What is a Marine Biology Degree?

What exists under the Earth’s waters has been a subject of fascination for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Studying sea life helps us understand the world we live in, especially since the oceans cover over 70% of the surface of our planet! There is an incredible amount of research to be done in this field, as scientists estimate that only about 5% of the oceans have been explored so far.

Marine biology is the study of marine or saltwater organisms in their natural habitat—and marine biologists study everything from microscopic picoplankton and single-celled bacteria, to giant kelp and the majestic blue whales. They focus on understanding how marine organisms function today in order to predict how ecosystems will cope with large-scale changes such as climate change, overfishing, pollution, and invasive species.

Research projects are at the heart of what most marine biologists do, whether it be actually collecting specimens in the field, compiling research data, finding real life applications for the research data, or classroom teaching.

The minimum educational requirement to work as a marine biologist is a university undergraduate degree. A graduate degree is required for independent research.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Biology - Four Year Duration
Entry-level positions as a marine biologist typically require at least a bachelor’s degree. Although some universities do offer a major in marine biology, there are many that don’t. Therefore, it is quite common for individuals pursuing this field to major in subjects such as ecology, aquatic biology, oceanography, botany, geology, environmental science, wildlife biology, or zoology.

Bachelor degree programs in marine biology consist of required and elective courses. Mandatory coursework includes general biology, cell biology, ecology, and evolution. Electives, which allow students to concentrate on specific areas of interest, include mammal biology, vertebrae zoology, tropical ecosystems, fish ecology, aquaculture, biotechnology, environmental biology, molecular biology, toxicology, and species-specific biology.

Extracting and collecting data to accurately predict growth and decline in marine populations is a major component of the work of marine biologists, therefore the study of statistical analysis is also a vital part of the curriculum.

Internships are an essential part of many bachelor’s programs in marine biology and related disciplines. These paid or unpaid internships 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.

Master’s Degree in Marine Biology - Two Year Duration
Students who pursue a master’s degree need to focus on a more specific area of marine biology, such as marine mammals, marine plant life, or coral reefs. Pursuing a master’s degree will typically allow a marine biologist to begin performing more advanced scientific or investigative work that includes extensive research and hands-on learning experiences.

Courses 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.

Doctorate in Marine Biology - Three to Five Year Duration
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most 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. Enrolling in the right program is extremely important at this stage of education, as the research and dissertation can lay the foundation for a career in marine biology. Students should choose a doctoral program that is supported by faculty who are teaching and researching the subject they are wanting to focus on.

Note: Some marine biologists may need training with various types of equipment. For example, marine biologists may need to know how to operate a boat in order to conduct research on open water. These different skills and techniques can be learned through hands-on learning opportunities, such as internships, research projects, or volunteer work.

Degrees Similar to Marine Biology

Marine Biotechnology
Marine biotechnology can be described as making practical and effective use of marine macro- or microorganisms to make products, technologies, and processes available. It covers areas such as health, aquaculture, cosmetics, industrial products and processes, food supplement, feed, and plant protection. Marine biotechnology applications can range from extracting new cancer treatments to seaweed farming. Scientists trained in marine biology, microbiology, chemistry, genomics and bioinformatics are sought out to work for new pharmaceutical companies that concentrate on developing new drugs from marine resources.

Master’s and doctoral programs in marine biotechnology may consist of coursework in biochemistry and cell biology, as well as research projects and teaching assistantships. Students need to have a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field like biology, chemistry or engineering for the master’s programs, and a bachelor’s degree in the life sciences or a relevant engineering field is a prerequisite for the doctoral programs.

Hydrologists analyze water resources and study the distribution, circulation and physical properties of surface and underground waters. They usually work in a specialized area such as rivers, oceans, or groundwater, and often help environmental scientists preserve and clean up the environment. Water properties are studied, such as the effects of erosion, pollution, or the cycles of water flow by using computer prediction models. Hydrologists might also come up with proposals for wastewater systems, hydroelectric power, or sustainable uses of irrigation. These proposals as well as written reports on any findings may be presented to the public or to the government.

Those looking for a career as a hydrologist can seek degree programs at the bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. levels.

An ichthyologist studies all fish species and is knowledgeable about their behaviour, developmental patterns, and reproductive habits. Some ichthyologists work in museums and educate the public about fish species and conservation awareness. Diving certification may be needed for underwater research. When working out in the field, ichthyologists collect samples, measure, and record data. They then examine and record their specimen findings in the lab.

