Sunday, December 28, 2014

THE Mystery of The Field: How To Become A Trainer (Part 1)

*This is part one of a series*

I've written a lot about elements of becoming a new trainer.  I know there are a lot of you out there reading this blog who are probably like YES BUT I WANT MORE.

Oh, I'll give you more Mr. Cage.

Well, if you're relatively new to the Middle Flipper, you may not know that I've written a fair number of entries on this topic.  But because I am totally inept at the whole web design thing, plus I am a poor dolphin trainer who likes free things, I know it's not totally easy to navigate through Blogger to find some of those entries.  So first and foremost, here you go:

Swim test entries:  My Miami swim test here and my Sea World San Diego swim test here

How to destroy your chance at a job in step? Wonder why you're having trouble getting jobs and think maybe you have a toxic relationship with overshare on social media? You should read this blog: Check it out here

My failures as an aspiring trainer? Oh, I've got lots.  Here's just one entry about them.

The Middle Flipper Guide to Good Interning Part 1 and Part 2

But really, let's get down to it.  Some of you are just starting out: you're looking to get your first internship.  Others of you are just dying to get your first job (ohhhhh believe me, I've been there and remember that feeling VERY well).  And some of you are really ready to give up. 

Here's the thing; I can't possibly go through each of your individual situations and tell you exactly what you need to do in order to land a job in this field.  I wish I could, because you, dear readers, are awesome and I would love nothing more than to help you.   But I can't do that, even if I had all the time in the world and knew each of you very, very well.   What I can do for you all is be very honest, so that you don't reach the end of this blog with the wrong idea.  So why can't I help each and every one of you?  There are two reasons for that:

1) Not everyone's life path is destined for this job....and that's not my place to judge that (it's yours)

2) Most importantly, YOU are the only one who has the power to decide your fate in this field.  

Channel your inner Bruce

In fact, number 2 is what I want to focus on.  It is not a cop-out answer to the series of questions I've gotten from aspiring interns and trainers.  I'm being genuinely true with you all, because I've seen now hundreds of people try to make it in this field and almost every one of the successful ones shares a common trait:

They create their own luck.

There is not a single book, person, or blog who can outline for you how to become a marine mammal trainer.  There isn't.  But there are a few things that everyone can do that give themselves the best chance possible at getting their first job.  So let's take a look at those things.

1.  Do your own work


What does that mean, you ask?  Like d'uh, you are obviously going to be doing your own work at an internship right?

What I mean by that is to stop asking general questions about things regarding your career choices.  Here are some examples of questions that you should STOP asking on Facebook, IMATA, and in general to forum-like websites: 

* Can someone look at my cover letter/resume?
* How many internships should I do?
* How do I prepare for a swim test?
* Do I have enough experience for this job?

Okay, if you're totally freaking out right now because you've done that, it's okay! Don't worry, I made the same mistake...multiple times, mostly on IMATA forums.  And hey, I've got a job!  So again, chill and don't sweat it if you are someone who tends to do that.  The point is, stop now!  Why?

First of all, when we ask those general questions in a mostly anonymous setting, we are unintentionally making ourselves seem lazy.  The best way around this is to ask pointed and direct questions.  Here's an example:

General Question: Can you look at my resume?

Pointed Question: Can you take a look at my resume and let me know if my experience with manatees stands out?  I'm applying for a job working with manatees and I want to make sure that that part of my resume really grabs my prospective employer.

When we ask the general "hey, can you look at my cover letter" type of question to someone we don't (or barely) know, we are basically indicating that we wrote the thing, now someone else look at it.  You may be shaking your fist at your computer screen yelling, "But that's not why I'm doing that!!"  And I shake my fist back at you and say, "But it's coming off that way and that's all that matters!!"

Asking these broad, non-specific questions and favors does kind of give the wrong impression, but it also cripples you in another way.  By not asking for specific feedback, you won't get actually get any, but more on that later.

