Learn About Being a Marine Biologist

Get Career Info on Salary, Job Duties, and More

Marine biologist uses dye to test respiratory flow of nurse shark.
Doug Perrine / Getty Images

Marine biologists study a wide variety of aquatic organisms, from microscopic plankton to massive whales. While competition for positions in the field of marine biology is always strong, it continues to be a highly sought after “dream job” for fans of marine life.

Duties of a Marine Biologist

The duties of a marine biologist can vary widely based on whether they work primarily in research, academia, or private industry.

Nearly all marine biologists spend at least part of their time doing research in the field, working in environments ranging from marshes or wetlands to the ocean. They may utilize a variety of equipment including boats, scuba gear, nets, traps, sonar, submarines, robotics, computers, and standard lab equipment.

Marine biologists involved in research will write grant proposals to obtain funding, collect and analyze data from their study, and publish papers for peer review in scientific journals. Travel is a standard component of the researcher’s life.

Marine biologists who teach have to prepare and deliver lectures, advise students, plan lab sessions, and grade papers and exams. Most professors also participate in research studies and publish their findings in scientific journals. Marine biologists in private industry may have more of a consulting role and are not necessarily involved with active research.

Career Options

Many marine biologists choose a specialty field such as phycology, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, marine mammalogy, fishery biology, marine biotechnology, marine microbiology, or marine ecology. Specialization in studying a specific species is also common.

Employers for marine biologists can include zoological parks, aquariums, governmental agencies, laboratories, educational institutions, museums, publications, environmental advocacy or conservation groups, consulting companies, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Education and Training

Aspiring marine biologists usually start with an undergraduate degree in biology before pursuing degrees at the graduate level. It is important to note that an undergraduate degree in marine biology is not required to go on to study for a Masters of Science or doctorate in the field. Many students pursue a degree in general biology, zoology, or animal science before seeking an M.S. or Ph.D. in marine biology.

When selecting a graduate school, be sure to identify a program that offers classes and research in the specialty field or species that interests you. Your best bet is to read currently published research in the field to determine which professors are doing research in your area of interest. Apply to the programs where you can get the experience and guidance you desire.

Courses in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics (especially statistics), communications, and computer technology will usually be required as you pursue any degree in the biological sciences.

Internships are a common part of marine biology training, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Students often make plans to study for the summer or participate hands-on research at institutes in California, Florida, Hawaii, or the Caribbean.

Salary

The salary a marine biologist earns can vary based on factors such as job location, years of experience, and level of education achieved. Salary for a marine biologist is commonly quoted as ranging from $40,000 for entry level work to more than $110,000 for scientists with significant experience and advanced degrees. According to PayScale.com, marine biologist salaries are highest in California and Florida.

The Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics does not separate earnings of marine biologists from the general category of biological scientists. The BLS cites a median annual wage of $68,220 (for biological scientists in fields other than microbiology and zoology), with earnings ranging from less than $38,780 for the lowest 10% in the field to more than $102,300 for the top 10% in the field.

Employment Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, biological scientists held 91,300 jobs in 2008 (not including university faculty positions), though only a small proportion of those individuals were employed as marine biologists.

While employment for biological scientists is expected to grow by a rapid 21% in the decade from 2008 to 2018, employment in the field of marine biology is expected to grow at a much lesser rate due to the small size of this specialty field. Competition will continue to be especially keen for jobs working with marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.