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Marine Biologist Career Guide

What is a marine biologist?

A marine biologist is a scientist who specializes in the study and research of organisms within the ocean and other bodies of water. They focus on discovering, understanding, and documenting the life processes of marine species, from the tiniest microscopic organisms to the largest mammals on earth. These professionals work to unveil the mysteries of the sea, its creatures, and the vital ecological role they play. Being expert problem solvers with a deep understanding of marine life, they contribute significant value to their organizations, scientific communities, and society at large by protecting oceanic biodiversity and promoting ecosystem health.

The profession directly impacts fishing, conservation, climate sciences, and even tourism by providing essential insights into marine life behaviors, adaptations, and environmental changes. Their research and findings support science’s progress and help inform policies and initiatives aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources.

Duties and responsibilities

Marine biologists carry out a wide spectrum of tasks, including field and lab work. Their key responsibility is to study marine organisms, examining their behaviors, diseases, genetics, and the impact of environmental changes on them. This typically involves designing and implementing complex research studies, conducting field surveys to collect biological data, and using specialized equipment to gather samples from various marine habitats.

Other significant responsibilities include analyzing and interpreting data, writing research papers for scientific journals, and presenting findings at scientific conferences. Additionally, these professionals often have teaching duties, especially those employed at educational or research institutions. They may be involved in public awareness or advocacy programs as well, communicating the importance of marine conservation to the public and recommending policies for sustainable use and protection of marine resources.

Work environment

The work environment of a marine biologist is quite diversified and depends largely on the nature of their particular area of study. While some spend a significant portion of their time in outdoor settings, diving into the sea, exploring coral reefs, or sailing on research vessels, others work predominantly in laboratories and offices. Labs are usually where they analyze samples collected from the field and write reports on their findings.

Working in this profession often involves a mixture of solitary research work and collaboration with other scientists. The job can be both mentally stimulating and physically demanding, requiring a genuine passion for marine biology and the resilience to handle varying conditions, from the unpredictability of sea weather to the meticulous tasks performed in a lab.

Typical work hours

Typical work hours for marine biologists can vary greatly based on the nature of their work and research requirements. Those involved in fieldwork may have long working hours, especially when conducting explorations or carrying out experiments that demand monitoring at irregular intervals. Frequent travel, sometimes to remote locations, may be involved, which could extend the workday.

In contrast, marine biologists primarily involved in teaching, theoretical research, or administrative roles may follow a more structured work schedule, typically resembling the traditional 9-to-5 workweek. However, it’s important to note that in any research-focused role, there can be periods of intensive work when deadlines for research papers or grant applications approach. Overall, the profession requires flexibility and dedication.

How to become a marine biologist

This career guide section outlines becoming a marine biologist. The journey typically encompasses a combination of formal education, practical experiences, and specialized training that culminates in a scientific exploration of the marine environment and its inhabitants.

Step 1: High school preparation

For high school students, taking courses in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics can provide a solid foundation. Additionally, joining related extracurricular activities such as environmental clubs can foster an appreciation for marine life and environmental stewardship.

Step 2: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Most entry-level positions require a bachelor’s degree in marine biology, zoology, ecology, or a related field. It’s important to take classes that focus on marine organisms and ecosystems, chemistry, physics, and biometrics, to name a few.

Step 3: Gain fieldwork experience

Fieldwork provides students with essential hands-on experience. This can be gained through internships, summer jobs, or volunteering at research centers or marine labs. Such experiences offer exposure to oceanographic exploration methods and various marine organisms, as well as practical skills for identifying and sampling marine life.

Step 4: Obtain a master’s degree or Ph.D.

Higher-level positions and research roles often require further education. A master’s degree can open opportunities for laboratory and technical roles. A Ph.D., on the other hand, is a requirement for those who aspire to lead research projects or teach at the university level. Specialized courses often include marine ecology, marine conservation biology, and marine spatial planning.