Don't be lazy.  It's only cute if you're cat.

Secondly, when we do our own work, that means we are putting ourselves at the mercy of someone we respect.  So instead of me going on and asking, "Hey is it okay that I once had melanoma? Can I still be a trainer?" (which...I actually did) and potentially making future employers go, "Uh....maybe this chick is a liability" or "Why is this girl sharing this very personal medical information on THE INTERNET?", I could've talked to my mentor at my internship and asked her.  

Why didn't I do that?  

Well, at the time, I thought I was canvasing a broader audience.  But how could that broad audience really help me, especially if they didn't know me?   Plus, I could get 10 responses, 8 of which said "you're screwed" and the other two may have said "oh, you're fine".  Where am I at then?  I don't really have an answer.  But had I asked my mentor, someone who saw me in action for 6 months, who has hired countless trainers and interns and knows many other trainers in the field, she may have said, "Don't sweat it.  Plenty of people deal with that.  But some advice? That was pretty stupid to put that on the IMATA forum."

It would've been harder to hear that advice from someone I respected and wanted to impressive, but it would've meant more...because she knows me, see what I'm getting at?

Ya feel me?

Do your own work also means search for your own networks.  Instead of asking a general audience about swim tests, ask the facility itself.   Again, when we just go, "Uh hey, can 'somebody' tell me something?" it makes us look like we aren't willing to find the answer on our own.  What does that say about our work ethic?  And in this competitive field where we as employers are LOOKING for hairs to split, I am way way way way way more impressed by someone who emails me directly and says, "What are the requirements for your swim test?" then I am seeing someone post on a forum "Hey anyone know what xyz's swim test is?"

This is especially true on IMATA's forum, which has tomes of information on swim tests.  I mean, there are seemingly endless threads on the topic.  Talk about a wealth of information!  Asking specifics about the test is one thing; but to ask just the general, "Hey, what's Sea World Orlando's swim test like?" makes it look like maybe you didn't feel like doing a forum search for an answer that's right there. 

Let me clarify something though, in case anyone is still freaking out.  It's different to ask a question that makes it clear that you've done a lot of research on your own.  Asking questions, especially on the IMATA forum or something like that, is a good idea.  It gets your name out there.  But make sure you're asking smart questions that show you in your best light.  

2. Make a personal connection

And if you make it with caffeinated beverages, that's even better.

This piggy-backs off of the last point.  Forums and Facebook groups are great resources for exposure to different people in the field.  It can really help you connect with someone or an experience that you wouldn't have known about before.  But it is a dangerous place if you just stop at the "Oh okay, there are a bunch of trainers reading these threads, so I'm going to see who can give me general career advice."

Making a personal connection with someone is critical.  The best place to do this as an aspiring trainer is at your internship (or internships).  That is why we say that internships are like a three/four month long interview; you are really laying groundwork not only in your OWN experience, but in your marine mammal network.  If you go through your internship without talking to someone who knows about hiring trainers...meaning the people who may intimidate you a little bit because they've got "senior" or "supervisor" or "curator" in their job have really missed a great opportunity.  

Making that connection gives you PRICELESS insight in your job performance and how you are perceived as a prospective employee.  Even if you make huge mistakes in your internship (to a degree, of course), if you are someone who has a great attitude, LEARNS from your mistakes, actively seeks out criticism for self-improvement, you are way ahead of the person who did well in their internship but only asks for general advice on Facebook.  Way ahead.

Ohhhh yeah.  Thumbs way up for you, Hasselhoff.

A person or a group of people who have seen you in action can really, really help you with resumes, especially at the entry-level job phase.  Why?  Because they know what you've done.  They know what your strengths are, combined with the fact they've probably seen a zillion resumes before yours. They can look at your CV and say, "It's too wordy, and you also totally left out that time you helped us with that rehab loggerhead after hours!"

