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How to Become a Marine Biologist

What is a marine biologist?

Marine biologists study marine organisms, their behaviors, and how they interact with the environment to better understand them and better understand the oceans they live in. The field of marine biology covers a very broad area, so most marine biologists specialize in a particular species, group, behavior, technique, or ecosystem.

As an estimated 80% of all life on earth lives in the ocean, studying how marine creatures live, how they affect the environment, how they affect us, and how humans affect them is vitally important. Overfishing, pollution, and warming oceans are all having immense implications on ocean ecosystems, and marine biologists are working on answers every day. 

Marine biologists work in a variety of industries. Some common employers are universities and colleges, international organizations, federal and state agencies, private companies, consulting firms, laboratories, and local governments. Some marine biologists are self-employed.

Qualifications and eligibility

First and foremost, to become a marine biologist, you must have a natural interest in aquatic life and an interest in aquatic ecosystems. Marine biologists also need to have excellent math and statistics skills, practical experience in the field, superb observation skills, and lots of patience. Good written and oral communication and public speaking skills are also necessary to give presentations and write reports and publish papers in scientific journals. Marine biologists work outdoors in all types of weather, so having that ability is required. 

The minimal educational requirement for a marine biologist is a bachelor’s degree in biology, zoology, fisheries, marine studies, or biochemistry. Majors in ecology or environmental studies can also be helpful. However, many employers prefer applicants to have a master’s degree specializing in marine biology and aquatic studies, and it is not uncommon to find jobs requiring a doctorate in marine biology.

Experience is very beneficial, and you can gain that through internships, volunteering, or part-time work at local aquariums, environmental organizations, fisheries, etc.

Work environment

The work environment for marine biologists can vary widely based on the type of work they do, such as research, teaching, or working in the private sector. Most marine biologists spend at least part of their time doing research in the field. They can work in many different environments and weather conditions, including marshes, wetlands, and oceans. The work can be physically demanding and the hours long and unpredictable at times. They must be comfortable out on the water in boats and using scuba gear. Other tools marine biologists typically use are nets, traps, sonar, submarines, robotics, computers, and standard lab equipment.

Marine biologists who are mainly involved in research work in offices where they write grant proposals to obtain funding, collect and analyze data from their studies, and publish papers in scientific journals. Travel is a standard component of researchers’ lives.

University professors work at colleges or universities where they prepare and give lectures, plan and oversee lab sessions, and grade papers and exams. Many professors also do research and publish their findings in scientific journals. Those who work for private companies tend to work in office settings and mainly are involved in consulting.

Typical work hours

When in the field, the hours for a marine biologist can be irregular and sometimes long. They may work nights and weekends as the project demands. Those who work in labs and offices tend to have regular schedules and work typical 40-hour weeks. Teachers can have more flexible schedules that may include working nights. When doing fieldwork, marine biologists have to travel, sometimes long distances out on the ocean, to locations where they might be for days or weeks at a time. 

Types of marine biologists

There are many different types of marine biologists as the term is a very broad one, consisting of scientists who study aquatic life in oceans, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. Some of the common types of marine biologists are:

  • Marine Biotechnologists – study how compounds from marine plants, animals, and microbes may be used in pharmaceuticals. 
  • Herpetologists – study amphibians and reptiles that live near or in the ocean.
  • Invertebrate Zoologists – study invertebrate organisms in aquatic environments, such as sponges, crustaceans, and mollusks.
  • Marine Mammalogists – study marine mammals, which include whales, dolphins, seals, and porpoises.
  • Phycologists – study algae. Also known as algologists.
  • Ichthyologists – study different species of fish, broken into bony, cartilaginous, or jawless classifications.
  • Marine Veterinarians – veterinarians who specialize in marine animals.
  • Environmental Consultants – may provide assessments, ensure compliance with environmental regulations, or conduct research.  
  • Aquaculturists – work with fisheries and conduct research on overfishing, the sustainability of fish as a food source, and pollution levels. 
  • Environmental Studies – study the effects of rising ocean temperatures, water pollution, and ocean acidification on marine life.

Income potential

The earning potential for a marine biologist can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, certifications, and acquired skills.  

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, The median annual wage for zoologists and wildlife biologists was $64,650 in May 2021. The lowest 10% earned less than $42,420, and the highest 10% earned more than $103,900.
  • The median annual income for zoologists and wildlife biologists in the top industries are: 
    • Federal government – $81,890
    • Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences – $64,420
    • State government – $63,580
    • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services – $61,920
    • Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private – $61,780
  • The 10 cities with the highest average salaries are:
    • Green River, WY – $74,006
    • Richmond, CA – $73,442
    • Stamford, CT – $72,550
    • Bellevue, WA – $72,231
    • Belgrade, MT – $71,786
    • Santa Clara, CA – $70,548
    • San Francisco, CA – $69,277
    • Hartford, CT – $68,788
    • Elk Grove, CA – $68,737
    • Gillette, WY – $68,556
  • The five top marine biologist job positions as:
    • Head Of Marine Biology – $110,485
    • Marine Data Science – $107,287
    • Marine Systems Engineering – 
    • Director Marine Biology – $98,423
    • Head Of Marine Biologist – $96,052
  • The top five states with the best average earnings for marine biologists are:
    • Washington – $67,993
    • Maryland – $66,283
    • Virginia – $64,901
    • New York – $64,698
    • Delaware – $63,645

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the employment of zoologists and wildlife biologists is projected to grow 5% from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations. Most of the openings are expected to come from replacing workers who transfer to different occupations or retire.

