Marine Biologist Career Description

Expect a lot of competition for job openings in this field

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 use 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 for Marine Biologists

Most 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 particular 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 for Marine Biologists

Aspiring marine biologists usually start with an undergraduate degree in biology before pursuing degrees at the graduate level. It's worth noting 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, as you would with any other graduate training, 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 in hands-on research at institutes in California, Florida, Hawaii, or the Caribbean.

Employment Outlook for Marine Biologists

Jobs in marine biology are expected to grow at a much slower rate than other biology fields 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.