How to Become a Marine Biologist

Combine your love of animals and science with this rewarding career.

Illustration of a marine biologist scuba diving in the ocean surrounded by sea creatures.

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Are you fascinated by marine life? Does the study of aquatic microorganisms, sea creatures and underwater ecosystems sound like a thrilling pursuit? Do you have an aptitude for science?

As a marine biologist, your work would be centered around collecting information about the ocean and the complex life within it. The main aim of this scientific field is not only to form a better understanding of the marine world, but to find ways to protect it from human and natural disturbances. 

If this sounds like an intriguing career prospect, then read on. Our insightful guide will tell you everything you need to know about what marine biologists do, and how you can become one.

What marine biologists do

Marine biologists are scientists who study the sea, its ecosystems and the numerous species within them. From small organisms to sea mammals to marine plants, their job revolves around observing, analyzing and protecting aquatic life. 

This is quite a diverse field, and marine biologists have numerous options when it comes to careers they can pursue. Indeed, many choose to focus on a specific specialism and area of expertize. Here are just a few areas that marine biologists can branch off to:

  • Ichthyologist: Study different fish species’ behavious, characteristics and environments. Ichthyologists also branch out to conservation ecology, reproductive biology and population dynamics.
  • Marine ecologist: Observe how marine creatures and organisms interact in their environments and determine how human activity impacts aquatic systems, helping to protect and restore different ecosystems.
  • Invertebrate biologist: Focus on living species that do not have a backbone, both on land and in water. This involves studying their evolution and monitoring population numbers of different species, such as jellyfish, shellfish, sea stars and urchins.
  • Marine mammalogist: Specialize in the study of marine mammals, including seals, whales, dolphins, manatees, sea otters and polar bears. From physiology to animal behavior to community dynamics, marine mammalogists research these groups of species in their natural environments.
  • Reef restoration project manager: Combat reef degradation and destruction by overseeing restoration efforts. These professionals are tasked with mapping out conservation and management strategies to help coral reefs.
  • Professor: Work within an academic institution, teaching and instructing students in marine biology while also undertaking research projects within and outside of their faculty. 

Undoubtedly, marine biology is a vastly diverse area of study. So, what does the day-to-day life of a marine biologist look like? Take a look at some of their most common duties and responsibilities:

  • Collecting samples, specimens and data for analysis and research
  • Monitoring marine species’ population numbers
  • Help with the rescue and rehabilitation of injured or sick marine creatures
  • Using computer modeling and geographic information systems (GIS) 
  • Overseeing efforts to protect and restore ecosystems
  • Observing and researching marine animal characteristics and behaviors 
  • Examining samples in a lab for research purposes
  • Evaluating marine project proposals to determine potential environmental impact
  • Writing grant proposals for different research initiatives and projects
  • Keeping up with new research and findings within the field
  • Advising governmental officials on environmental policies 
  • Advising agencies and commercial organizations on marine practises 

What the job is like

Marine biology is, unquestionably, a fascinating field that offers opportunities to branch out to several areas of specialization. That said, when choosing a career, you must also consider other important elements tied to the job, including the work environment, the hours you’ll be expected to put in as well as the job satisfaction levels of professionals in this field. 

If you are determined to form a better understanding of this career path, read on. 

Work environment

A marine biologist’s time will usually be split between conducting fieldwork and working at a laboratory. Some marine biologists may also find themselves working at aquariums and sea life sanctuaries, or teaching in academic institutions. 

The majority of these professionals, however, spend most of their time in or around bodies of water, be it wetlands, marshes or the ocean, where they conduct research, collect samples and observe different aquatic species. 

They also rely on and utilize equipment, such as boats, scuba diving gear, sonar and robotics. This can be a physically demanding and potentially dangerous profession, as marine biologists may come across or work with aggressive species. Being expected to scuba dive as part of their fieldwork, underwater currents, cold bodies of water and severe weather conditions are a few other occupational hazards they may face on occasion. 

