Becoming a Phycologist: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a phycologist career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a phycologist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Phycologist

A phycologist, sometimes referred to as a marine botanist, studies algae. If you love the sciences, particularly plant science, read the pros and cons below to see if a career as a phycologist may be right for you.

Pros of Being a Phycologist
Median annual salary for a botanist is above $63,000***
Projected 7% increase in employment of life scientists from 2012-2022*
Possible recognition for contributions made to the advancement of science and/or medicine**
Flexibility in choosing undergraduate major**
Diverse employment opportunities**

Cons of being a Phycologist
Graduate-level training required for advancement in the field*
Competition for grants and funding sources for research projects may affect job availability**
Possible exposure to hazardous material*
May be under pressure to follow strict guidelines of grant provider*

Sources--*Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Botanical Society of America, ***Salary.com.

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

As a phycologist, you will spend your days engaged in researching, teaching or publishing your findings. Research involves gathering specimens, studying the biology and biochemistry of those specimens and documenting your findings. This may happen at a field site or within a lab. Some phycologists apply their research to enhancing or help developing medical and nutritional science.

Publishing the end results of research or new findings usually involves gathering all of the pertinent data and organizing it into a cohesive report that meets the standards and formatting of a scientific journal. Publication can lead to public speaking engagements if the findings being published are considered significant to the field. Phycologists who teach are spending all or part of their day conducting classes, reviewing and grading homework assignments and possibly leading classes in research projects. It is not unusual for a phycologist to do research and publish articles while teaching.

Salary Info

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that biologists (the field under which botany and phycology falls) earn a mean annual wage of about $75,000 as of 2014 (www.bls.gov). Because phycology is a subspecialty of botany, which is a subspecialty of biology, there can be differences in salary depending upon the educational route one takes to becoming a phycologist and where he or she is employed; for example, nonprofits and other nongovernmental organizations may pay less than government or university-sponsored work, according to the most recent data available.

Education and Skills

The Botanical Society of America (BSA) advises undergraduate students to concentrate their studies in the fields of biology or chemistry in addition to completing liberal arts courses in order to become botanists. Certain universities may require a core set of biology courses before you can be admitted to the more specialized courses such as botany. The BSA also advises undergraduate students involve themselves in research early on. Graduate-level studies are highly recommended for this career. Graduate-level programs help students develop research and analysis skills through both classroom and hands-on experience, and they tend provide more of a focus on a particular specialty or subspecialty within their chosen field (www.botany.org).

What Employers Look for

This profession requires someone who can conduct research, perform fieldwork and publish findings. You're a candidate if you have an aptitude for math, strong attention to detail, solid inductive and deductive reasoning skills and a thorough understanding of lab equipment. When it comes to publishing research, a phycologist must also be able to logically present an argument, accurately represent research findings, back up the information with proper citations and adapt the work to fit the publisher's preferred writing style.

Jobs from Real Employers

Phycology is a subspecialty of botany. Botanists can work in a variety of fields, such as biology, microbiology and biochemistry. The following is information taken from real job posts available online in May 2012:

  • An Idaho company is seeking an algal taxonomist to join a team of aquatic scientists. This person will identify samples and analyze data. Minimum qualifications include a master's degree and demonstrated experience.
  • A Missouri agriculture and biotechnology company seeks a biologist with knowledge of plant biochemistry, genetics and pathology. The employer seeks graduate-level candidates with at least four years of experience.
  • An Indiana-based biotechnology company is seeking a plant physiologist. This person will conduct research and work closely with other scientists in helping to develop new products. The company is seeking candidates with experience in experimental design and statistical analysis. The position requires a Ph.D.

Making Your Skills Stand Out

As the job postings above suggest, phycologist or botanists with strong research and analysis skills are highly sought after. Joining a professional society or organization such as the Phycological Association of America (PAA) may help you stand out. The PAA offers opportunities for attending specialized training, grant funding and participation in research-based competitions. Being active in a professional organization could also put you in contact with persons of influence in the scientific community; professors, department heads and other scientists who are advanced in the field usually chair these organizations.

Alternate Careers

While working as a phycologist can be a rewarding career, it isn't going to be the right choice for everyone. For those who want to work in the biological sciences, but would like to see some other options, read on to see what else there is and how they compare.

Microbiologist

A career in microbiology can begin with a four year undergraduate degree. A microbiologist will spend his or her days identifying and classifying microorganisms, preparing reports and research findings and planning or conducting research projects. These scientists work in both the private and government sectors. Their work environment is primarily indoors in a laboratory setting. According the BLS, the annual mean wage for this career was around $72,000 with a 13% projected increase in employment for the years 2010 through 2020. With less formal schooling required and a decent job growth forecast, this may be a viable option to becoming a phychologist.

Food Scientist, Technician or Technologist

These scientists help ensure food safety and study the principles of edible organisms. This can be a good career choice for those with an interest in improving the quality and quantity of the nation's food supply. The BLS reports that one can begin this career with an undergraduate degree in agricultural science. Unlike phychology, a graduate degree in this field is optional. According to the BLS, the annual (2011) mean wage for food technologists is about $64,000 with employment for food scientists and technologists expecting to grow by 10% between 2010 and 2020.

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