How to Become a Marine Biologist

marine biologist

Marine biologists are scientists who study marine, or saltwater, organisms. Some marine biologists work with marine animals like fish and whales, while others study the activities and habitats of marine plant life or microscopic organisms. Marine biologists vary not only in the types of organisms they study, but in the ways they conduct their work. Some work out in the field conducting observation or preservation activities, while others work in research laboratories, and many work in both types of settings.

The research that marine biologists do may focus on marine ecology, conservation, and understanding the evolution, behavior, and physiology of marine organisms.

What kind of training is required to become a marine biologist?

Like all scientists, marine biologists pursue a vigorous education that includes undergraduate and graduate study. As undergraduates, most prospective marine biologists study biology or zoology, and some choose majors in marine biology. Studying marine biology as an undergraduate is not a prerequisite to becoming a marine biologist, however. Marine biologists may find it useful to develop a strong background in engineering, mathematics, or computer science in addition to pursuing a natural sciences education.

Students in biology programs study biochemistry, cell biology, ecology, and evolution in addition to taking courses in physics, chemistry, calculus, and statistics. Biology students can choose elective courses to supplement the required courses for their major, and some schools offer courses in marine ecology and zoology, which is study of the animal kingdom. Biology programs have a large laboratory component, so students in these programs gain experience working with laboratory tools and following laboratory and research protocols.

Like students in general biology programs, zoology students take courses in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. After completing their core coursework in biology, zoology students take courses that focus on animal behavior and physiology or they may study particular types of animals like insects, birds, fish, or mammals.

Some colleges and universities offer undergraduate degree programs in marine biology. Marine biology students take courses that focus on oceanography, marine vegetation, marine invertebrates, marine vertebrates, and marine ecology. Many of the schools that offer marine biology programs are located near an ocean. Attending a program near an ocean can present students with opportunities to do valuable field work under the supervision of marine biologists conducting research.

Some marine biology jobs are available to those whose highest degree is a bachelor’s degree, but advancement often requires earning at least a master’s degree. Master’s degree programs in marine science focus on research and advanced study. Students take courses in biostatistics, oceanography, and marine chemistry, ecosystems, and geology. They may then choose electives in their area of interest. Students may choose to focus on the ecology of a specific marine area, or they may study a type of marine organism, like corals, fish, mammals, or plankton. Graduate students are also expected to conduct some original research in their area of interest and present a thesis.

Marine biologists who want to conduct independent research will most likely need a PhD. Like master’s degree programs, PhD programs include advanced study in an area of interest. PhD students must carry out original research to contribute to the body of knowledge in their field and write and defend a dissertation on their research.

Are there any certification or licensure requirements?

There are no certification or licensure requirements for marine biologists.

How long does it take to become a marine biologist?

Marine biologists must complete at least a bachelor’s degree, which takes about four years. Marine biologists who pursue master’s degrees may take an additional two to three years to complete their education, and earning a PhD will take up to six years more.

What does a marine biologist earn?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics groups marine biologists with other wildlife biologists and zoologists. The median yearly pay for this group of scientists was $57,710 in 2012. The lowest ten percent of zoologists and wildlife biologists earned less than $37,100 and the top ten percent made more than $95,430 that year.

What are the job prospects?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of zoologists and wildlife biologists will grow 5 percent between 2012 and 2020, slower than the average growth for all occupations.

While marine biologists will be needed to study the effects of human activity on marine life and develop conservation plans to protect marine life, hiring of marine biologists often depends on state and federal government budgets.

What are the long term career prospects for marine biologists?

Marine biologists can advance into positions with greater responsibility as they gain experience and additional education. Marine biologists who hold a PhD can eventually lead teams to carry out independent research in their area of interest, and some go into higher education as well.

How can I find a job as a marine biologist?

Marine biologists can work in a variety of settings, but most work for local, state, and federal governments. Federal jobs, including those with the US Department of the Interior, which includes the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, are posted on USAJOBS.gov. State and local governments also maintain job boards, and you can use these websites to find marine biology jobs as well.

Depending on your educational background and interests, you may also look for work with aquariums, fisheries, private research facilities, and colleges and universities. You will most likely make contacts with marine biologists in the field while you are completing your education, and you may receive information about job openings through these contacts.

How can I learn more about becoming a marine biologist?

Marine biology is a vast field that includes the study of a wide variety of organisms. There are many professional associations devoted to bringing together scientists who study specific animals, plants, and microorganisms. Some organizations also focus on conservation. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography maintains a list of marine professional societies and membership organizations, and you may find this list useful both for planning a career in marine biology and in determining what area of marine biology you are most interested in.

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