Advice for potential graduate students


Our work


Our work is mainly on the behaviour (principally social organization and cultural transmission), ecology and population biology of sperm, northern bottlenose and pilot whales. We have ongoing research projects in the South Pacific (sperm whales since 1985) and northwest Atlantic (sperm whales since 1986, bottlenose whales since 1988, pilot whales since 1998). We spend weeks at sea on board ocean-going sailing boats, or whale-watch boats, collecting acoustic, visual, photographic and oceanographic data, and then long periods analyzing them in the lab. The graduate students whom I supervise study the social organization, behaviour, acoustics and population biology of pilot, sperm and northern bottlenose whales. My own work is principally on the behaviour, social structure, population biology and conservation of sperm whales, and more general questions about social structure in mammals and cultural evolution.


Jobs and volunteering


Our funding is insufficient to employ anyone (except occasionally, and temporarily, a Dalhousie student, usually in the co-op programme). We sometimes have volunteers working in the lab., and, more rarely, during the field research. However, space on the main research vessel is limited (12m sailing vessel), so places are usually restricted to Dalhousie graduate and undergraduate students, and those with substantial offshore sailing experience.


Graduate studies on cetaceans--the general picture


There are rather few scientists studying cetaceans who are in a position to supervise graduate students, and there is a great deal of interest from potential students. This means that there is considerable competition, and only potential students with an outstanding record have much chance of being accepted. Studying cetaceans is difficult and less rewarding (in results per unit time) than research on most other kinds of animals. There are also very few jobs for those with graduate degrees in cetacean work, so it is only for the truly committed. For more information on graduate or other work with marine mammals, see the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s advice and links.


Graduate studies on cetaceans in our group at Dalhousie


I do supervise graduate (MSc and PhD) students but there is much more demand than I can accommodate. I only accept students with field research experience on marine mammals, or something similar (this can be obtained through internships). To be seriously considered, a student must also have a full scholarship from an external source. Nearly all the graduate students that I have supervised over the past two decades have had scholarships from NSERC (Canada), FQRNT (Quebec), foreign government, or international organization (such as British Commonwealth or Organization of American States). For the normal Dalhousie Scholarships, about half the money comes from the supervisor's research grant which mine cannot stand, and graduate students are almost never accepted without scholarships.


These restrictions mean that it is hard for students from some countries to be accepted, for instance for US students (as NSF scholarships, the US equivalent of NSERC, are few and very hard to obtain).


I am particularly interested in potential students with offshore sailing experience and mathematical / statistical / computing skills.


For general information about Dalhousie University, see


Information on the graduate programmes in the Biology Department is at:



Hal Whitehead


(Updated Aug 2013)


Return to Cetacean Science at Dalhousie

Last Updated August 2013 by Hal Whitehead