How to Become a Marine Biologist: Education and Career Roadmap

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

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  • 1:30 Bachelor's Degree
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  • 3:40 Ph.D. in Marine Biology

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a Marine Biologist?

Marine biologists study organisms that live in an ocean or sea environment. Much of their time is spent in the field collecting data about plant and animal species. This data is then analyzed in a lab or an office to advance the understanding of species and their environments. There are many areas of specialization in marine biology, ranging from animal behavior to marine biotechnology. Some marine biologists focus on a particular species or geographic region.

Degree Level At least a bachelor's degree for entry-level jobs; a master's degree for higher-paying consulting, teaching or research jobs; a Ph.D. for teaching at the postsecondary level and for most research jobs
Degree Fields Marine biology or other biological sciences (e.g. ecology, molecular biology, zoology)
Experience Requirements vary and can depend on education
Key Skills Active learning and listening, critical-thinking, complex problem-solving, mathematics, science, speaking and writing skills; proficiency in scientific and analytical software like Visual Molecular Dynamics and Gene Codes Sequencher, plus Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Excel; experience with microscopes, centrifuges and pipettes
Average Annual Salary (2016)** $51,289

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online, Online job postings (July 2012), **Payscale.com

Whatever their specialty, marine biologists must have knowledge in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and ecology. They need active learning and listening, critical thinking, complex problem solving, speaking, and writing skills. Additionally, marine biologists must be proficient in scientific and analytical software like Visual Molecular Dynamics and Gene Codes Sequencher, plus Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Excel. They also should have experience with microscopes, centrifuges, and pipettes.

Payscale.com reported that marine biologists earned an average annual salary of $51,289 as of January 2016. Employers include government agencies, marine environmental organizations, aquariums, labs, research institutions, and schools. Wherever they work, marine biologists typically must spend some time traveling to conduct their fieldwork.

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Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degree programs specifically in marine biology usually have required courses in general biology, cell biology, ecology, and evolution. Elective courses, which allow students to concentrate on specific areas of interest, might include marine mammal biology, vertebrate zoology, tropical ecosystems, and fish ecology. Even if a biology program is not specifically focused on marine biology, students can emphasize this aspect by choosing appropriate elective courses.

Students who plan to go on to graduate school might complete undergraduate electives in aquaculture, biotechnology, environmental biology, molecular biology, toxicology, and species-specific biology. Additionally, they might take part in volunteer work or an internship to develop valuable practical skills.

Students who plan to specialize in a marine plant species, like plankton, also should research which graduate schools have faculty with the same interest. It would be difficult, or impossible, for a student to learn about marine plant life in an institution with faculty that primarily teaches animal marine biology.

A graduate with a bachelor's degree in a biological science might find entry-level work with the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service as a biological aid or technician. He/she could also work in ocean management or policy for government agencies and non-profit organizations.

Complete a Master's Program

Some schools offer combined bachelor's and master's degree programs in marine biology, allowing students to earn both degrees in less time. The curriculum typically covers research and lab methods, research equipment, and professional science writing. Courses at the graduate level also cover niche topics like shark biology, Pacific coral reefs, and plankton ecology. By the end of a master's degree program, students should have established their specialization through electives, independent study classes, and a thesis.

With a master's degree, marine biologists might be eligible for higher-paying consulting jobs as well as some positions in teaching or research.

Get a Ph.D. in Marine Biology

Most independent research and teaching positions at the postsecondary level, however, will require a Ph.D. Topics studied in a doctoral program in marine biology might include phycology (study of algae), fisheries science, and marine microbiology.

One of the most important aspects of a Ph.D. program is conducting independent research. From this research, students write a dissertation which they defend in front of a Ph.D. advisory committee. Passing qualifying exams and teaching some undergraduate courses are also common graduation requirements.

At the terminal Ph.D. level, enrolling in the right program is extremely important, since the research and dissertation can set the foundation for a professional marine biology career. Students should choose a Ph.D. program that is supported by faculty who actively teach and research the subject they're interested in.

Ph.D. students also might want to join a society, organization, or association in marine biology or another field with a focus on the ocean. A few examples are the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, the American Academy of Underwater Sciences and the International Aquarium Society. Members have access to current news, education and research opportunities, as well as professional connections.

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