Ichthyologists are required to possess at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant biological science, such as zoology or marine biology. Many ichthyologists go on to earn master’s or doctoral degrees, which allow more opportunity for specializing and offer options in research and academia. Those that work in conducting research spend time writing and publishing scientific papers and writing proposals to secure grants that will fund research projects. They will also give lectures and participate in student projects.

Marine Mammalogy
Marine mammalogists study the behaviour and habits of marine mammals. They can choose to specialize in: cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises); pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walrus); manatees; or other aquatic mammals (polar bears and sea otters).

Mammalogists can earn undergraduate degrees in animal biology, zoology or a similar field. Mammalogists that would like to work in research or in advanced positions may need graduate degrees. According to the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM), a master’s or doctoral degree in zoology, environmental science, or wildlife management can be very valuable to a mammalogist.

Oceanography can be separated into four distinct areas - biological, physical, chemical, and geological. Each type of oceanographer has different work environments:

Biological oceanographers examine plants, microbes and animals and review how ocean contamination can affect marine species. They are similar to marine biologists in that they look at life forms and ecosystems, however they also study how external factors impact life forms in the oceans.

Physical oceanographers focus on understanding ocean circulation patterns and fluid motion by studying the ocean’s attributes (temperature, salinity, waves, currents and tides).

Chemical oceanographers look at the chemical composition of the ocean and its interaction with the environment. They study its acidity and try to understand how the biology and ecology of an ocean might be altered based on a changing chemical profile.

Geological oceanographers (or geophysical oceanographers) research the ocean floor and use geophysical technologies to examine the makeup of the ocean bedrock and the processes of rock movement.

Degrees in oceanography are available at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • An appreciation of marine life
  • Scientific ability
  • An observant and questioning mind
  • Patience
  • Being precise at analyzing and interpreting data
  • Ability to work alone and as part of a team
  • Stamina and physical fitness to work in demanding remote locations
  • A love of the outdoors
  • Ability to perform repetitive work for scientific experiments
  • Strong communication skills, in both writing and speaking
  • Ability to think creatively and have fresh ideas
  • Ability to work with data
  • An aptitude for manipulating raw information in various ways to solve problems and questions
  • Math and science skills through education and experience
  • Active listening skills

What Can You Do with a Marine Biology Degree?

There are various areas a marine biologist can find employment in. They include:

  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Government departments
  • Colleges and universities
  • Research institutes
  • Marine science institutions
  • Aquariums
  • Conservation authorities
  • Aquaculture (fish and shellfish farms)
  • Private laboratories

Case Study

Shelley Denny’s journey...
"The environment I grew up in really shaped my interest in marine biology. I was raised by my grandmother and lived with her until I went to university. We lived just five minutes from Bras d’Or Lake, ten minutes from the ocean, and a brook ran through our backyard. Not only did all those different types of water surround me, but my grandmother also encouraged my intense curiosity about aquatic life and about nature in general. In other words, I have been interested in marine biology for most of my life—beginning at an age when I didn’t even know that my interest had a name.

While high school courses didn’t add much to this interest (I thought my classes were a bit "ho-hum”), I found university to be really fascinating. I went to Acadia University where my major was biology with a concentration in marine biology, and my minors were chemistry and psychology. I loved university for the scientific research and enjoyed the mental challenges that it brought.

Eventually, my university career presented other challenges as well; in my third year, I had a child. As a single parent, I struggled, but still found ways to put my daughter first and do well in school. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science and am now enrolled at St. Francis Xavier University where I’m working towards my Master’s in Science, with a concentration in fisheries ecology. I plan to complete my Ph.D. after that. My first job was with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 1991. In 1992, I landed—without training—in a management position at the Eskasoni Fish & Wildlife Commission. Luckily, I learn quickly, and through experience I’ve come to understand a great deal about the business world. In addition to management, this job has me continuing with various studies on many of the species in the Bras d’Or Lake region.

In addition to my work with Eskasoni, I’m also a member of a technical committee that advises the Chiefs of Cape Breton through the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources. I am a firm believer that we are responsible for our resources. Whether our people fish for ceremonial or commercial reasons, we need to be responsible for sustaining fish stocks. Education provides us with the opportunity to understand and satisfy that responsibility. It also unlocks doors to the many opportunities for Aboriginal youth in the field of marine biology." (https://www.eco.ca/career-profiles/marine-biologist/)


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