The Best Colleges for Marine Biology Majors

Two divers approach coral reefs suffering "white death"

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If your goal is to attend one of the nation's best schools for marine biology, the field is specialized enough that you have only about 100 colleges and universities from which to choose. That said, it is very possible to find a rewarding career in the field with a more widely available major such as chemistry or biology. You can also choose to major in nearly anything as an undergraduate, and then go on to earn a master's or doctoral degree in marine biology or oceanography.

Not surprisingly, most of the top schools for marine biology are located near the ocean, or they have research facilities along the coast. For obvious reasons, marine research is much more difficult to conduct if you are not located near the ocean environment you are studying. That said, no matter where you attend college, if you are a strong student, you can gain valuable hands on experience through opportunities such as the guest student program at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod.

The colleges and universities below have marine biology programs that vary greatly in size, focus, and personality. Rather than force them into an arbitrary ranking, they are listed alphabetically. All have excellent opportunities for conducting marine research, extensive laboratory resources, and highly regarded faculty members.

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Eckerd College

Omega Complex at Eckerd College
Omega Complex at Eckerd College. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Eckerd College is the only school on this list that has an entirely undergraduate focus. You'll benefit from small classes, and you'll be learning from and conducting research with faculty members, not graduate students. The college is home to just 2,000 students, and roughly a third of them pursue majors related to biology and environmental science. With a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society and inclusion in Loren Pope's Colleges that Change Lives, Eckerd can be the ideal choice if you want a stellar marine biology education in an intimate liberal arts college setting.

Few schools are better situated for studying marine environments. With a mile-long waterfront campus location in St. Petersburg, Florida, Eckerd College can boast of classrooms and residence halls overlooking the Gulf Coast, and the school has its own white sand beach. Not surprisingly, Eckerd is one of the nation's top colleges for beach lovers.

Students can choose to specialize in marine biology, marine chemistry, marine geology, or marine geophysics. The school has its own fleet of vessels, and classes will often be held on the campus's coast line or out at sea. The school's Galbraith Marine Science Laboratory provides specialized research facilities just steps from the ocean, and students can begin gaining hands-on research experiences in their first year of college.

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Cal State Long Beach

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CSULB Pyramid. Moment Editorial/Getty Images / Getty Images

Located just south of Los Angeles, the California State University at Long Beach campus is just minutes away from the Pacific Ocean with nearby Catalina Island and Channel Islands National Park. The university's Marine Lab includes an 18,000 gallon recirculating seawater system that maintains a collection of marine plants and animals, and many marine biology students gain hands-on experience volunteering at the lab. Other facilities include a dive locker for scuba diving and training, four research vessels, and a wide range of lab equipment for marine research. Students can also take advantage of CSULB's membership in the CSU Ocean Studies Institute which gives the school access to a marine lab facility in Los Angeles and a 75' research vessel.

While CSULB is a huge public university, the undergraduate marine biology program is relatively small and students are encouraged to conduct original research or join a research lab. Some of the particular areas of research specialization include fisheries ecology, conservation and restoration of coastal wetlands, evolution of marine fishes, and the impacts of pollution on marine organisms.

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Oregon State University

Oregon State University
Oregon State University. Taylor Hand / Flickr

Located in Corvallis, Oregon State University is about an hour from the Pacific Coast, but students will gain plenty of hands-on research experience through the required semester at the Hatfield Marine Science Center on the coast in Newport, Oregon. Students can conduct this residency in the fall, spring, or summer, and they will live, study, and conduct research by the ocean. All students complete a research project while at Hatfield. During other semesters, they will find plenty of research and internship opportunities at OSU.

OSU does not have a marine biology major. Instead, students major in biology and choose the marine biology option. The requirements of the biology major are supplemented by field and laboratory work in oceanography, marine biology, conservation, and ecology. The university also offers minors in marine biology and ecology.

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Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University
Stony Brook University. spyffe / Flickr

With the school mascot of the Seawolves, it should come as no surprise that Stony Brook University has a strong marine biology program. The campus of 27,000 students sits just a few minutes from the waters of Long Island Sound and the wetland reserves and nature preserves of Smithtown Bay. The natural sciences are extremely popular at Stony Brook, and the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences is home to over 600 undergraduates. Bachelor of science degree options include atmospheric and oceanic studies, coastal environmental studies, marine sciences, and marine vertebrate biology. The school offers bachelor of arts degrees in ecosystems and human impact, environmental humanities, sustainability studies, environmental studies, and environmental design, policy, and planning.

Students can gain hands-on experience through Stony Brook's Semester by the Sea program at the Southhampton campus where they can take advantage of the universities research vessels and new Marine Station.

