What Is It Like to Be a Marine Biologist?

Information About Becoming a Marine Biologist

Dolphin with trainer
Stewart Cohen/Stockbyte/Getty Images

When you picture a marine biologist, what comes to mind? You may picture a dolphin trainer, or maybe Jacques Cousteau. But marine biology covers a wide range of activities and organisms and so does the job of a marine biologist. Here you can learn what a marine biologist is, what marine biologists do, and how you can become a marine biologist.

What is a Marine Biologist?

To learn about being a marine biologist, you should first know the definition of marine biology. Marine biology is the study of plants and animals that live in salt water. 

So, the more you think about it, the term 'marine biologist' becomes a very general term for anyone who studies or works with things that live in salt water, whether they are a dolphin, seal, sponge, or type of seaweed. Some marine biologists do study and train whales and dolphins, but the vast majority do a variety of other things, including studying corals, deep sea creatures or even tiny plankton and microbes.

Where Do Marine Biologists Work?

As described above, the term "marine biologist" is very general—an actual marine biologist likely has a more specific title. Titles include "ichthyologist" (someone who studies fish), "cetologist" (someone who studies whales), marine mammal trainer, or microbiologist (someone who studies microscopic organisms).

Marine biologists may work at colleges or universities, government agencies, non-profit organizations, or privately-owned businesses. This work may occur "in the field" (outside), in a laboratory, in an office, or a combination of all three. Their pay range depends on their position, their qualifications, and where they work.

What Does a Marine Biologist Do?

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.

A marine biologist's job may involve work "in the field" (which is realy, out in or on the ocean, on a salt marsh, on a beach, in an estuary, etc.). They may work on a boat, may scuba dive, use a submersible vessel, or study marine life from shore. A marine biologist may work in a laboratory, where they may be examining tiny creatures under a microscope, sequencing DNA, or observing animals in a tank. They may also work in an aquarium or zoo.

Or, a marine biologist may work in a combination of places, such as going out in the ocean and scuba diving to collect animals for an aquarium, and then observing and caring for them once back at the aquarium, or collecting sponges in the ocean and then studying them in a lab to look for compounds that could be used in medicine. They may also research a specific marine species, and teach at a college or university.

How Do I Become a Marine Biologist?

To become a marine biologist, you will likely need at least a bachelor's degree, and possibly graduate work, such as a master's or Ph.D. degree. Science and mathematics are important elements of an education as a marine biologist, so you should apply yourself to those courses in high school.

Since marine biology jobs are competitive, it will usually be easier to get a position if you have gained relevant experience during high school or 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. 

Learn to write and read well, as marine biologists do a lot of reading and writing. Be open to learning about new technology. Take as many biologies, ecology and related courses in high school and college that you can.

As mentioned on this Stonybrook University web site, you might not necessarily want to major in marine biology in college, 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, to learn as much about the ocean and its inhabitants. 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?

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

Marine biologist jobs considered more "fun," with more time in the field, may pay less as they are often entry-level technician positions that might be paid by the hour. Jobs with more responsibility might mean that you spend more time inside at a desk looking at a computer. Click here for an interesting and informative interview with a marine biologist (James B. Wood), who indicates that an average salary for a marine biologist in the academic world is $45,000-$110,000, although he cautions that much of the time the marine biologist has to raise those funds themselves by applying for grants.

Positions are competitive, so a marine biologist's salary may not necessarily reflect all of their years of schooling and experience. But in exchange for relatively lower pay, many marine biologists enjoy working outside, traveling to beautiful places, not having to dress up to go to work, getting to make an impact on science and the world, and generally loving what they do.

Finding a Job As a Marine Biologist

There are many online resources for job-hunting, including career websites. You can also go directly to the source—including websites for government agencies (e.g., related agencies such as NOAA's career web site) and career departments for universities, colleges, organizations, or aquariums where you'd like to work.

Many jobs are dependent on governmental funding and this has meant less growth in employment for marine biologists.

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.

References and Additional Reading: