Studying the sea and its complex ecosystem is not only a popular and rewarding career, but is also vital for the continued challenges facing marine environments under threat from human activities

Marine biology is the study of organisms and ecosystems in the oceans and other saltwater environments. This includes marine plants, animals (both vertebrate and vertebrate) and other organisms, in deep oceans, shallow seas, coastal habitats and the laboratory.

The main aims of marine biology are to improve understanding of the marine world and to understand and predict changes in ecosystems affected by human and natural disturbances.

Marine biology is a broad-ranging career. You could go into fieldwork, academic research, laboratory work, consulting, charity, outreach or policy making.

Types of marine biologist

Job titles range from:

  • marine ecologist
  • dive operations manager
  • reef restoration project manager
  • marine biology technician
  • research assistant
  • aquaculture biologist
  • fishery data manager
  • environmental engineer
  • professor in marine ecology
  • postdoctoral research fellow
  • oil spill response specialist
  • consultant in marine ecology
  • marine biotechnologist
  • marine policy expert
  • marine conservation officer.

Most roles require strong technical, research and scientific skills, and specialisation is usually required for career progression. For example, you could specialise in an area such as coastal management, reef ecology, invertebrate biodiversity, fisheries biology or marine pollution.

While many marine biologists have a marine biology or science-related undergraduate degree with postgraduate study, specialist knowledge and experience can still be gained through broader degrees in biological science. Importantly, gaining relevant experience, either voluntary or paid, can be key for breaking into this career. There is a lot of competition for jobs, so seizing opportunities to develop your skillset and prove your commitment is important.


Depending on your area of marine biology work, you may need to:

  • conduct species surveys and inventories
  • test and monitor sea creatures exposed to pollutants
  • collect samples through coring techniques, water collection, physical organism collection, and visual recording of organisms
  • analyse and interpret data using statistical software to answer research questions, monitor populations, or recommend new conservation methods
  • map and analyse spatial data using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software analyse biological and water chemistry samples in a lab and develop new research theories from them
  • preserve specimens and samples of unknown species and diseases and map the distribution, ranges or movements of marine populations
  • communicate the latest advances in marine science to inform and advise the public, governments, agencies, and commercial organisations
  • develop conservation strategies for the protection and restoration of marine ecosystems
  • carry out environmental impact assessments evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, including socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts
  • interview local divers, fisherman and stakeholders about animal behaviour and local marine practices
  • lecture or teach e.g. on biology, conservation, policy, planning and management of marine activities
  • develop, implement and manage projects relating to the marine environment
  • project-manage, coordinate and track assignments, scopes, schedules, budgets and deliverables
  • manage at senior level existing and new projects within or outside an academic setting
  • write grant proposals and carry out contract negotiations, marketing and business development activities
  • keep up to date with new research and technologies and attend training courses
  • liaise with colleagues across the field including fellow research staff, technicians, ships' crews and research assistants.


  • Entry-level salaries start from £12,000 for research field assistant positions abroad, up to £14,000 for apprentice lab technicians and £30,000 for consultancy work.
  • Experienced marine biologists working in the field are paid in accordance with local salaries. Salaries for PhD holders are between £26,000 and £35,000, although some marine laboratories and research organisations pay on a university lecturer scale between £28,000 and £47,000 a year (the scale for postdoctoral research positions).
  • CEOs in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) earn upwards of £40,000, while high-level research positions span up to £90,000 a year and university deans earning around £120,000.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours vary according to your area of work.

Fieldwork contracts are usually between 40 and 50 hours a week although the exact hours are project specific and may be dictated by the tide or be seasonal. This may mean some early starts and 24-hour days on field trips.

If you work for a university, consultancy or NGO, your hours are usually more structured, although this may vary if you're working with academics on particular projects.

