How to Become a Marine Biologist: Average Salary & Education Requirements


Cue the theme song for “Jaws” and get ready to envision the hilarity that is “Sharknado!” Why? Well because we are going to tell you all about the wet and wild world of becoming a marine biologist. Get your wet suit, snorkel and flippers out so that we can dive right into the wide ocean of information that we’ve got in store for you today.

How to Become a Marine Biologist

Before we get into the heart of how to become a marine biologist, we should probably help you decide if you even want to become one first. Let’s talk a bit about the job to help you decide!

Marine biologists are scientists that study all of the living critters of the ocean and sea environments. A lot of the time spent on the job as a marine biologist is in the field where data is collect in the various plants, animals and organisms that hang out in the sea. Once these samples are collected they are then transferred to a lab where they will be studied to expand upon the knowledge we have of the species.

As a marine biologist you’ll have to have a solid understanding of biology, chemistry, physics, geology and ecology. There will be areas that you can specialize in as well if something in particular strikes your fancy. An example of a specialization is studying marine animal behavior à la Flipper style or marine biotechnology. Once you have completed all of the steps to become a marine biologist you can often find jobs in government agencies, marine environmental organizations, aquariums, labs, research institutions and of course schools.

Now let’s get into the really important stuff. Here is all that you need to know about how to become a marine biologist!

Step 1: Tackle a Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Biology or General Biology

The very first thing that you will need to accomplish on your journey to become a marine biologist is to earn a bachelor’s degree. You don’t have to attend a school that offers a dedicated marine biology program though, as a general biology degree will work just fine as well.

Some of the classes you will take during your schooling will be in general biology, cell biology, ecology and evolution. There will also be some fun electives that you can take, such as marine mammal biology, vertebrate zoology, tropical ecology and fish ecology.

There are marine biology jobs that are possible to get with a bachelor’s degree. For the most part these will be entry level jobs that will be with places like the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service. You may be able to find a job as a biological aid or technician too. For those of you that live in coastal areas, definitely hit up some local research facilities for open positions.

Here are a few schools with degrees in this field:

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Programs:

  • Associate of Arts in Business - Agribusiness

Step 2: Jump on the Master’s Degree in Marine Biology Train

It would be ideal for you to find a school that offers a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program as it will enable you to earn both of your degrees at once. Sure it’s a lot of work, but it will save you some time in the long run. If you can’t find a dual enrollment course that’s perfectly fine as well. You will be able to earn a master’s degree once you have completed your bachelor’s degree and will be adding another 2 years of schooling to your repertoire.

During this phase of your schooling you can expect to have a curriculum that covers research, lab methods, research equipment and science writing. Some of the niche topics that you will be able to cover at the graduate level will be shark biology, Pacific coral reefs and plankton ecology. By the time you are done with your schooling you will be able to rock socks at a career in marine biology.

Step 3: You’re Almost There! Now it’s Time to Get a Ph.D

Earning a Ph.D. in Marine Biology is definitely an important step to complete if you’d like to conduct your own independent research or teach at a college level. When earning your Ph.D. you can expect to study intensely about phycology (the study of algae), fisheries science and marine microbiology. This phase of schooling will also require you to complete a dissertation, which is quite time consuming and work heavy, but we know you’ve got what it takes to get it done.

What Do Marine Biologists Do?

We’ve been wondering this very thing ourselves, so let’s find out what marine biologists do when they are on the job!