Meanwhile, conducting lab work could involve several different tasks, such as sample testing, writing research papers and drafting grant proposals.

Work hours

Depending on the nature of their research and the type of fieldwork they are focused on, marine biologists may work irregular hours and therefore have an ever-changing work schedule. On average, field work contracts vary between 40 to 50 hours per week. 

Marine biologists may find themselves working in the evenings, early hours of the day, or in intervals, following the routine of different marine species and collecting data. Weather conditions and sea tides may also be significant factors, as they could cause delays in certain fieldwork experiments, and extend the duration of a project.

Those who work in aquariums, schools, consultancies and non-governmental organizations may benefit from regular office hours and a more structured schedule.

Job satisfaction

This is a career that requires you to be passionate and curious about what you do. Although it may require extensive training and years of education before you can take your first steps as a marine biologist, you can expect to get high satisfaction from your job.

Indeed, according to Payscale data, marine biologists rated their career a 4.6/5, giving an insightful image of how they feel about their chosen profession.

That said, this is quite a competitive field, with limited job openings. Moreover, as jobs are often funded by grants, your career stability could be shaky, as all could depend on the success of a grant application. 

Beyond that, marine biologists have the opportunity to travel abroad, join exciting projects, work with other scientists and make ground-breaking discoveries in their field. And with 80% of the ocean still unexplored, this makes marine biologists’ job all the more compelling.

Job market

As previously mentioned, marine biology is a competitive field, making it a difficult career to break into. 

According to BLS, employment of zoologists and wildlife biologists is expected to grow by just 5% between 2020 and 2030, a rate that is significantly lower than the average for all occupations. 

That said, BLS also projects 1700 job openings for zoologists and wildlife biologists annually. Moreover, as this is a diverse field that branches out to several different areas, marine biologists may choose to diversify their options and pursue roles in consulting firms, NGOs, governmental agencies and academic institutions. 

Salary

While marine biology may not be on the higher end of the salary scale for science careers, there is still an excellent earning potential for professionals in this field. 

Take a look at our overview below detailing the average annual wages for marine biologists based on their level of experience and location. 

Mean wage

Based on BLS data, marine biologists can expect to take home a respectable annual income. Take a look at the mean annual and hourly wage below:

Mean annual wage

Mean hourly wage

$70,510

$33.90

Median wage by experience

As a marine biologist, your income margin will grow along with your experience in the field. Here are the median wages for marine biologists in the US based on their seniority level:

Experience

Mean annual wage

Entry-level

$41,720

Junior level

$52,630

Mid-level

$66,350

Senior level

$82,670

Top-level

$106,320

Mean wage by state

The table below demonstrates which states offer the highest mean wages for marine biologists across the US.

State

Mean annual wage

Maryland

$83,050

Hawaii

$83,250

New Jersey

$83,920

Massachusetts

$94,380

District of Columbia

$113,310

Median wage around the world

Beyond the US, here is what marine biologists can expect to make across the five largest English-speaking markets in the world:

Country

Median annual wage

Australia

AU$59,310 ($41,370)

Canada

C$53,170 ($41,610)

Ireland

€36,000 ($40,120)

New Zealand

NZ$65,000 ($42,560)

UK

£35,000 ($46,890)

Steps to become a marine biologist

Is marine biology starting to sound like the right career path for you? Then here’s how you can start working towards becoming a marine biologist:

1. Determine if it’s the right job for you

Initially, becoming a marine biologist might sound like a dream career. However, it’s crucial that you consider both the pros and the cons of this profession, as well as the skills and qualities that go hand-in-hand with marine biology. 

To begin with, consider your interests. Are you passionate about marine life, aquatic creatures and science, as a whole? Do you have an inquisitive personality that would encourage your research in this field? 

Furthermore, how do you envision your ideal day-to-day work life? Marine biologists spend the majority of their time either in the field or in a lab, which could be a deal breaker for those who want to work in an office setting. 

