What is a Marine Science Degree?

Marine science is the study of the marine environment, marine life, and their interactions. It is a wide and rich discipline, equally concerned with fish, plankton, whales, and sharks (marine biology) as it is with the chemical composition of ocean water (marine chemistry), the solid rock and basins that contain the oceans (marine geology), and the exploration of the oceans using quantitative interpretations of gravity and magnetics (marine geophysics).

Our oceans are changing. Climate change is making ocean waters hotter and that is causing fish to migrate and adopt new behaviors. The frequency and intensity of oceanic storms are increasing. Shipping, fishing, and other maritime activity are impacting marine ecosystems. These are the subjects studied by marine scientists and marine science students alike.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Science – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, degree programs in marine science cover the fundamentals of the four main branches of the discipline: marine biology, marine chemistry, marine geology, and marine geophysics. Schools located in coastal areas offer a significant field studies component, on board vessels and ‘off the seawall.’

Study abroad options range from living on board a research vessel or studying in areas such as Costa Rica, the Bahamas, or Australia. Projects involve activities such as reef habitat monitoring, lionfish research, dolphin population surveys, or shark tagging. Programs may also include an internship with organizations such as the US Geological Survey Center and Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

In addition to core coursework in physics, general chemistry, and calculus, the marine science bachelor’s degree curriculum includes courses like the following:

  • Marine Geology – geologic history and processes, including the physical, chemical, and biological processes that influence the geological development of the world’s oceans; marine geological and geophysical techniques and human impacts
  • Marine Biology – the physical, chemical, and geological processes that influence biological productivity and the distribution, abundance, and adaptations of marine life in various environments of the world’s oceans
  • Marine Science Research – these are often year long courses which allow students to carry out marine science research with faculty members
  • Earth Systems History – a systems approach to the physical and biological history of the Earth; contemporary problems in paleontology and stratigraphy (the study of rock layers and layering); topics include the lithosphere (the solid, outer part of the Earth, consisting of the crust, mantle, and core), biosphere (the part of the Earth system comprising all ecosystems and living organisms), hydrosphere (the total amount of water on the Earth), and atmosphere (the envelope of gases surrounding the Earth)
  • Earth Materials – rocks and minerals of the Earth: mineralogy, petrography (the study of rocks in thin section) of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks
  • Marine and Freshwater Botany – diversity of marine and freshwater plants, their relationship to one other and to their environment
  • Marine Invertebrate Biology – structural basis, evolutionary relationships, biological functions, and environmental interactions of animal life in the seas
  • Biology of Fishes – anatomy, physiology, ecology, and behavior of fishes; examination of anatomical features and systematic characteristics
  • Solid Earth Geophysics – quantitative analysis of Earth structure and plate tectonics using earthquake seismology, seismic reflection and refraction, gravity, magnetics, and heat flow
  • Marine Invertebrate Paleontology – overview of groups of marine invertebrate fossils organisms; the stages in the evolution of marine ecosystems
  • Marine Stratigraphy and Sediment – rock and basin analysis, sedimentary tectonics; interpretation of rocks to infer processes, environments, and tectonic settings in the marine environment
  • Earth Structure – microscopic-to-macroscopic scale structures in rocks, field observations of stress and strain, oceanic and continental structures, theory of plate tectonics
  • Principles of Hydrology – the study of water: how rivers function, how water moves through the ground, pollution of water and other problems
  • Marine Conservation Ecology – examination of marine biodiversity status and threats, conservation trends, the science behind protected area design and assessment
  • Marine Mammalogy – overview of marine mammals (whales, dolphins, manatees, seals, sea lions, etc.); topics include marine mammal classification, status, behavior, physiology, population dynamics, evolution, and management
  • Mangrove Biology and Ecology – the ecology of mangroves (trees or shrubs that grow in chiefly tropical coastal swamps that are flooded at high tide)
  • Elasmobranch Biology and Management – classification, evolution, behavior, and anatomical and physiological adaptations of sharks and rays (elasmobranches); current research, human impact, and how populations can be managed
  • Coral Reefs – overview of reef structure and development, and the physiology, ecology, and behavior of coral reef organisms
  • Chemical and Physical Oceanography – study of chemical and physical ocean processes with emphasis on interactions with the biosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere; topics include biogeochemical cycling, primary production, and chemical tracers to study oceanic processes
  • Marine Geochemistry – the chemical properties and interactions of submarine volcanic rocks, hydrothermal emissions into the ocean, and associated massive sulfide deposits
  • Coastal Geology – examination of the land, processes, and hazards that exist where land and sea meet; topics covered include hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and climate-related issues such as sea-level rise and beach erosion

Bachelor’s Degree / US Merchant Marine Academy – Four Year Duration
This is an alternative four-year education track available to students with an interest in marine science. It focuses on nautical science and professional training for the maritime industry. Merchant Marine officers are trained at maritime academies, including and modeled after the US Merchant Marine Academy. Applicants require a Congressional nomination from their home state.

