Tuition, Skype, and Seahorses

By Clayton Manning

Part 2 in this four-part series, Project Seahorse MSc student Clayton Manning ponders the question: "Hey, I'm in Australia doing seahorse research - How did I end up here?"

Now that I was dedicated to study marine biology, I needed to find somewhere to study. Since I was still living abroad, I thought I would keep the momentum going and look at international schools. This was until I was hit with the (very) rude awakening of international student fees. Without naming schools or places specifically it went something like this:
i) Google "school X in region Y for Canadian students",
ii) open webpage,
iii) see $52 000 per year,
iv) close browser,
v) double-check the next day,
vi) re-close browser.

Of course, this is not universal as there are some incredible schools with very reasonable prices and there are others with high sticker prices that have generous scholarship programs to bring the prices down. However not all are like that - Canadian schools included. Being a prospective international graduate student is intimidating no matter how you cut it. Frankly speaking, I wasn't going to go into debt AND live paycheque to paycheque in order to study. At this point I found many Canadian graduate-level biology programs offer a small annual salary so that their incredibly motivated and passionate 20 or 30 somethings. This way they don't have to completely break the bank in order to spend countless hours under microscopes, dredging through literature reviews, or doing painfully hot/cold fieldwork all in the name of science. Seems reasonable if you ask me. Although I'd be giving up international intrigue, studying at home was the best thing for my future.

I immediately pursued professors heading a number of labs in the few schools with solid marine science programs. Although I had an idea of what marine-y I things I did/did not want to study in my head, I was still very open at this point. After all I didn't originally have a specific interest in pine beetles, but I thoroughly enjoyed studying them. By the end of that project I found that I had grown quite fond of entomology and still check up on research coming out of my former lab. Science can make you fall in love with organisms, processes, and study systems you never thought possible - so it's best to keep doors open! I spent hours constructing, deconstructing and tweaking my original opening email. First impressions can matter a whole lot and I wasn't going to let an opportunity slide by because I didn't advertise myself well.

Although most emails I sent got a bite, there were some that didn't. Within the former group there were some that got away after a bit of a back-and-forth, others that I let go, and a small few that... (I'm trying hard to keep this analogy going)... were happy to be caught? There was mutual interest. Note to prospective students: if you don't receive a response immediately, don't fret. Professors are incredibly busy people and sometimes take a little bit of time and coaxing to respond (two months and three emails in the case of one of my more promising candidates). A balance between patience and persistence is key. 

By the time December rolled around (still 9 months before I started) I had narrowed it down to two professors studying very different things in very different places, from different universities. Despite being far more comfortable meeting face to face, the large distances forced me to get very used to Skype - a tool that I'm finding more and more useful as I probe (/annoy) academics around the world for useful bits of advice as I head into my field season. Note to students: I joke. Academics are extremely friendly and almost always more than happy to talk with you over Skype. They can offer you insight on topics and details that you can’t find in a Methods or Results section. There were a few days I had to have Skype interviews at very strange times of the day. My eventual supervisor encouraged me to talk to as many people in her lab as possible so my already variable teaching schedule was made even weirder with all of these inter-continental chats. But a huge reason I sided with Project Seahorse is because of the time they invested in me. When I showed up on Day 1 last September I had already met or corresponded with many of my lab mates, which made the transition much easier. One less thing to be overwhelmed by. I was now based at UBC in Vancouver, and going to study seahorses. 

But where would I study them?