IMATA does this awesome thing at their annual conference: a resume review.  The way it is formatted allows for an experienced member of this field to not just glance at your resume, but get to know YOU and your experience.  While it isn't necessarily as personal as asking your internship mentor or the senior trainer you worked most closely with, it's a pretty good second, because you've got 15 minutes to relay information that an IMATA member can help you tease out in your resume to really make it shine.

Here's a good example: I did the resume review this past IMATA conference.  I met a lot of really cool people doing that.  And I was baffled at how little people put on their resume; because they did a lot of really cool stuff!  One girl didn't highlight that she'd worked with sea lions free contact at one of her internships.  That is a huge, huge deal.  That would catch my eye immediately.  And when I told her that, she said, "Oh! I never thought of it as being that big of a deal!"  

Had she just posted her resume on a forum and said, "Hey, can someone look at this?" she may have gotten some pointers.  But no one would've known about the really rare and cool experience she had with sea lions at one of her internships.  So they wouldn't have told her, "Dude, you need to put that on there.  Get rid of the fish prep stuff; we know you do fish prep as a intern.  Put that you worked with sea lions free contact in a supervised setting!"  And wouldn't you know, that very fact got her an interview (and ultimately, a job).

Mmmhmmm that's right

The personal connection is key.  You are setting yourself up to potentially hear some things about yourself that aren't very flattering, too.  It is a worthy risk though; knowing your strengths and areas of improvement are the only way to DO THE WORK to improve yourself.  And guess what improving yourself does, especially if you work very very hard at it?  Yeah, it gets you a job.  But most critically, it makes you a better animal trainer.

So the next tip should come as no surprise....

3.  Seek out constructive feedback....and implement it

Well it shouldn't be like this, but...sometimes it is...and it can still be helpful.

I would write about this for ten million years if I could*.

I'm going to write this in bold and in giant letters because I really like font formatting but ALSO because I really, really, really believe this to be true:


Those reasons are plentiful, so I can't possibly list them all.  But what's the silver lining?


But he is damn close.

We all have things that we have struggled to improve (and...are still struggling to improve).   Here are some of my weaknesses:

1)  Asserting myself.  You can imagine how much I have had  to work on this
     to become a supervisor

2)  I talk way too much (um, can you tell by how wordy my blogs are??)

3)  I am really bad at keeping track of details about things like dates, times,    
     responding to emails, etc.  I think, "Oh yeah, I'll do that when I have more
     time" and then POOF the thought leaves my brain.

4)  I have a hard time telling someone when I am upset with them until I am
     really frustrated

Those aren't all of my weakness, but they are a few.  And guess what, I have to work on them all the time.  I've been called out on them, especially as an intern and new trainer.  I've gotten some really, really good feedback (and not always delivered in a kind way, but it was still accurate).  I have two choices to make when I face my weaknesses: get defeated by them, or power through the embarrassment and despair I feel when I am going through that and figure out how to make it better.

The best candidates for marine mammal trainers (and jobs everywhere, really!) are the ones who recognize their areas of improvement, SEEK OUT feedback about those things KNOWING FULL WELL that they may hear they did an awful job at them, and THEN power through and improve them.

Fist pump! Power through!

So many times I hear people get defensive about things that they can control.  Some people ask me why they can't get a job in the field, and I tell them that they aren't applying to enough jobs.  Part of trying to get your foot in a very competitive field is being willing to travel almost anywhere for that first job.  That's a fact; it's not a comment on if you are able to do it.  It's a fact that you have a much higher chance at getting your dream entry level job if you are willing to move out of state.  If you aren't, then you will have a harder time.  When I mention this to some people, they get defensive and give me all the very logical reasons why they can't do that.  And I understand those reasons, and sympathize with them....but it doesn't change the reality.  Some of those people become so upset that they give up, instead of getting their head in a different game (e.g. "Okay, maybe it'd take me 1 year to get a job if I could get up and move anywhere.  But I can't, so maybe I'm at a 5 year game plan.  Not ideal, but dag nabbit I'm going to work that much harder to get what I want.")