  • Draft and carry out experimental scientific studies with sea animals, organisms and plants in both controlled and native surroundings
  • Collect samples of biological specimens in many forms for in-depth analysis
  • Study and investigate the many different characteristics of the animals that inhabit the ocean. Study everything from animals, their interactions with those of the same species and others, reproduction, population dynamics and density, diseases of the sea’s inhabitants and the water itself and the ocean’s movement patterns
  • Create means to study, estimate, monitor and manage the populations of various forms of sea life, plants and animals
  • There will be ample opportunity to write research papers, reports and articles that will go into academic postings. These bits of writing will be helpful in explaining your scientific findings to help the scientific community gain a grasp on what’s going on in the marine biology world
  • Giving presentations are common in this profession. The presentations will also serve as a means for you to tell the world all about your findings
  • One of the most important tasks that you will have to complete as a marine biologist will be the development of conservation plans. You will be responsible for making recommendation in regards to the sea life that you study and then present your plans to policymakers as well as with the general public

Marine Biologist Salary

We usually like to hit up our friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics for some salary information on careers, but today we decided to branch out a bit and check a new source. Today we took a look at the website Payscale to see what information they have available for the salary expectations for marine biologists. According to their website, the average salary that is earned by marine biologists is $51,975 a year. This is the most accurate information as of September 2014. As we are sure you are aware, there will be a variation in the pay that you can expect depending on experience level and possible the location that you are employed.

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Marine Biology Schools

You can’t very well become a marine biologist without attending a school and we know that there are many options out there that can be hard to pick through. We decided to give you a leg up and throw a couple of schooling options your way so that you can have a frame of reference for the future should you decide to pursue this path.

Hawaii Pacific University

Say aloha to the bachelor’s degree program in marine biology that is available in sunny Honolulu at the Hawaii Pacific University. This college offers the four year degree program that you need to start your along your path as a marine biologist. The intent of this program is to enable students that graduate from this school to have real world skills and a solid knowledge base to become the best marine biologist possible.

Hawaii Pacific University has a teaching staff that are experts in the field of marine biology and that have experience in a wide range of disciplines. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Hawaii Pacific University is located right in the center of the world’s largest ocean and as you can imagine that makes for a perfect study environment when you are literally surrounded by a plethora of sea life to study. The bachelor’s program at HPU has a pretty rigorous curriculum that is loaded with hands-on learning opportunities both in the lab and in the ocean.

Now we’ll take a look at some of the course options that are available at Hawaii Pacific University:

  • General Biology II: This class will introduce you to the mechanism of heredity and the biological evidence of animal and plant species. You will also study life in all of its many formations as well as its ecological contexts and constraints.
  • General Oceanography II: In this class you will study the weather, climate, ocean circulation, waves, tides, coastal oceanography, biological productivity, planktonic and benthic organisms, marine communities and ecology
  • College Physics: This physics course is full of problem-solving techniques that are expanded upon from introductory physics courses. Hold on to your hats here because this class can be a bit difficult

Boston University

The Boston University Marine Program or B.U.M.P as it is affectionately called by its students and faculty is a marine study program that will kick your booty up and down the campus halls. This is a hardcore and rigorous education and marine science. B.U.M.P. offers students the ability to begin a four year bachelor’s degree and continue right on through to earning a master’s degree. This program is very loaded with science classes that cover the biological, chemical, geological and physical oceanography areas of marine science.

One of the goals of the faculty at B.U.M.P. is to help students gain a solid understanding of marine science in both physical and intellectual areas. The hope is to have new graduates locked and loaded with the right information that will enable them to go right out and snag great jobs. Your studies at Boston University will take you into the Massachusetts Bay aboard the NOAA research vessel that will then lead you to the crystal clear water that is located along the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef.

We’d like to take a look at some of the courses that are available to students that enroll in the Boston University Marine Program. It can’t hurt to know what you will be studying if you decide to attend this school, right?

  • Marine Urban Ecology: This class focuses on the interdisciplinary field of ecology that explains how human and ecological processes coexist to function in human-dominated systems. There is a large focus on the current day ecological challenges that are present. During this class you will also cover topics on toxic releases, invasive species, coastal and urban development, fishing and whaling along with politics focused on the ecosystem
  • Tropical Marine Invertebrates: In this class you will learn all about the great diversity of marine animals. There will be a larger focus on some of the major evolutionary innovations that have occurred over the 600 million years that animals and contemporary ecological processes that have had an integral part of shaping marine communities. Some of the topics that will be covered during this class are features of body plans, reproductive strategies, trophic strategies and the responses of marine animals to environmental changes that are both natural and anthropogenic

Oregon State University

Oregon State University’s marine biology program includes opportunities to perform research at the Hatfield Marine Science Center on the Oregon coast. Some students even receive funding to work as research assistants in Panama and the Bahamas, adding to their experience in the United States with hands-on research at international marine centers.

OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center typically has 25-30 undergraduate students at any given time, as well as 20-30 graduates. OSU also allows students to pursue degrees online, for aspiring Marine Biologists who prefer the convenience of remote study.

Hold Your Seahorses! Watch This Video

For something completely new and different (insert sarcasm font here), we have a super cool video for you to watch today! We love to find a video that comes from someone that has first-hand experience in the specific career that we are covering.

That is certainly the case with the video that we found for you on YouTube. This video comes from Grant Galland, a Ph.D. student who is in the final stages of earning his doctorate in marine biology. Definitely watch this video because he really has some great information for those that are considering marine biology as a career. He really knows his stuff and we are pretty sure that his tips will help you in the long run.

Pencils Out! It’s Quiz Time

We hope you have been paying attention because we are going to give you a whopper of a pop quiz now! We’re totally kidding, but a little adrenaline rush never hurt anyone, right?! We’ve searched the interwebz far and wide to find a fun quiz that will give you a good idea if you are destined to become a great marine biologist or if you should stick to your day job. Feel free to take this fun and silly quiz, even if it’s just for giggles. You can get to the quiz by clicking here!

Fun Facts About Marine Biologist

The career of a marine biologist isn’t all plankton and reef worms. It is with that in mind that we have decided to present you with some fun facts about the career of a marine biologist. Get ready for some fun facts about being a marine biologist!

  • They study sharks and are the debunkers of myths: Marine biologists are the myth busters of the marine animal world and busting shark myths are where it’s at. Shark attacks often garner a lot of attention from the media and marine biologists often find themselves having to debunk myths about what the real deal with shark attacks are. A lot of people think that attacks are as common in real life as they are in the “Jaws” movies, but the truth of the matter is that there are only about 70 attacks each year. The sharks are actually the ones that are getting attacked with somewhere around 20 to 100 million sharks killed each year. That’s totally bogus and not exactly the epically shark invested waters that the news likes to portray when there is an attack.
  • Charles Darwin was a marine biologist: Yep, the guy that’s best known for the theory of evolution and survival of the fittest was indeed a student of marine biology. He was fortunate enough to study under the godfather of modern marine biology, James Cook and was encouraged by him to dive into the marine biology field. On his voyages on the H.M.S Beagle, Darwin collected and then analyzed a ton of marine organizes that he then sent to the British Museum for cataloging.
  • Super cool underwater laboratory on the horizon: Marine biologists often to get play with the coolest and most state of the art toys…err we mean equipment. Some of the neat things that are used in the marine biology field are satellites, super computers and underwater vehicles. One of the supremely cool tools that is available to marine biologists is the SeaOrbiter that was designed by super smart French architect Jacques Rougerie. The SeaOrbiter is essentially an ocean dwelling lab that allows scientists to pretty much live in the ocean. This is possibly one of the coolest things we’ve ever heard of and we would seriously consider giving up a limb to take it on a test drive.
  • Medical mysteries are unlocked: This is a particularly interesting part of being a marine biologist because who would have thought that you’d be able to cure diseases with some algae, sea sponges or other various sea critters. Fun fact: sea sponges used to be used in herpes medication before scientists found a stronger drug to use. Another interesting medical fact is that sea squirts are able to produce chemicals that are used to treat cancer patients. Super cool right?!
  • There’s an alien invasion in the ocean: Ok, so there aren’t really aliens hanging out in the ocean, but there are some pretty interesting things that crop up now and then. Marine biologists will often stumble across species of fish, algae, bacteria, viruses, plants, mollusks and crustaceans that are not native to the waters they are found in. These exotic or misplaces species are often a result of fisherman tossing out bait while fishing or from hitching a ride on ships that pass through many different seas. It’s amazing how some species are able to adapt and sometimes survive better than native species do. Seems like Darwin and Herbert Spencer were on to something with that whole survival of the fittest thing.
  • There’s never a dull moment: The work life of a marine biologist is usually pretty interesting and is likely different from day to day. Some days you will be in the lab and some days you will be covered in squid ink and stung by jelly fish. It’s all in the name of science, so it’s worth the pain and the stains we suppose.

