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A Complete Guide to the Aquarist Profession: Responsibilities, Education, and Growth

May 02, 2023

One of the most important professions in the aquarium industry is the aquarist. Aquarists make sure that the different aquatic creatures under their care are healthy and happy. To do this they use knowledge they have gathered through their studies, as well as some different techniques like diving to get a closer look. With this guide we hope to help aspiring and current professionals navigate their educational journey, enhance their skill sets, and achieve success in their careers.

Aquarists: Who are they and what do they do?

Aquarists are much more than just animal caretakers. They carry out different tasks especially because there are different specialized roles. Sometimes fixing equipment within the enclosures is required, and the aquarist might be the person to do that. This is an extremely versatile position.

Animal care, including feeding and nutrition, falls under the spectrum of responsibilities of the aquarist. They know what the different animals eat, how much, and how often. They also need to keep an eye out for animals behaving unnaturally, as this can indicate sickness. If this is indeed the case, they will sometimes need to capture the animal so that the vet can take a proper look.

Water quality is crucial for the survival of the animals and therefore a key concern of the aquarist. There are different parameters that need to be constantly checked and logged, like temperature, pH, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and nitrogen compounds (ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate). By staying vigilant with water quality monitoring, aquarists can prevent diseases, stress, and other issues that can arise from imbalances in the aquatic ecosystem.

Some aquarists might choose to specialize in different areas. The two most talked about are the freshwater aquarist and the saltwater aquarist.The biggest differences lie in the organisms that live in the different environments, ranging from both animals, plants, and other microorganisms. Another big difference is the water quality and characteristics.

Another area of specialization for aquarists is related to aquatic plants. These experts care, cultivate, and maintain different aquatic plant species in freshwater and/or saltwater environments. They also help in designing and managing the aquariums, since these plants contribute to the overall health and aesthetics of the aquatic ecosystems. Their responsibilities include selecting suitable plants for the different aquariums, ensuring optimal growth conditions, and addressing issues like nutrient deficiencies, algae control, and disease prevention.

Education and Training Requirements

There is no single path to becoming a professional aquarist. Most have a degree in marine biology, zoology or conservation, but aquarists without a degree or with a degree in a different field are not unheard of.

Pursuing a higher education degree

The most straightforward route to becoming an aquarist involves pursuing a related higher education program. A degree in marine biology, biology, zoology, or conservation provides a solid foundation for a successful career as an aquarist. These programs typically cover essential topics such as animal physiology, aquatic ecology, and species specific care, enabling graduates to develop the knowledge and skills necessary in the aquarium industry.

There will be a number of internships available if you are pursuing a degree. Be sure to apply and make the most of these opportunities to gain practical experience, which will greatly benefit you when searching for employment after graduation or if you decide to continue with a masters or PhD. Additionally, consider volunteering at local wildlife rescue centers to further broaden your skill set and gain additional exposure to various aspects of aquatic life management and conservation efforts.

In addition to internships, consider joining professional organizations, societies, or online communities related to the field. These platforms offer great networking opportunities, access to industry experts, and resources such as workshops and seminars. Staying up to date about the latest trends and developments in the aquarium industry can give you a competitive edge in the job market.

Advanced Degrees

Staying in academia a bit longer to pursue a masters or a PhD can be an excellent choice to gain in-depth knowledge if you want to focus on a specialized topic. These programs also offer access to different research opportunities, internships, and collaborations. Be sure to talk to your professors to see what programmes and opportunities are out there based on your specific interests.

While an advanced degree is not mandatory to succeed as an aquarist, it can certainly help and open doors for opportunities in research, management, and other leadership positions.

I am in high school, can I start preparing to become an aquarist?

If you’re currently in high school and have already set your sights on becoming an aquarist, you’re well-placed to lay the groundwork for a successful career. At this stage it is helpful to focus on subjects like biology, chemistry, and mathematics. These subjects lay the foundation for further studies in marine biology, zoology, and other related fields and will make your admission to higher level education programs easier.

At this point in time you can already start looking for internships. Some aquariums have special internships programs, like the South Carolina Aquarium High School Intern Program and the New England Aquarium Summer Teen Internships, that are meant for high school students. Securing one of these internships not only offers enjoyable and educational experiences but also grants valuable insights into the industry and the opportunity to network with established professionals in the field that will help you a lot in the future.

Can I become an aquarist without a degree?

Having a degree is the most common path to becoming an aquarist. However, it is still possible to enter the profession without one. Focus on gaining extensive hands-on experience through activities like volunteering, internships, or entry-level positions at aquariums, zoos, or wildlife rescue centers. Engage in self-directed learning and stay up-to-date with developments in the industry, participate in workshops and training courses, and network with other professionals to contribute to your growth and increase your opportunities.

Essential Tips

Regardless of your chosen career path, there are some elements that are almost universal to enhance your career prospects. Soft skills such as effective communication, problem-solving, teamwork, adaptability, and time management are crucial for success. To practice your communication skills consider opening your own blog or engaging with the growing community of aquarist influencers on social media platforms. Examples include @aquarist_ayrton on Instagram and Kara Muzia with the So You Want to Be a Marine Biologist podcast. By actively participating in these platforms and sharing your knowledge you can expand your network, share your knowledge, and learn from other aquarists while showcasing your passion for the industry.

Another useful tip is to care for and maintain your own personal aquariums. Having a home aquarium allows you to gain hands-on experience with different aquatic species, understand their requirements, and learn about water quality management and aquatic plant care. It also demonstrates your dedication and passion for aquatic life to potential employers.

Acquiring scuba diving certification and first aid training can be immensely beneficial to your career. Both of these qualifications demonstrate your versatility and preparedness for handling various situations in aquatic environments. Obtaining these certifications, however, can be costly. If your school or workplace offers financial assistance it is wise to seize the opportunity. The investment in these valuable skills will likely yield significant returns over the course of your career, making you more well-rounded and competitive in the field.

Aquarist Career Progression

The growth aspects of an aquarist’s career is closely tied to hands-on work experience and the development of specialized skills. As you gain more experience you will have the opportunity to work with a wider variety of aquatic species, take on more complex tasks, and handle greater responsibilities. Progressing through the ranks of the profession, you might start as an entry-level aquarist, move on to a senior or lead position, and eventually become a curator or manager of an entire aquarium facility.

As you advance into more senior roles, mentoring the next generation of aquarists becomes increasingly important. Sharing your knowledge, insights, and experiences can greatly benefit those just starting their careers, helping them avoid common pitfalls and develop the necessary skills more efficiently. By being a good mentor you contribute to the growth of individual professionals and to the overall field of aquatic life management and conservation. Embrace the role of mentor as an opportunity to give back to the community, enhance your leadership skills, and leave a lasting impact on the future of the aquarist profession.

By focusing on acquiring hands-on experience, nurturing your professional network, and committing to lifelong learning, you will be well equipped to navigate the dynamic world of aquarists and experience steady career growth. Embrace each opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute to the betterment of aquatic life, and you will find yourself on a rewarding and fulfilling career path.