Others have had poor attitudes at internships, or had bland or difficult-to-read resumes, or said too many not-so-good/mature things on Facebook.  When I've pointed these things out, some people get defensive about that stuff.  Most of those people still do not have jobs.  The people who have said, " if I make this change and that change, do you think that puts me on the right track?", many of them have jobs or interviews right now.


It is really, really hard to lay yourself out to be criticized.  Part of my job is to provide feedback to my employees, but no matter how many times I give feedback and think to myself that all that matters is if the person takes it and makes a really valiant effort to implement it,  I still really really really dread asking for feedback from my boss.  Not because he's mean, or because he doesn't want to help me; he is great.  But because it is ALWAYS hard, no matter WHO you are or what level you're at, to hear your shortcomings.  But guess what?  It is WAY worse to ignore them.  And you can't afford to ignore them, especially if you're trying to get an entry-level job.

So, if you are someone who knows you're defensive (which is great, because you realize that about yourself!!), take a deep breath.  Remember, no one's perfect.  All you have to do is start listening and implementing from this moment forward.  You may hear some things that make you upset, or make you think things are unfair....but think of that information as empowerment.  You now clearly know what you have to do to give yourself the best chance (and you didn't have that information you had that much LESS of a chance).  It's a fantastic thing long term....which is well worth the few hours or days of feeling bummed out or embarrassed because of the mistakes you've made.

So that's enough for this part (like I said, I talk a lot!).  Next week we'll go over three more things you can do to help yourself get a job in this field. 

If you are at the end of this feeling disappointed or discouraged because you feel you haven't done any of the things I've mentioned, or you've made some of the mistakes I've used as examples, it's okay.  Maybe that's your constructive feedback for the day: you know now what not to do.  Move forward, knowing that EVERY trainer who has a job right now made a whole bunch of blunders trying to get hired.  They just did the work, made and utilized their personal connections to get some really insightful feedback on resumes, cover letters, work performance, and overall career advice to help them get over their personal hurdles.  You can do the same thing (but only you!).

Like I've always said, Full House has the best life advice.

See you awesome people next week!!

* But I can't, because I mean, I don't think I'll live that long.  At least not with the number of donuts I'm eating on a weekly basis.  Just a fact.


  1. This was SO reassuring to me; it was almost like a check list to fill out as I finish up my undergraduate career.
    Do my social media accounts reflect my professionalism? Check.
    Do my internships have positive reviews all across the board? Check.
    Does my collegiate experience beef up my resume in terms of field work? Check
    Am I willing to move anywhere to get a job? Checkity-check, etc.

    After networking in the field long enough, I feel like it's pretty clear as far as what future employers are looking for when they're looking to hire someone in this particular field (with a few variables depending on the particular job title/animals worked with). Either way, it's nice to be reminded every once in a while by someone who's already made it and clearly avidly enjoys what she does. Thank you for taking the time to write this, really. It's great to hear such a tongue in cheek and brutally honest viewpoint. You da best.

  2. #3 reminds me of a recent job searching/interviewing experience of mine. As someone who has completed a mere 6 interviews total in her training career so far, I have noticed that there is one non-varying question I have been asked on every single interview without fail:

    "What is your greatest weakness?"

    I recently had the uncomfortable yet strangely helpful experience of a group interview where the department directors had five of us candidates in a room and asked us to respond one by one to each question they presented (you know, like popcorn reading in elementary school. Terrifying.). When asked the weakness question, two of the candidates gave a very awkward "uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh....................can you come back to me?" response (which I will shamefully admit of course gave me a sort of savage pleasure to see my competition totally bomb a question). I was surprised at their lack of preparedness for what, in my limited experience, has been a very common question.

    Moral of the story though, seeking and responding to criticism is something I've been blatantly asked about in all my recent interviews - so thank you Cat for providing some excellent insight I can think on and apply to future my responses. :)

    Looking forward to the next installments!
    - KG