Another consideration is that this is a physically demanding job which will also put you face-to-face with climate elements, including humidity, wind, rain and heat. If you are not the outdoorsy type, then this could also be a considerable shortcoming. On the other hand, if you are quite the adventurer, then you could thrive under such conditions. 

As for skills, marine biologists are expected to have:

Consequently, your personality, interests and skills will help you determine whether this career is truly a good fit for you.

If you are not quite sure if that is the case, then the next logical step is to put yourself to the test. Using tools and resources, such as personality and career tests, is a viable option.

Our own career test, CareerHunter, will utilize your skills, interests and personality to match you to over 250 careers and industries and help you determine which is the right profession for you.

2. Focus on the right subjects at school

If you are still in school, then your subject choice can help you set some solid foundations for your future career. 

Science subjects, such as biology, chemistry and physics, should be at the top of your electives list, as these will help you establish some fundamental knowledge across different areas of science. 

Moreover, mathematics classes, including statistics, geometry and algebra, will also be a great addition to your academic arsenal. 

You could also benefit from taking language courses, as this will allow you to sharpen your verbal and written communication skills.

3. Get a scuba diving licence

While a scuba diving licence isn’t always a prerequisite, it will definitely give you a certain advantage over other candidates when applying for different job opportunities. 

That said, if your main aim involves studying a specific aquatic species, scuba diving could be an essential part of your research. 

To get your scuba diving licence, you can start by completing a basic Open Water Diver certification, and then working towards an advanced certification. You may also be able to find diving training programs for scientific diving, which place emphasis on elements like underwater data collection whilst following safety guidelines.

4. Get educational qualifications

In order to pursue this career, you’ll need to attain certain academic credentials.

The minimum requirement for entry-level marine biologists is a bachelor’s degree in marine biology, marine ecology, oceanography, or aquatic biology. You may also choose to pursue an undergraduate degree in a broader science-based subject, including geology, environmental science, zoology, and complete a marine-related master’s degree afterwards.

Postgraduate study is also a common route for budding marine biologists, as this allows them to specialize in specific areas, such as coastal and marine management, tropical marine biology, marine science and climate change, and marine mammal science. 

Undertaking a PhD related to marine biology could also be advantageous, especially for those who want to pursue higher-level research and teaching positions. An advanced degree will undoubtedly open more doors for you in the long-run, and many marine biologists choose to complete their PhDs on a part-time basis while working.

5. Pursue work experience opportunities 

Whether it’s through interning, volunteering, job shadowing or part-time work, seizing work experience opportunities at the early stages of your career is crucial. 

Not only will these opportunities allow you to enhance your résumé, making you a more competitive candidate for full-time roles, but will also help you make meaningful professional connections, develop your skillset and knowledge, and get a better understanding of what areas you may want to specialize in. 

Consider contacting aquariums, environmental agencies, NGOs, universities and wildlife trusts about available opportunities.

6. Join a professional association

There are numerous professional associations, organizations and societies for marine biologists across the world. Joining a couple of these will bring you in contact with other professionals, keep you in the loop of new scientific breakthroughs, and also help you find new work opportunities.

Some of the most prominent organizations to consider include:

  • Marine Biological Association
  • The MarineBio Conservation Society
  • Institute of Marine, Science and Technology
  • Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography
  • Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Marine Section 
  • American Cetacean Society

Final thoughts

Marine biologists play a vital role in the protection of life under water. From coral reefs to phytoplankton to fish and sea mammals, this career will give you the opportunity to work with and study fascinating species and their ecosystems, finding ways to minimize the impact that human activities have on their environment. 

Whether you choose to focus on field research, academic teaching, consulting or policy making, this field will open up numerous doors and opportunities for you.

Join the discussion! Are you a budding marine biologist? What excites you the most about this career? Let us know in the comments section below!