The merchant marine program leads to:

  • A Bachelor of Science Degree
  • A license as a Merchant Marine Officer (issued by the US Coast Guard)
  • An appointment as a commissioned officer in a reserve component of the US Armed Forces (including the Merchant Marine Reserve of the US Navy)

Elements of the core curriculum include:

  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • English
  • Leadership and Ethics
  • Comparative Literature and History
  • Naval Science
  • Physical Education and Ship’s Medicine
  • Internship
  • Sea Year

Major Programs

These are the five programs from which midshipmen choose their major course of study:

  • Marine Transportation – a program combining nautical science and maritime business management
  • Maritime Logistics and Security – a program combining nautical science and logistics and security management
  • Marine Engineering – an engineering program focused on shipboard engineering operations
  • Marine Engineering Systems – an engineering program emphasizing marine engineering design
  • Marine Engineering and Shipyard Management – a program based on a marine engineering core and emphasizing the management of shipyards and other large engineering endeavors

Master’s Degree in Marine Science – Two Year Duration
Doctoral Degree in Marine Science – Four to Six Year Duration
Marine science master’s and doctoral degree programs are research-based. Students select a concentration area from the four main branches of the discipline: marine biology, marine chemistry, marine geology, and marine geophysics. Graduates are prepared for positions in academia, industry, government agencies, and non-governmental agencies at local to international levels.

Here are some examples of master’s thesis / doctoral dissertation areas of research in the various branches of marine science:

Marine Biology

  • Organisms – examples: salmon, sharks, invertebrates, marine mammals, seabirds; how and why did they evolve; what is unique about them?
  • Processes – evolution and adaptation, animal behavior, genetics / genomics; how do organisms in the marine environment move, get energy, or reproduce; how do they interact with one another?
  • Habitats and Ecosystems – sea ecology, tropical ecology and corals, arctic ecology, quantitative ecology and modeling; examination of marine life as part of a complex system of interactions with other organisms and the physical environment
  • Changing Oceans – resource management, climate and global change, conservation, marine policy; how the oceans are constantly changing due to the natural cycles of tides or seasons to longer-term changes in global climate; human influences / what we take out of the ocean and what we put in

Marine Chemistry

  • Biogeochemistry – focuses especially on the diverse and interlinked chemical cycles that are either driven by or have an impact on biological activity, in particular carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus
  • Carbon Cycle – describes the exchange of carbon among earth’s biosphere (life), atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (water), pedosphere (soil) and lithosphere (rocks, crust, and mantle); it is one of several biogeochemical cycles on earth that play a key role in making life possible and in regulating many planetary systems
  • Ocean Acidification – ocean acidification and global warming are different problems, but are closely linked because they share the same root cause: human emissions of carbon dioxide; the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is now higher than it has been for the last 800,000 years and possibly higher than any time in the last 20 million years

Marine Geology

  • Coastal sediment transport
  • Tidal inlet evolution
  • Ocean waves and tidal currents
  • Shoreline change
  • Seafloor mapping
  • Storm impacts to beach
  • Dune and shallow water ecosystems

Marine Geophysics

  • Seabed imaging by sonar and lidar (lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging, is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances or ‘ranges’ to the Earth)
  • Seismic exploration at sea
  • The marine gravity field
  • The Earth’s magnetic field at sea
  • Heat flow
  • Investigations of the sea floor using electrical methods
  • Seabed exploration using radiometric methods
  • Deep-sea geophysics and the changing geometry of the oceans
  • Studies of the oceanic lithosphere: the sedimentary cover
  • Studies of the oceanic lithosphere: the crustal basement and upper mantle
  • Studies of subduction zones (regions of the Earth’s crust where tectonic plates meet)

Degrees Similar to Marine Science

Aquaculture is about the breeding, raising, and harvesting of fish, shellfish, and aquatic plants for environmentally responsible production of healthy food. In other words, it’s farming in water or ‘aquafarming.’ There are two main types of aquaculture. Marine aquaculture refers to farming species that live in the ocean and estuaries. Freshwater aquaculture refers to farming species that live in ponds, reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and other inland waterways.

