How to Become a Phycologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a phycologist. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in phycology.

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  • 0:00 Should I Become a Phycologist?
  • 0:31 Career Requirements
  • 1:32 Steps to Become a Phycologist

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Should I Become a Phycologist?

A phycologist is a biological scientist specializing in the study of algae and phytoplankton, this is a sub-discipline of botany. Phycologists may conduct research and publish academic papers of their findings. Much of their work takes place in labs and offices, though some fieldwork is necessary, such as for collecting samples. These scientists must carefully follow laboratory safety precautions to prevent contamination.

Career Requirements

A phycologist needs at least a master's degree, though some paths may require a Ph.D. At the graduate level, there are programs in phycology specifically, or students can pursue a degree in marine biology or botany and specialize in phycology. Phycologists need general skills, like analytical, critical-thinking, problem-solving, mathematical, interpersonal, speaking and writing skills. Phycologists also must have skills operating scientific equipment, including light-scattering equipment, binocular light compound microscopes, spectrometers, centrifuges, lasers and other investigative laboratory equipment. Technologically, they must also be familiar with many software programs, like analytical, scientific, graphic, photo imaging, and word processing software. As of May 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median annual wage of $60,050 for all soil and plant scientists.

Steps to Become a Phycologist

So, how exactly does one become a phycologist?

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The first step toward becoming a phycologist is to earn a bachelor's degree, usually in biology. Students can expect to take courses in biology and chemistry, statistics, computer science, laboratory work and mathematics. In addition, some schools offer elective courses in a subspecialty of biology. Future phycologists could explore classes in botany, plant diversity, environmental science and ecology. To further prepare, they could also participate in an internship in biology or phycology to gain valuable first-hand experience working in the field while still in school.

Step 2: Pursue Graduate Studies

While some jobs are available to those with a degree in botany, specialization in phycology is usually possible only in post-baccalaureate education. Students interested in pursuing phycology studies should seek a university that offers a master's or doctorate in phycology, botany or marine biology and attracts faculty in the field of phycology. These programs often involve extensive fieldwork and culminate in a thesis or dissertation. Ph.D. students typically complete a 2-3 year post-doctoral research program after earning a degree.

At the graduate level, students may join a professional organization, such as the Phycological Society of America (PSA). This can provide a variety of professional resources and benefits that can help students succeed after graduation. These include access to job postings, networking opportunities, newsletters and academic publications pertaining to phycology. The PSA also has a sponsorship program that enables students to receive tuition assistance, research grants and a stipend to travel to the PSA's annual meeting.

Step 3: Obtain Employment

Many phycologists with a master's degree can find employment at a number of research institutions, including state or federal departments, independent or privately-funded research laboratories and educational institutions. In recent years, an increase of interest in the nutritional benefits of algae and seaweed has had an influence on the development of more macroalgae farms, and phycologists can be an important resource for these agricultural facilities. Those with a Ph.D. and extensive publishing experience will have the most opportunities for funded research projects and faculty positions available in academia.

Step 4: Explore Opportunities for Advancement

Phycologists employed at universities can advance to more senior-level positions in research as they gain experience and active involvement in publishing. Phycologists could become consultants on a particular project or grants for law firms, government agencies or pharmaceutical companies.

While continuing education is not typically required for this career, phycologists can benefit from continuing their educations throughout their careers to remain current in the field. The Phycological Society of America offers a list of all universities that offer advanced continuing education workshops and courses in the field of phycology. Additionally, the PSA hosts an annual conference that may serve as a continuing education opportunity.

Phycologists are biologists who specialize in studying algae and phytoplankton. They typically work in research and a master's or doctoral degree is required for this field.

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