that researchers all have in common – academic nosiness! They are driven by curiosity to find out more about how the world around us works.

In this article I have been asked to focus on research opportunities for women. But this is tricky, as I believe opportunities for women and men should be the same. From my perspective there should be no barrier to women entering a career in research in any subject, nor any barrier for men. Applicants for all research posts should be judged on their achievements and abilities, and gender has no place in that assessment. This may be the most important point raised in this article and it is directed not at prospective applicants but at those involved in recruitment of the next generation of researchers. Those of us involved in teaching, recruiting and promoting young people interested in research must ensure that we encourage women to recognise their abilities and strive for the career they want.

A host of subjects

Oceanography, marine biology, marine conservation and coastal marine sciences all offer routes into research. There is so much about the oceans we do not know. Our current use of the seas around us is unsustainable, and to improve on this we need to learn more about the systems and how our activities affect them – and then we must act on the findings to make our use (at least) more sustainable.

Professor Deborah Greaves graduated in civil engineering from Bath University and worked as a civil engineer before going to Oxford University to do her doctoral degree. This took her into academia, which eventually led her to the School of Marine Science and Engineering at Plymouth University where she is Director of the COAST (Coastal, Ocean and Sediment Transport) Laboratory and the Inaugural Chair for PRIMaRE, the Partnership for Research In Marine Renewable Energy ( She says that she wants to encourage girls to stick with engineering because ‘it can be a wonderfully rewarding career – in my area of ocean engineering and marine renewable energy, you have the opportunity to work in an exciting research area and make a real difference in helping to tackle the major challenges facing society today.’

Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop began with marine biology at the University of Miami in the United States and graduated with a masters in marine affairs and policy. Following this she had a couple of jobs not very closely related to her degree before starting as a researcher in Plymouth University. Over the next few years she obtained a PhD on plankton as indicators for marine ecosystem health and as a method of informing policy. Abigail then joined the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science as a postdoctoral researcher with a focus on using science to inform policy. She says, ‘What I am really interested in is finding those important pieces of science that can become evidence for policy change in marine management and conservation. Science is fascinating for science’s sake, but I’m excited about integrating it into the policy process.’ When asked about what male and female scientists can do to promote gender equality, she says, ‘If you see gender inequality, don’t be afraid to speak out. Point out the offence. It’s your right to be treated fairly. The more we talk about gender discrimination, the less common it will become.’

Dr Sarah Tuck is a master mariner with twelve years’ seagoing experience who then decided to study for a BSc in maritime business with maritime law at Plymouth University. From there she went on to do a PhD and take up an academic role with her focus on socially and environmentally sustainable ports and shipping. Her advice to young women considering a career in research is ‘to be methodical, disciplined and above all, not be afraid to make a nuisance of yourself in standing up for your rights. Your role is not to be nice, or helpful, or pleasing, but to advance knowledge and advance your own career by having your contribution properly recognised.’

What are the characteristics required of a researcher?

Testing devices in the COAST lab wave tanks

Testing devices in the COAST lab wave tanks.

There are no absolute requirements for a researcher but having the following attributes will a be valuable asset.

  • Inquisitive – a researcher has to wonder why! They have to want to explain what they observe and be curious about the world around us. It does not matter what the topic is, they just need to wonder why. And they need to be able to maintain that interest sometimes for a very long time – but always, at least, until the end of the project!
  • Meticulous – a researcher must be accurate. They have to ensure that what is recorded is what they have observed. Research is a slow and painstaking business in which care must be taken at every step – project design, data collection, analysis and interpretation. Only after a rigorous process through each of these steps will the results be suitable for the final report or presentation.
  • Objective – researchers must not have preconceived ideas about what they will find. This can sometimes be difficult when the topic of interest is close to your heart and you realise that the outcomes perhaps do not support the ideas you had ‘hoped for’ or expected. Perhaps the results are inconclusive or simply support an alternative view point – this is what you must report. However, surprises such as these are part of what makes research so interesting and engaging – you are always finding out something new and surprising.
  • Self-motivated – research can be a lonely business. While there will almost always be a meeting of the research team at some point, the actual work is very often undertaken individually, with each member doing their own work and the team only reconvening when there are results to share.
  • Persistent – research takes time and effort. A key feature of research is ensuring your conclusions are based on a sufficient sample size so that you can consider they represent the ‘real world’. So whether these are analyses of environmental samples of water or sediments, interviews with individuals working in a port or numbers of birds observed, you must collect adequate data. This can mean repeating the same action or question, again and again, for a long, long time.

So does it matter whether a researcher is male or female? Well, looking at these characteristics we can safely say it does not matter – we can all think of men and women who meet these criteria and others who do not. The key thing is the character of the individual, their skills and their attributes, not their gender. And women need to recognise this, and to apply even if they are uncertain about meeting all the criteria in the job description. Research shows that women can lack confidence in their ability, which means they are less likely than men to apply for more ambitious posts – regardless of qualifications. We cannot get the jobs if we don’t send in the applications!

Routes to research

In most cases these days, individuals will have their first taste of research as part of an undergraduate degree. In the UK an independent research project is an essential element of an honours degree, and this helps students to decide if research might be a career for them. Following a BSc, many students with an interest in research will go on to a Master’s programme – this can be immediately after graduation or perhaps a few years later after gaining work experience.

One real benefit of an MSc is that it helps you to understand more clearly where your academic interests lie. An MSc will usually involve taught modules and a relatively long research project. From here you can go into a career as a researcher, perhaps working for a government research facility, a nongovernmental organisation or a consultancy type company.

Alternatively, those who really enjoy the research may choose to apply for a PhD. The benefit of a PhD is that generally these are funded rather than costing you money. A programme of study for a PhD generally takes around three years and provides you with the skills for a career in research, academia or a host of other areas including management and policy, business, consultancy etc.

If you choose to remain in academia to continue research the most common route is through contract research, participating in projects funded by external bodies (such as the research councils, charities or the EU) and led by university staff. This can make jobs in these early years rather uncertain because of the short-term, often part-time funding for which you may be required to move miles from friends and family. However, in the long run a career in research can be hugely fulfilling, and there is great flexibility for you to follow your own interests. Young women who want to enter into research should do so clear in the knowledge that with determination and commitment they can forge a fascinating career and help to solve some of the world’s real problems.