Chemistry is the science that deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Students who pursue a degree in ecology study how organisms interact with the natural environments that they live in and how these environments can be protected. In other words, the focus of ecology is to understand ecosystems as well as the social and political interests and policies that threaten them. An ecology curriculum, therefore, starts with courses in both the natural sciences – like biology, chemistry, physics, and geology – and the social sciences.

Environmental Studies
Students of environmental studies are exposed to the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. They apply knowledge from each of these areas to examine how resources can be sustained in the face of increasing populations, various forms of pollution, and the endangerment of species and natural systems.

Fisheries Sciences and Management
Fishing and fisheries sciences and management degree programs focus on the biology and ecology of fish and shellfish. Students of the field learn about fisheries protection, production, and management. In short, the objective of these programs is to provide students with the knowledge and skills required to maintain long-term sustainable harvesting.

Geology, also known as geoscience and Earth science, is the study of the Earth. Students of the discipline learn about the processes that act upon the Earth, such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; the materials of which the Earth is made, such as water, oil, metals, and rocks; and the history, evolution, and past climates of the Earth.

Hydrology is about the active nature of water, the movement of precipitation. Hydrologists study surface waters like rivers, lakes, and streams and examine how rainfall and snowfall cause erosion, generate caves, and permeate soil and rock to become groundwater or flow to oceans and seas. Students of hydrology study these and other aspects of the field. They learn about water management methods, land use, environmental issues, and how to collect water data, interpret statistics, conduct computer modeling, and use geographic information systems (GIS) and the global positioning system (GPS).

Marine Biology
Students who earn a degree in marine biology study marine organisms and their behaviors and interactions with the environment.

Meteorology degree programs teach students how to predict weather conditions. The typical curriculum examines atmospheric movement, climate trends, and ozone levels. With an understanding of these concepts, students learn about various meteorological phenomena. They learn how to use statistical analysis to forecast weather events from sun, clouds, and rain to heat waves, droughts, thunderstorms, tropical storms, tornados, and hurricanes.

The oceans cover almost 70% of the Earth. Oceanographers study the oceans and their complex relationships with the planet. They are concerned with marine organisms, the ocean’s chemical composition, the structure of the ocean floor, the movements of the ocean, design of technology for ocean exploration, and policy that protects the oceans.

Physics is a field that keeps changing as discoveries are made. This means that the field asks at least as many questions as it answers. Students of physics degree programs study matter and energy. They learn about the relationships between the measurable quantities in the universe, which include velocity, electric field, and kinetic energy.

Zoology students learn about animals, their evolution, anatomy, physiology, and natural habitats. Graduates may be employed by zoos, veterinary clinics, or labs. Their work may involve monitoring and writing reports on animal behavior, analyzing specimens to test for diseases, and/or working in the areas of ecology and conservation.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Computer literacy / computer modeling
  • Critical thinking
  • Curiosity
  • Dedication to ongoing learning
  • Field skills / comfortable working outdoors
  • GIS (geographic information systems) and GPS (global positioning system) software
  • Global perspective
  • Logical approach to problem solving
  • Meticulous accuracy and attention to detail
  • Observation and laboratory skills
  • Oral and written communication
  • Project management
  • Research, data collection, analysis, interpretation, and reporting
  • Teamwork
  • Understanding of maps and graphs

What Can You Do with a Marine Science Degree?

Work environments for marine scientists include:

  • Armed Forces including the Coast Guard
  • Biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and agriculture sectors
  • Government agencies / departments (example: US Fish and Wildlife Service)
  • Government research laboratories
  • Industrial research laboratories
  • Mineral resource companies
  • Non-profit environmental advocacy organizations
  • Universities
  • Zoos and aquariums

Specific jobs and titles include:

  • Aquaculture Veterinarian
  • Aquarium Curator
  • Aquatic Chemist
  • Biological Oceanographer
  • Chemical Oceanographer
  • Coastal Modeler
  • Coastal Zone Manager
  • Ecologist
  • Environmental Consultant
  • Environmental Impact Specialist
  • Fishery Biologist
  • Geological Oceanographer
  • Geophysicist
  • Marine Archaeologist
  • Marine Biologist
  • Marine Conservation Specialist
  • Marine Data Scientist
  • Marine Ecologist
  • Marine Educator
  • Marine Engineer
  • Marine Geochemist
  • Mammalogist
  • Marine Policy Specialist
  • Marine Science Researcher
  • Merchant Marine Officer
  • Microbiologist
  • Ocean Engineer
  • Oceanographer
  • Physical Oceanographer
  • Research Biologist
  • Resource Manager


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