Step 5: Attend relevant seminars and workshops

Continuous learning is the hallmark of any scientific profession. Attending workshops and seminars not only adds to your knowledge but also keeps you updated with the latest research findings and trends in marine biology. It also presents networking opportunities, which can be crucial for research collaborations and job prospects.

Step 6: Search and apply for jobs

After earning the requisite degree(s) and gaining field experience, you can start hunting for marine biology jobs. Positions like field researcher, laboratory technician, environmental consultant, or policy analyst could be possible options. Look for job vacancies at universities, government agencies, environmental consultancies, and research institutions. Tailor your job applications to highlight your relevant skills and experiences.

How much do marine biologists make?

Marine biologist salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Additionally, the specific area of marine biology, such as research or conservation, will also influence compensation. Major factors impacting salary include the levels of responsibility in the role and the availability of funding for research activities or conservation efforts.

Highest paying industries

  • Federal Executive Branch – $103,490
  • Architectural and Engineering – $76,530
  • Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services – $73,420
  • Scientific Research and Development Services – $70,850
  • State Government – $65,480

Highest paying states

  • Massachusetts – $82,290
  • New York – $81,970
  • California – $81,270
  • Alaska – $79,540
  • Connecticut – $77,180

Browse marine biologist salary data by market

Types of marine biologists

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for marine biologists. In the subsequent sections, each subfield within the marine biology realm will be examined in detail, shedding light on the various paths one could pursue within this fascinating field.


An ichthyologist is a marine biologist who focuses on studying fish. Their research might be concentrated on anything from fish genetics to fish behavior. These professionals often work in settings such as fish hatcheries, aquatic zoos, or government agencies, providing valuable insights about fish species.

Marine mammalogist

Specializing in the study of marine mammals in their natural habitat, marine mammalogists investigate the behavior, biology, and conservation of species such as dolphins, whales, seals, and sea otters. They often work for conservation organizations, government agencies, or universities.

Marine ecologist

Marine ecologists concentrate on how marine organisms interact within their environment. They are pivotal in understanding and conserving marine ecosystems. By studying relations between marine life and their surroundings, they help develop sustainable strategies to protect marine biodiversity.

Marine microbiologist

Marine microbiologists focus on microscopic organisms within marine environments, such as bacteria, viruses, and phytoplankton. They often conduct laboratory research and may study how these tiny life forms interact with other organisms, influence global cycles, or can be utilized in biomedical research.

Physical oceanographer

A physical oceanographer is a marine biologist who studies the physical conditions and processes within the ocean, such as waves, tides, currents, and the interaction of light with water. By understanding these elements, they can gauge how these factors affect marine life, climate, and human activity.

Top skills for marine biologists

This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as a marine biologist. Marine biology is a broad field with multiple specializations, such as marine mammalogy, fisheries biology, marine ecology, and marine biotechnology.

Scientific knowledge

Command of various scientific subjects is vital. You need to understand biology and marine science and demonstrate knowledge of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. This will enable you to effectively study marine organisms and the impact of environmental changes on them.

Research skills

Being able to research effectively is an expected competency. This includes understanding appropriate research protocols, designing experiments, collecting data in the field, and interpreting results. Research skills are crucial for both field and laboratory work.

Scuba diving proficiency

Many activities in this field demand the ability to scuba dive. Some marine biologists need to collect samples from under the sea or observe marine animals in their natural habitats. Hence, scuba diving proficiency and proper training can impact the tasks you can perform.

Analytical skills

To make sense of collected data, an eye for detail and advanced analytical abilities are required. Interpreting complex datasets and identifying patterns are tasks that require this skill set. It’s also necessary for making hypotheses and drawing valid conclusions.

Communication skills

The ability to clearly articulate your thoughts and findings to diverse audiences is essential. This involves writing reports and papers, presenting research findings, and sometimes educating the public about marine conservation. Effectively communicating complex scientific information in a way that is easy to understand is a key part of this role.

Physical fitness

This role can be physically demanding, with potential fieldwork in challenging environments. It can involve scuba diving, handling heavy equipment, or working in remote locations. Thus, maintaining good health and physical stamina can be beneficial to your success as a marine biologist.

Marine biologist career path options

As a marine biologist, the world ocean lies before you to explore and understand. This career path holds abundant opportunities for growth, specialization, and advancement. The sea teems with life forms, ecosystems, and phenomena waiting to be studied and discovered. By gaining more field experience, schooling, and building a solid reputation, you can chart a fulfilling and rewarding trajectory in marine biology.

Intermediate levels

Early in your career, you may work as a field or laboratory assistant, gathering samples and performing basic analysis under the guidance of experienced researchers. With time and experience, transition into research positions, possibly leading small projects or subgroups, could be a quite common progression for you.

Advanced levels

At higher levels, career choices could take you into specialized roles such as a marine mammalogist, ichthyologist, or oceanographer, focusing on specific species or environmental aspects. You could also lead research initiatives or oversee conservation projects, directing teams of researchers and professionals. Some become heads of laboratories or research centers, playing a key role in scientific advances and influencing environmental policy.

Academia & consultation

Opportunity in academia is another oft-chosen path. You could become a college or university professor, combining research with teaching future generations. With a rich research portfolio and academic credentials, you could provide consultation services to government agencies, environmental non-profit organizations, or private corporations on issues related to marine biology.

Beyond the lab

Marine biology isn’t confined to labs and research centers. A sector of professionals find rewarding careers in aquariums, zoos, or marine parks, focusing on care, rehabilitation, and education. You might opt to become a naturalist guide, a nature writer, a marine photography specialist, or even a documentary filmmaker, translating science into stories that captivate and educate the public.

With an increasing global focus on conservation and ecological balance, the field of marine biology is creating greater opportunities for exploration and research. Technological advancements have evolved how marine biologists conduct their studies and gather data. A heightened emphasis on environmental responsibility and sustainability propels the demand. Professionals specializing in this field find opportunities in diverse sectors such as conservation, fisheries, and bioengineering. They are also being tapped by the tourism industry, where efforts to conserve marine life are growing.

Another trend within the field is the integration of technology. Digital tools and software are now immensely utilized by these workers to collect and analyze data, track animals, and predict environmental changes. Broadly, technology has facilitated marine biologists to conduct their work with greater efficiency, precision, and in a non-invasive manner to marine life. Additionally, these professionals are increasingly working in multi-disciplinary teams, collaborating with data scientists, climatologists, and other specialists.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of zoologists and wildlife biologists, which include marine biologists, is projected to grow by 1 percent through 2031. More professionals will be needed to study the impact of population growth and development on wildlife and their habitats.

Work in government sectors, both at the state and federal level, forms the majority of the employment opportunities. However, the private sector and non-profit organizations also provide substantial job opportunities. Despite this, since this is a relatively small occupation, competition for available jobs is expected to remain high.

Marine biologist career tips

Understanding the work environment

Working in the field requires a strong grasp of the oceanic ecosystems and producing scientific reports. It often involves being outdoors, at sea, and in labs. Thorough familiarity with the environment in which the work is conducted can lead to insightful research findings and innovative solutions to challenges.

Build a professional network

Networking opens up opportunities for collaboration on projects, catching up with the latest developments, and boosting your career prospects. It can also provide you with mentors who can guide you through your career journey.

  • American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists
  • Marine Biological Association
  • Society for Marine Mammalogy
  • International Marine Science Network

Continual learning and development

In a field where the ecosystem dynamics keep changing, marine biologists need to stay updated with the latest research and advancements. In addition, updating your skills will help enhance your job performance and could open more doors to career advancement.

  • Get certified in SCUBA: Since part of the work involves research underwater, being SCUBA certified can be a major boost
  • Take advanced courses in marine biology: Universities and online platforms offer specialized courses to broaden your knowledge base
  • Get software proficiency: Learning to use software like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can increase your employability

Proactively engage in research

Research lies at the heart of marine biology. As such, being proactively involved in research projects—both your own and those headed by other scientists—can help expand your expertise, improve your problem-solving skills, and expose you to different marine species and ecosystems. This might also lead to more opportunities for career advancement and recognition in your field.