Career path

There are many career paths a marine biologist can take, and the path you choose will depend on your education, experience, interests, and opportunities. You might go into academic research, fieldwork, laboratory work, consulting, outreach, or policymaking. Some common careers for marine biologists include:

  • Professor
  • Fish Biologist
  • Marine Research Technician
  • Lab Coordinator
  • Field Scientist
  • Groundfish Observer
  • Aquatic Land Manager
  • Environmental Planner
  • Environmental Consultant
  • Marine Science Programs Coordinator
  • Marine Veterinarian
  • Aquaculturist
  • Marine Ecologist
  • Reef Restoration Project Manager
  • Ocean Engineer
  • Marine Archeologist
  • Marine Geologist
  • Marine Biotechnologist
  • Marine Policy Expert

Steps to becoming a marine biologist

Here are the typical steps to becoming a marine biologist:

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

Your first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology, marine biology, zoology, or a related field. You can then seek an entry-level position in marine biology, such as a biological laboratory technician or a research assistant. 

2. Apply for internships

Gaining hands-on experience is an important step to becoming a marine biologist. Typically, you can apply for internships through your school while working on your undergraduate degree. 

3. Earn a master’s degree

A master’s degree is the next step in your journey as a marine biologist. Most positions within marine biology require a master’s degree. Some of the top master’s degree programs are in marine sciences, marine biology, marine conservation, and marine biotechnology. A master’s degree typically takes about 2 years to complete. 

4. Earn a doctorate

If you are interested in conducting your own research and teaching at a university, you will need to get your doctoral degree. You have the choice of pursuing a marine biology doctoral program or a related program such as oceanography. Doctorate programs generally take between 3 and 5 years to complete. 

5. Get additional certifications

Although this step isn’t required in general, for many jobs in the field of marine biology you will need additional training. This might be learning how to operate a boat on the ocean or handling technical equipment needed for a particular job. You can get additional training through internships, research projects with established marine biologists, or volunteering opportunities. Here are some certifications you may need:

UTMSI offers a marine biology certification that requires 19 semester hours. You’ll learn about marine science and have six semester hours at the Marine Science Institute.

If you’re interested in marine biology, but don’t want to study it in college, these courses from Coursera are a great option. They cover multiple topics, like oceanography and paleontology. 

This is a free course that teaches you how to be a marine science citizen. Basically, you’ll learn the basic skills needed to conduct citizen science activities in the field. It emphasizes techniques for measurement and observations of wildlife and other natural phenomena and how to accurately record them along with necessary contextual data.

Because you’ll be diving a lot as a marine biologist, you’ll need to know how to scuba dive. There are many certifications for scuba diving, so be sure you train up to the level that’s necessary.

6. Choose your career path

As marine biology is such a broad field, choosing where you fit in will depend on your interests, your education level, and the opportunities around you. Consider which areas of marine biology interest you the most and explore the opportunities available within those areas. 

Tips for becoming a marine biologist

If you are planning to become a marine biologist, there are a few things you can do to get ahead of the game. Here are some tips for becoming a marine biologist:

  • Start early if you can. Take as many advanced science and math courses as you can in high school. Read and study everything you can about marine life and the oceans on your own. 
  • Get out in the field as often as you can. Do volunteer work and/or apply for internships. Get a job at a zoo, nature center, aquarium, veterinarian clinic, or conservation project. Do whatever you can to gain hands-on experience. 
  • Research undergraduate programs and find ones that appeal to you. Check the requirements for admission and work toward meeting those requirements, whether that is improving your grades or taking the right classes. When you choose a school, apply for all the scholarships you can. 
  • Discover what area of marine biology interests you the most and learn all you can about it. Know what you’re getting into as well. Marine biologists do all kinds of things in the field, often getting dirty, muddy, cold, hot, tired, and smelling like fish. 
  • Work on your observations and data collection skills. Go to the beach, or local body of water if you aren’t near a beach, collect samples, and analyze them. 
  • Find a mentor with experience in your area of interest. Learn everything you can from them. You might be able to do this where you live or while working on your undergraduate degree at school. You can even find online mentor programs. 
  • Decide if you want to get a master’s degree or if you need a doctorate to pursue your career path. Plan how you’re going to achieve that goal and actively pursue it. 
  • Read marine biology and marine science publications and journals to stay current on what’s happening in the world of marine biology. 

You can also find local, state, and university marine biology societies in the area where you live.

Marine biologist FAQs