CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a marine biologist.
Is becoming a marine biologist right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
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You can actually begin your training in marine biology very early. Summer camps at marine biology and marine study centers are open to kids as young as twelve years old. There are also summer programs for high school students that teach things like sailing, SCUBA, and marine exploration. Another option is to do volunteer work at a local aquarium. Many offer opportunities to work as docents and interact with the public, using hands-on displays like tide-pool exhibits. Some aquariums even allow you to work with the marine life in display tanks, provided you have adequate training.
Ecology Project International is a wonderful resource for high school students considering a career in marine biology.
Bachelor’s Degree / Internships
Undergraduate degree programs in marine biology are comprised of required and elective courses. Mandatory coursework includes general biology, cell biology, ecology, and evolution. Electives, which allow students to concentrate on particular areas of interest, might include mammal biology, vertebrae zoology, tropical ecosystems, fish ecology, aquaculture, biotechnology, environmental biology, molecular biology, toxicology, and species-specific biology. The study of statistical analysis is also a vital part of curricula, as the extrapolation of collected data to accurately predict growth and decline in marine populations is a major component of the work of marine biologists.
Some universities do not offer a major in marine biology. It is therefore quite common for individuals pursuing the field to major in general biology or zoology.
Internships are an integral part of many bachelor’s programs in marine biology and related disciplines. These paid or unpaid programs are often offered in the summer and allow students to earn some college credit while working at a marine laboratory, biological research station, marine science lab, or marine center. To apply for an internship, students typically need to have completed at least one or two years of their undergraduate studies.
The Columbia University Department of Biology maintains an expansive, though not exhaustive, list of ocean-related internships.
Earthwatch Institute offers volunteer field research and expedition learning experiences.
Graduate Degree(s) / Specialization
Most successful marine biologists will tell you that a masters or a Ph.D. is required to excel in the field.
Students who pursue a graduate degree must narrow their focus to a more specific area of marine biology, such as marine mammals or plant life or coral reefs. A master’s program in marine biology with an emphasis on marine mammals, for example, will focus on the behavior, conservation, and diseases of marine mammals. Curricula at the master's level typically include instruction in research and lab methods, research equipment, and professional science writing. By the end of a master’s degree program, students have established their specialization through electives, independent study classes, and a thesis.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most independent research and teaching positions at the postsecondary level require a Ph.D. One of the most important aspects of a doctoral program is conducting independent research, from which students write a dissertation that they defend before a Ph.D. advisory committee.
At the Ph.D. level, enrolling in the right program is paramount, because the research and dissertation can set the foundation of a career in marine biology. Students should choose a doctoral program that is supported by faculty who actively teach and research the subject that they will focus on.
The Marine Careers website addresses a wide range of marine career fields. It introduces people working in those fields and allows them to tell readers what they like and dislike about their careers, what they see for the future in their fields, and much more. The website is a valuable resource that can help graduate students choose a specialization.
Employment / Professional Development
Marine Conservation Biology Institute maintains a list of job opportunity links.
These societies and organizations promote ethical standards, professional development, networking, and information exchange:
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums
The Society for Marine Mammology
The Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO)
The International Whaling Commission
The American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS)
The National Association of Marine Laboratories (NAML)
The Oceanography Society
The Marine Conservation Institute
How to become a Marine Biologist
A Bachelor’s degree may be sufficient for a fairly small number of entry-level positions in marine biology, but the majority of jobs in the field call for a graduate degree. Master’s programs in marine science focus on research and advanced study in biostatistics, oceanography, marine chemistry, ecosystems, and geology. A Doctorate is typically required for university faculty positions and roles that allow independent and original research.
Following high school, some students pursue a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in marine biology, allowing them to earn both degrees in less time than would be required to complete the degrees consecutively. While several schools offer specific marine biology programs, many students graduate with a degree in biology, biological oceanography, zoology, fisheries, ecology, or another animal science. Some enter the field with an educational background in chemistry or even engineering, mathematics, or computer science.
Interestingly, marine biologists working with the National Sea Grant College Program (www.marinecareers.net) urge students to initially, at least, keep their education broad-based and to avoid specializing too early. This is because marine biology includes multiple sub-disciplines that present numerous potential career directions. Would you like to be a microbiologist, an aquarist, a behavioral ecologist, a system analyst, a geneticist, a professor, or perhaps some combination of these? There are many roads to choose from and many organizations that hire marine biologists, so having a fairly precise idea of what you would like to do is an important first step in the right direction. By delaying specialization, you will avail yourself of a wider array of opportunities and ensure that you ultimately select the sub-discipline best suited to you.