Right out of the gate, I’ll start with the (often infuriating) caveat that you’ll see all over the internet: There is no single “right” way to become a natural scientist, or any type of scientist for that matter! This is, strictly speaking, true. When scientists say this, they are generally trying their best not to discourage anyone from pursuing a scientific career just because they took time off before college, don’t have a lot of money, have a child to support, or various things like that. They are right to do this of course, but in my experience many of them cast too wide a net and don’t end up giving much practical advice! That’s the niche I hope to fill here. Please note that none of the classes I mention are “required to become a scientist,” they are simply good uses of your time that may be helpful. Your ultimate resource for starting a career in the sciences are the scientists working in your field at your institution. Ask them for more detailed information that may be more relevant to your specific situation.
Brief caveat: I’ve tried to keep this advice generalized to the natural sciences, but my personal experience is mostly marine. If my course recommendations seem heavy on fish and ocean-related topics, that would be why. Use common sense to figure out which of these would be most useful in your career.
High School Students
Priority number one should be locking in a good work ethic and strong study habits. If you can only do one thing I mention here, make it this one!
Most of your important professional science experience will probably come starting in college so now is the time to lay the groundwork. Does your high school offer a marine biology or field science course? Take it. Is there a zoo, aquarium, museum, or science center nearby that you can volunteer at? Do that. Would your parents/authority figures let you set up a small aquarium or terrarium and learn to care for fish or a turtle? Sure, why not. If these aren’t options for you, it’s ok. Most American high school students don’t get to pick their high school, and they probably didn’t have a say in where they live. Colleges know this, and absolutely will not keep you out of your dream program just because your high school doesn’t offer a particular class. Take advantage of what your school and living situation have to offer, study hard, and you will be fine.
A few classes to take if your school offers them:
-Follow your school’s track for math classes. Don’t just stop taking math classes if they’ll let you, that stuff might be useful soon!
-Any other relevant sciences that might be available (Ecology, Wildlife Science, things like that).
-Other non-science courses that interest you!
Lastly, don’t pigeon-hole yourself into just science! Take foreign language classes, maybe woodshop or automotive maintenance, cooking, history and political science, music, theater, whatever else you’re interested in! High school isn’t supposed to just prepare you for one career, it’s a chance to expand your knowledge and find new interests. You aren’t in a rat race to take the most science courses. Several of these classes may even prove useful in a science career (Fieldwork in a foreign country is easier if you speak the language, cooking or repair skills always come in handy, etc.). Besides, having diverse interests and skills can only help your college admissions prospects.
College Students (Undergrads)
I assume if you’ve been admitted to an undergraduate program and you want to be a marine/natural scientist, that program probably involves, if it isn’t centered on, natural science or biology. This doesn’t need to be the case however! If for example you want to use big data to understand ecosystem functions and analyze species populations, a statistics or computer science degree might serve you well. Maybe you (like me) chose a land-locked school because in-state tuition is a wonderful thing, but really want to study the ocean. You are still ok!
It all comes down to taking advantage of the opportunities and resources your school offers. If your degree program is in the field where you’d like to make a career, just follow the graduation requirements and add any extra courses that interest you. If (again like me) your school has no program in your desired field take as many relevant courses as you can (Marine Biology, Ecology, Evolution, Zoology, Animal Behavior, Population Biology, Biometry, Oceanography, Ichthyology, Mammalogy, Ornithology, Herpetology, Fisheries and Wildlife Management, Invertebrate Zoology, Marine Biogeochemistry, Organic Chemistry, Cell/Developmental Biology, Plant Biology, etc.). There may even be some study abroad programs that will get you experience in a field that your school generally lacks. For example, I took a Coral Reef Ecology class that involved doing fish and invertebrate surveys on a reef in Honduras. Even if these programs only last a week over winter break, try them out!
If your program is in the biological or physical sciences, you probably have requirements for some of these courses that can be helpful. If one of these isn’t required for you, consider picking it up anyway.
-General Physics (Kinematics, Electricity, and Magnetism)
-Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
To be clear, this is not a checklist of classes that you must take if you want to be successful, it’s more of a vague list of classes that you may find helpful or relevant depending on your interests (I didn’t take all of these as an undergrad!). Your academic advisor and/or research mentor will be able to help you pick out the most relevant and important classes for you.
At the end of the day, choose your degree program and classes based on your interests, then let those interests lead you wherever they will. If you work hard, learn the material, and take advantage of the resources your school offers, you will be just fine.