Develop technological skills

The field of marine biology has witnessed an increase in the use of technology for tracking, investigating, and preserving marine life. These include satellite tracking, acoustic monitoring, underwater robotics, and hyperspectral imaging. Building technological skills and becoming proficient in using these technologies will significantly enhance your competitiveness in the job market, allowing for greater research possibilities and opportunities for discovery.

Where the marine biologist jobs are

Top employers

  • NOAA Fisheries
  • Marine Biological Laboratory
  • Oceana
  • The Ocean Agency
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Top states

  • California
  • Florida
  • Alaska
  • Maine
  • Hawaii

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Conservation Job Board
  • USAJobs


What type of schooling is required for a career in marine biology?

Most jobs in this field require at least a bachelor’s degree in marine biology or a related field. Higher-level positions often require a master’s degree or, for research and teaching positions, a doctorate. Coursework typically includes biology, zoology, chemistry, physics, and specialized classes in marine biology, ichthyology, and oceanography.

How critical is practical experience in marine biology?

Practical fieldwork is crucial in marine biology. It provides hands-on experience and a direct understanding of marine organisms and their environments. Internships, summer programs, and even volunteer opportunities with aquatic life centers or wildlife refuges can provide this invaluable experience.

What is the role of technology in marine biology?

Technology plays a substantial role in marine biology, from satellite tracking to sonar technology and deep-sea submersibles. Technology allows for extensive data collection, remote monitoring of marine environments, and detailed study of marine organisms in their natural settings. It’s important for those in the field to be comfortable with advanced technology and tools.

What soft skills are beneficial for marine biologists?

While technical knowledge and skills are vital, certain soft skills can also enhance your performance in marine biology. Communication skills are important for sharing research findings and collaborating with team members. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills help when conducting research and experimental studies, and patience and determination can be valuable when trials do not go as planned or when facing adverse weather conditions.

What sorts of organizations employ marine biologists?

Marine biologists can find employment in a variety of settings, including research laboratories, universities, private companies, and government agencies. Non-profit organizations and conservation groups are also known to hire marine biologists. Those specializing in public education may work in aquariums, zoos, or nature reserves.

What kind of specializations exist within marine biology?

Marine biology is a broad field with numerous areas for specialization. These include marine mammalogy (the study of marine mammals), ichthyology (the study of fish), planktology (the study of plankton), and physical oceanography (the study of oceanic physical processes). You may also choose to specialize in a specific environment, like coral reefs or kelp forests, or focus on a certain behavior, such as migration patterns or feeding habits.

Are there any health or physical requirements for marine biologists?

Marine biology can be physically demanding, with a good amount of time spent outdoors or at sea. It may also involve scuba diving or operating boats or submersibles. Good physical health and fitness can be beneficial, although requirements will vary depending on the specific role. For roles involving entry into the water, certification in scuba diving alongside basic first aid or lifesaving skills could be beneficial.

What are the typical tasks of a marine biologist on a daily basis?

A marine biologist’s day-to-day responsibilities can vary widely depending on the job. Some might spend the day in a laboratory studying data or conducting experiments, while others might be out at sea gathering samples and conducting field research. The tasks may also involve writing reports and papers, giving presentations, teaching, or maintaining equipment.

What are some challenges associated with a career in marine biology?

Marine biology, while rewarding, poses its unique challenges. Fieldwork can be physically demanding, subjected to weather and sea conditions that are often inconvenient or even harsh. Research can also be a slow and meticulous process, requiring patience and determination. Limited funding for scientific research can also present challenges and may affect job availability or stability. Despite these challenges, many marine biologists find the ability to learn about marine life and contribute to conservation and understanding efforts to be highly rewarding.

How important is teamwork in marine biology?

Teamwork is often key to success in marine biology. Research projects frequently involve collaboration among researchers, sometimes from different institutions or countries. Communication and cooperation are essential when working on a team, whether discussing research findings, designing experiments, or working together in field research. Good teamwork can facilitate a fruitful exchange of ideas and accelerate scientific discovery.