Lessons in Leadership: Integrating Courage, Vision, and Innovation for the Future of Sustainable Fisheries

A Career of Taking a Path Little Taken: The Advantages of Being Opportunistic in Fisheries Science

Gary Whelan

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781934874608.ch19

Acting on the advice of career planners and advisors, many young career professionals and students spend significant time developing and then trying to follow a specific career path when they decide to dedicate themselves to a field of endeavor such as fisheries. These planned career paths are often linear and rarely unfold as expected, as life and careers are frequently a random walk. Many young professional’s initial career plans include getting a job with an agency, rising through the ranks, and entering a leadership position in a specific aspect of fisheries science (e.g., fish culture or fisheries management). If early career professionals and students follow such a plan, they will miss many unique opportunities to enrich themselves in the vast field of applied ecology field that is fisheries science. This vignette, based on my career, will provide some examples of how taking a path less obvious and traveled, often opportunistic, can build a very enriching and memorable career.

When growing up in the then intensely polluted metro New York City area during the period from the late 1950s to early 1970s, I wanted to be some type of fisheries scientist and was inspired to that path by being exposed at a very early age to fishing along the New Jersey coast and inland waters of the area. I was the oddball in the back of my middle school classrooms reading Field and Stream and Outdoor Life, thinking about fishing instead of whatever was being taught in class. When this love of fishing was combined with the environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it built a powerful passion for our natural world—the passion that resource professionals must have to survive the daily onslaught of social and political pressures, as well as proposals that degrade or make poor use of our natural resources. Passion for the resource is the absolute key to a successful career; it gets one through tough times in one’s career.

So, I clearly grew up in a place where the field of fisheries science was rarely, if ever, mentioned. In fact, I was amazed in high school to discover that one could actually make a living working with fish. Even though I was not sure what a fisheries or marine biologist actually did, I knew I wanted to be one, despite being told I should really focus on working on Wall Street to make a “real” living. Well, I promptly ignored that advice, and when I told people that I was going to go into fisheries science at the University of Wyoming, the most inexpensive school I could find for that major, I received many a look of wonder and amazement that included the question “Where is Wyoming?” It was clearly a career path less acknowledged, much less taken, at the time.