Final Grade

It’s time for us to give you the lowdown on how we really feel about having a career as a marine biologist. This is when we take out gloves off and go bare knuckle. Don’t worry though, we will be gentle with you today. Let’s get right to it and check out our final grades!

Degree vs. Debt: B-

The cost of your schooling to become a marine biologist can be pretty high, especially those of you that go the distance and earn a master’s or a Ph.D. in marine biology. You can expect to have some pretty high tuition costs, which will likely require you to get some loan unless you are a Rockefeller or Kennedy. The pay of marine biologists isn’t super high, so the degree to debt ratio is not too hot.

Difficulty of Degree: C

We are not going to lie to you and pretend that earning your degrees in marine biology is going to be a skip through a field of daisies. There is a lot of brain power that will go into your science and math classes. There won’t be any sliding through with minimal study either. You will likely be buried in a book the entire time. You’ll be cover some really interesting topics, so hopefully that will balance out the difficulty and make it a bit more fun.

Happiness Quotient: A+

This is a seriously awesome profession. We are sure that we don’t have to tell you that though! Just think about all the amazing research projects and experiences that you will gain. We are green with algae…we mean envy just thinking about it!

Job Outlook: C-

The job outlook for marine biologists is really not so hot. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting that there will only be about a 5% growth from 2012 to 2022. That stings a bit since this small growth may make it a bit more difficult to find a good job. Once you land a primo position as a marine biologist you better hold on to it so that you aren’t left jobless.

Amazing Marine Biology Organizations

Marine Conservation Institute

The Marine Conservation Institute is dedicated to securing permanent, strong protection for marine ecosystems. The Institute helps protect marine wildlife by identifying vulnerable ecosystems and campaigning for policy makers to protect our oceans.

Ocean Doctor

Ocean Doctor is a nonprofit that protects and restores our oceans through hands-on conservation. It focuses on performing leading research, inspiring the public through outreach, education, and media and advancing the state of sustainable aquaculture.

Reach – US Sailing’s STEM Education Program

For those who want to combine their Marine Biology experience with sailing, US Sailing has an educational program called REACH, combining STEM education and sailing at participating schools.

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

Gumbo Limbo in Boca Raton monitors 600 sea turtle nests per year, releasing 6,000 hatchlings annually. They also conduct research and instruct over 10,000 school students in coastal and marine ecology every year.

David Shiffman

David Shiffman is a Ph.D. student at the University of Miami researching shark biology and conservation, as well as how information related to ocean science and conservation spreads through social media. David’s website provides a great view into the life of a Marine Biologist and a model to emulate for any hopeful Marine Biologists seeking to build their careers.

Sarasota Fins

Sarasota Fins founder, focusing on shark biology and conservation, Melissa Cristina Marquez helps to educate children to become shark advocates.

MacArthur Beach State Park

The MacArthur Beach State Park in Palm Beach County, Florida, whose 438 acres are home to 7 species of endangered or threatened plants and 22 species of endangered or threatened animals. The beachside park offers snorkeling, kayaking, and relaxing walks on its mile-long trail.

Sources and Recommended Reading

We use sources like you will use a net, microscope and wet suit when you become a marine biologist. We love them and can’t live without them because they give us all these good little tid bits that we are able to share with you today. So go ahead and get click happy with these links to find out even more information than we have been able to give you today.

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