Become a Fish Biologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a fish biologist. Research the education and career requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in fish biology. View article »

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  • 0:04 Should I Become a Fish…
  • 1:33 Earn a Bachelor's Degree
  • 3:02 Find Entry-Level Employment
  • 3:45 Complete a Graduate Program

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a Fish Biologist?

Fish biologists study all aspects of fish, from their anatomy and behavior to how environmental changes influence the health of their populations. They often record and analyze data and use special nets and other equipment to collect fish for observation. Many fish biologists find employment with the U.S. Forest Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Opportunities also exist at not-for-profit and tribal organizations and in academia.

Some fish biologists have office positions, but most work outdoors near streams, rivers, lakes, oceans, and other bodies of water. The job might require travel to remote locations, and professionals might work in cold water during their research.

Fish biologists need skills in science, writing, organization, communication, and active learning, as well as proficiency with Microsoft Excel and Word, and scientific software used to analyze data. They also should have knowledge of boats, nets, and electrofishers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that all zoologists and wildlife biologists earned a median annual salary of $59,680 as of May 2015. This varied greatly by employer. For example, those employed by the federal government earned a median of $74,190, while those working for colleges, universities, or professional schools made a median of $56,330. Let's trace the steps to become a fish biologist.

Earn a Bachelor's Degree

There are a variety of programs that lead to bachelor's degrees in the field of fish biology, such as the Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Fisheries Biology or a B.S. in Aquatic Biology. These programs are combined with wildlife biology. Other biology degrees can prepare students for jobs in fish biology as long as they include a significant number of courses directly related to the field.

The curriculum in a fisheries biology program provides a strong science foundation with courses like general biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Fish biology specific courses might include fishery science, fish ecology, limnology, fish population topics, and ichthyology. Some of these courses have labs or field components. Some bachelor's degree programs allow students to earn credit through field experiences, which are an excellent way to gain hands-on experience. Both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offer student internships and volunteer opportunities. Volunteering is a good way to gain experience before participating in an internship.

A student also can acquire experience by creating a research project through a course in independent studies. These courses are taught based on what the student wants to study, unlike traditional courses that focus on a set topic. This is a possible route for students who desire research experience in order to apply for an entry-level job after graduation, or prepare for an advanced degree program in the field.

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Find Entry-Level Employment

With a bachelor's degree and little to no experience, graduates might qualify for low-level position with federal agencies that employ biological technicians, wildlife biologists, and fish biologists. They might decide to work for a certain amount of time and then enter a graduate program, or stay with their employer and work up to a higher-level position. However, even with experience, some senior positions, particularly those in research, will require graduate-level education.

An entry-level job assisting a researcher can be a great option for someone who wants to eventually earn an advanced degree and conduct his or her own research. This is a good way to gain both experience and professional references.

Complete a Graduate Program

Admissions requirements for graduate programs in fisheries biology might include specific undergraduate coursework, letters of recommendation from professional or academic references, and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. To graduate, students typically must complete several courses and pass final exams, in addition to completing a thesis or dissertation. A doctoral program also might require a professional experience, which will be evaluated. This can include actual employment with an agency, an internship, or a teaching assistantship.

With a master's degree, graduates might be eligible for high-level wildlife or fish biologist jobs, as well as teaching positions with community colleges or smaller colleges and universities. Those with a doctorate also might be eligible for larger university teaching positions and research positions. Doctorate holders also might conduct research for government agencies or conservation organizations. This research might involve studying fish behavior and physiology in a laboratory, or collecting genetic samples from fish in a river to measure diversity in the population.

To stay informed and updated about their field, fish biologists might join a fisheries society or organization. Members typically have access to current news and information in the field of fish biology, as well as opportunities for professional continuing education.

In summary, while some positions for fish biologists require only a bachelor's degree, most higher level jobs require completion of a master's or doctoral program.

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