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University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
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Located just ten minutes from the Pacific Ocean, the University of California at Los Angeles is one of the top public universities in the country. Its marine biology program contributes to the school's excellence. Undergraduates develop a strong foundation in the biological sciences, and they then go on to specialize in areas such as oceanography, physiology of marine organisms, and subtidal and intertidal ecology.

One of the striking features of UCLA's program is the Marine Biology Quarter during which student design and conduct independent research in places that have included Belize, Australia, Hawaii, and French Polynesia. Students present their work through a capstone scientific paper and an oral or poster presentation.

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Aerial view of the scripps pier institute of oceanography, La Jolla, San Diego, California, USA.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Thomas De Wever / Getty Images

The University of California San Diego ranks among the nation's top public universities and top engineering schools. The university has broad strengths in STEM fields including marine biology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Students in the bachelor of science marine biology program take classes and conduct research at the highly regarded Scripps Institution of Oceanography that sits on the western edge of the UCSD campus overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Scripps has one of the largest fleets of research vessels owned by an academic institution including large vessels that can operate throughout the world's oceans. Scripps is also home to the Birch Aquarium, a public center and research facility featuring over 60 marine habitats. Students take advantage of Scripps' location and facilities to study salt marshes, intertidal zones, and a range of marine ecosystems. Strong students should look into the Scripps Undergraduate Honors Program for additional research opportunities.

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University of Miami

University of Miami
University of Miami.

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While the main campus of the University of Miami is located in the city a few minutes from the Atlantic Ocean, UM's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science occupies a 65-acre campus on Virginia Key, about 8 miles from the main campus. Rosenstiel is one of the country's largest oceanographic institutes with over 100 faculty members. The school offers undergraduate degree programs in marine biology and ecology, marine affairs, geological sciences, meteorology, and oceanography. Students can also pursue an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the oceans through the marine science double major program.

Students have plenty of opportunities to conduct research with the program's diverse faculty, and students present their work at the Rosenstiel Undergraduate Research Symposium. The school's location gives researchers ready access to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys, deep water ocean, and the sea grass and mangrove shorelines of southern Florida.

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University of Washington

The University of Washington
The University of Washington.

 Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The University of Washington's bachelor of science program in marine biology grew out of the university's existing strengths oceanography, fishery sciences, and environmental sciences. Students gain a foundation in subjects such as marine ecology, marine physiology, marine evolutionary biology, and conservation and management. They then go on to take specialized courses and conduct field research.

Like all top marine biology programs, the University of Washington emphasizes hands-on learning, and students have a wide range of options for gaining research experience. Through the UW School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, students can conduct a summer program studying salmon and aquatic ecology at field camps in Alaska's Bristol Bay, or they can explore other research opportunities in Bermuda, Cape Cod, British Columbia, and a range of Pacific islands. Closer to home, UW's Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) gives researchers access to research vessels, field stations, and laboratories in the San Juan Islands, about 70 miles north of Seattle. Many marine science students spend a quarter studying at FHL to fulfill their integrative field experience requirement.

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University of Tampa

The University of Tampa. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Located just minutes from Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the University of Tampa's marine science program takes advantage of its location to provide students with valuable hands-on research experiences. About half of UT's biology faculty members conduct research related to marine organisms and systems, and the program has emerged as one of the university's strongest academic areas.

Students gain in-depth knowledge of the biological, physical, and chemical elements of marine science, and the program has a significant focus on experiential learning through laboratory courses, weekend field trips to locations such as the Florida Keys, and international travel courses. UT's Marine Science Field Station at Bayside Marina gives faculty and students direct access to Tampa Bay. Along with research laboratories, the station has a wide range of vessels ranging from kayaks to a 46-foot scuba-ready research vessel.

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University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Austin
The University of Texas at Austin.

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Biology is the most popular major at the University of Texas at Austin. Students who chose the major's marine science option study at the main campus but also complete a Semester by the Sea at UT's Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) in Port Aransas, 200 miles to the south. Research at UTMSI spans areas including fish physiology and ecology, biogeochemistry, and ecosystem dynamics. The institute has a research pier, numerous research vessels, a wetlands education center, and a mariculture laboratory. While UT is a school of over 50,000 students, the semester at the Marine Science Institute gives fewer than 20 students the opportunity to work closely with graduate students and faculty members.

Outside of the semester at UTMSI, marine science students are encouraged to conduct research on the UT main campus and take advantage of study abroad opportunities such as a field experience course taught on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

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Grove, Allen. "The Best Colleges for Marine Biology Majors." ThoughtCo, Aug. 4, 2021, Grove, Allen. (2021, August 4). The Best Colleges for Marine Biology Majors. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "The Best Colleges for Marine Biology Majors." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).