Have you always wanted to be a polar bear scientist? Patrick Mislan shares insights on how to become one. Photo by Anya Abramova.

7/8/2015 8:13:02 PM

Becoming a Polar Bear Scientist

Patrick Mislan

One of the most frequent questions that we receive from students is, "How can I become a polar bear scientist?" We turned to Patrick Mislan, a master's candidate studying polar bears at the University of Alberta, for his advice to students seeking to pursue graduate studies in wildlife research.

First of all, when did you become interested polar bears? What was the turning point that made you decide, "I want to be a polar bear scientist"?

I've always been interested in wildlife and wild places. When I was young I would check out reference texts from the library focused on wolves, bears, and wolverines (those three were always my favorites!). I have a fascination for the more remote places in the world and the enigmatic animals that live there. You can definitely say that the interest in becoming a polar bear scientist is just built into who I am!

However, the real tipping point came when I moved to Alberta (in central western Canada) and started looking for researchers at the University of Alberta who shared my interest in large mammal ecology. I found a welcoming and enthusiastic research supervisor whose focus is on polar bears. He was looking for a graduate student to take on a project that fit my interests perfectly, and the timing was just right.

For me, this was a very lucky set of circumstances ... not all researchers have suitable projects, and not all of them have space/funding for a new student.

How did you come to be a polar bear scientist? You are now working on a master's in biology, but what was your undergraduate degree? 

Where possible, from my early high school days, I tried to select courses that include zoology-based work. This is easier in university where there is more flexibility in the courses you can take. My undergraduate degree was in biology, but the courses I chose were more focused on animals, behavior, evolution, physiology, and ecology and less focused on microbiology, biochemistry, cells, and human health. However, polar bear scientists study many different aspects of physiology, behavior, and health and a variety of biological disciplines can contribute meaningfully to research on these animals. I would also recommend including a good mix of statistics and GIS (geographic information system) courses in your undergraduate work if you have the option. Both of these skill sets are highly valuable in any sort of wildlife research. When I was in school, GIS wasn't nearly as prevalent as it is now ... and I wish I had done more of it earlier in my education!

I also had an honors component to my undergraduate degree, which required me to complete a research project thesis in my 4th year. If your university has the option for this type of honors project, it's a great opportunity to get a sneak peek at what graduate studies are like and also to make connections with professors involved in the international academic community. Having a professor as an ally and a reference is important when applying to graduate schools and (most important!) when applying for research grants. 

Has your work/study with polar bears given you the chance to travel and work/study in other universities around the world?

Because graduate work is often very short term (master's, two to three years; Ph.D., five years), there isn't a lot of opportunity to work at different universities and travel the world. However, I was very lucky to take a seven-week field course at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) as one of the course credits required for my graduate degree.

I can't recommend this experience enough for someone interested in arctic research. UNIS is located on the Norwegian archipelago called Svalbard in the VERY High Arctic. It has an amazing set of programs tailored toward early career arctic scientists at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The instruction is entirely in English, and the student body is mostly made up of international students. Many courses can be taken during the spring and summer so as to not interrupt the regular school year at your home university. Although there aren't many courses specifically relating to polar bears, experiencing and learning about arctic ecosystems is just as important. For instance, I studied seabirds when I was there (not very polar bear related!), but still count it as an essential part of my master's degree. 

I highly recommend that university students check out UNIS and see if they can fit it into their schedule. Many universities will accept the course credit, but even if this doesn't work out, the experience alone may be worth it all the same. Most polar bear scientists are familiar with UNIS and will look favorably at a UNIS course listed on your CV. 

Are there many available positions for scientists studying polar bears?

This is the biggest challenge for people interested in studying polar bears. With only five nations sharing the world's polar bear population, there aren't many researchers worldwide that study them. I will include a few pieces of advice here that I think will help, but it will likely still be hard work to find a graduate position just because there are so few available:

1) Funding - You can really boost your chances of being accepted to a graduate position if you come with funding of your own. Check out grants, scholarships, and government funding opportunities. Research scientists usually have very small working budgets and can't afford to support students. Approaching them with existing funding is a huge step in the right direction. 

2) Volunteer - This can go a long way toward building your CV and making you marketable to granting/scholarship agencies. I volunteered at a local zoo and had a blast while also getting great experience working hands-on with animals of all sorts. 

3) Grades - Undergraduate grades are important (sometimes essential) for successfully being awarded scholarships. 

4) Diversify - If you don't immediately get into a position working with polar bears, there are still many options that will advance your education in the right direction. Working with other large mammals, or movement data, or contaminants, or arctic ecosystems may help you make the necessary connections to get into a polar bear research group further down the line. 

Mislan took a seven-week field course at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) as one of the course credits required for his graduate degree. © Patrick Mislan

Mislan photographed this bear during his fieldwork in the Northwest Territories, Canada. © Patrick MIslan

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