What Is It Like to Be a Marine Biologist?

Learn just what marine biologists do and how you can become one

Dolphin with trainer
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When you picture a marine biologist, what comes to mind? Perhaps a dolphin trainer or Jacques Cousteau? The fact is, marine biology covers a wide range of activities as well as aquatic organisms—and so does the job of a marine biologist. To find out what a marine biologist is, what marine biologists do, and how you can follow that career path should you decide it's for you, read on.

What is a Marine Biologist?

Marine biology is the study of plants and animals that live in saltwater, therefore, a marine biologist is someone employed in that field of study. However, the more you think about it, the more you'll realize that the umbrella term "marine biologist" is a very general one that encompasses pretty much anyone on a professional level who studies or works with things that live in saltwater.

While some marine biologists do study and train whales and dolphins, the vast majority pursue a wide range of other activities, including everything from fish, crustaceans, and seals to sponges, seaweed, coral, and other deep-sea creatures including tiny plankton and microbes.

While the term "marine biologist" is very general, those who work in the field usually have more specific titles, depending on what they do. For example, an ichthyologist studies fish, a cetologist studies whales, a microbiologist studies microscopic organisms.

Some tools used to study the biology of marine organisms include sampling tools such as plankton nets and trawls, underwater equipment such as video cameras, remotely operated vehicles, hydrophones and sonar, and tracking methods such as satellite tags and photo-identification research.

Where do Marine Biologists Work?

Some marine biologists focus on a single species, while others look at larger environments and habitats. A marine biologist's job may involve fieldwork, either in or on the ocean, a salt marsh, a beach, or an estuary, again, depending on their specialty.

Marine biologists may work on a boat, scuba dive, use a submersible vessel, or study marine life from shore. Or, they might work in a combination of places, starting out by collecting specimens, and then taking them back to an aquarium, where they can observe and care for them, or to a lab for use in a variety of study applications, including DNA sequencing and medical research.

In addition to fieldwork, marine biologists teach at colleges and universities and are also employed by government agencies, non-profit organizations, privately-owned businesses, aquariums, and zoos.

Educations and Experience

To become a marine biologist, you will likely need, at a minimum, a bachelor's degree, and possibly a graduate degree, such as a master's or Ph.D. Science and mathematics are important elements of a marine biologist's education, so you should apply yourself to those fields as early as you can—high school, or even sooner.

Since jobs in the marine biology field are competitive, it will be easier to get a position if you've already gained relevant experience during high school and college. Even if you don't live near the ocean, you can get relevant experience. Work with animals by volunteering at an animal shelter, veterinary office, zoo or aquarium. Even experience not working directly with animals in these institutions can be helpful for background knowledge and experience. 

Reading and writing well are important skills for a successful career as marine biologists. If you decide to pursue this career, you'll be required to read a great deal of course material and be expected to write substantive reports to indicate you understand the material. Take as many biologies, ecology, and related courses in high school and college that you can, and be open to learning about new technology.

According to advice from Stonybrook University (which has an excellent marine biology department), you might not necessarily want to major in marine biology as an undergraduate, although it's often helpful to pick a related field. Classes with labs and outdoor experiences offer great hands-on experience.

Fill your free time with volunteer experience, internships, and travel if you can in order to learn as much about the ocean and its inhabitants as you can. This will give you lots of relevant experience that you can draw upon when applying for grad school or jobs in marine biology.

How Much Does a Marine Biologist Get Paid?

Positions are competitive, and as a result, a marine biologist's salary may not necessarily reflect all of their years of schooling and/or experience. However, in exchange for relatively lower pay, many marine biologists enjoy working outside, traveling to beautiful places, and not having to dress formally to go to work, as well as being able to make a positive impact on science and the world while generally loving what they do.

The salary of a marine biologist depends upon their exact position, their experience, qualifications, where they work, and what they are doing. Pay can range from a volunteer experience as an unpaid intern to an actual salary of anywhere from $35,000 to $110,000 per year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2016, the median annual salary for an established marine biologist was about $60,000.

Marine biologist jobs considered more "fun" (i.e., with more time in the field) may pay less than others as they are often entry-level technician positions that are paid by the hour. Jobs that entail increased responsibility will likely mean that you'll be spending more time inside working at a computer.

James B. Wood, a marine biologist working at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, reported in a 2007 interview that an average salary for marine biologists in the academic world was in the $45,000 to $110,000 range—although he cautions that much of the time marine biologists must raise those funds themselves by applying for grants.

Finding a Job As a Marine Biologist

Sadly, as many jobs in marine biology are dependent on governmental funding and grants, growth opportunities are not as abundant as they might once have been. That said, there are still many online resources for job-hunting, including career websites.

You can also go directly to the source—including websites for government agencies (for example, related agencies such as NOAA's career web site) and the career listings for departments for universities, colleges, organizations, or aquariums where you'd like to work.

The best way to get a job, though, is by word-of-mouth or working your way up to a position. Through volunteering, interning, or working in an entry-level position, you're more likely to learn about available job opportunities. The people in charge of hiring might be more likely to hire you if they've worked with you before, or if they get a stellar recommendation about you from someone they know.

Sources and Additional Reading