Research work schedules, whether you're a postdoctoral research fellow or professor, can be very flexible because you're managing your own research. However, research jobs are typically offered on short fixed-term contracts (of between 6 to 36 months) as projects are typically funded by grants. This can create pressure to work long hours to ensure deadlines are met and project outputs are published in academic journals.

Part-time work is also available.

What to expect

  • University work is usually office and lab-based, although these roles may include UK field site visits or short to long-term expeditions abroad.
  • There are plenty of opportunities to work all around the world, either living abroad long-term or with occasional or regular field visits overseas.
  • Fieldwork can be arduous. You might be diving or working at sea on vessels in difficult weather conditions.
  • Academic research can involve extensive time analysing data and writing publications and grants. You'll need to consider the balance between fieldwork, lab work, data analysis and writing that you seek.
  • Marine biology is a gender-equal career field.


To become a marine biologist, you'll need to study a marine-focused degree such as:

  • marine biology
  • marine biology and coastal ecology/oceanography
  • marine science
  • ocean and earth science
  • oceanography.

If your undergraduate degree is a broader-based science degree, choosing marine-focused modules and thesis topics can help you acquire specialist knowledge and experience.

Careers in marine biology are often research based, and while it's possible to study a marine biology undergraduate degree and go straight into volunteering or a semi-employed position on a conservation science project, postgraduate study is common. This is because many job roles require deeper knowledge and research experience.

Understanding the skills and knowledge requirements of job roles you're interested in can help when selecting the right postgraduate degree option. For example, selecting Masters programmes with policy-focused modules or research groups if seeking roles in organisations influencing policymakers.

Postgraduate degrees specialising in marine biology range from a Masters in tropical marine biology to tropical coastal management and aquatic ecology and conservation. You can also take broader biology-focused Masters but select modules, thesis, and research projects focusing on marine biology.

If you're an undergraduate who wants to keep their career options open, you may prefer to study a more general science-based undergraduate degree and then take a Masters later on, to avoid specialising too early.

PhDs can also be advantageous, particularly if you're following an academic or research-focused path in ocean and earth science, marine geochemistry or chemistry oceanography and behavioural ecology. PhD opportunities are available through marine research organisations and universities, and you may be able to undertake your studies on a part-time basis while working. It's important to identify a supervisor working in the specialist area that interests you.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) provides NERC PhD studentships. These are awarded directly to universities and other research organisations, so you'll apply directly to the institution you're interested in if you're looking for funding.

You can find advertised PhD projects through university websites, social media, and on websites such as FindAPhD. You may also apply for independent scholarships or fellowships from universities or research councils allowing you to conduct your own research project.

Qualifications such as awards, certificates, and diplomas can also be acquired through universities and further education institutions, allowing you to acquire specific specialist skills e.g. in data analysis or Geographic Information System (GIS) software. Professional bodies for your career of interest also provide training and certification for skills, e.g. field surveying and species identification qualifications via the Chartered Institute for Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM).

Entry without a degree is possible in seagoing technician and scientific support roles.


Depending on your area of expertise, you'll need:

  • accuracy and attention to detail, for recording observations and results
  • excellent problem-solving skills to find solutions to problems
  • research skills like designing experiments, collecting and analysing data as well as publishing results
  • teamwork skills, whether working as part of a research team in a laboratory or an expedition team at sea
  • observation skills for studying sea life for long periods of time
  • a methodical and analytical mind for analysing and interpreting data
  • computational skills for data analysis or GIS software for mapping habitats
  • strong communication skills for report writing, academic publications, press releases, grant applications, environmental impact assessments, conference presentations and standing out in job applications
  • practical skills, such as diving, boat driving and first aid
  • flexibility to deal with possible short-term work contracts, in other countries and in basic living conditions and all types of weather.

Work experience

Getting work or voluntary experience is strongly advised to help you stand out from the competition. If you're interested in a career in research, look into what your university supervisors, professors, lab technicians or PhD students are working on and ask if you can assist with their projects. Apply for research internships with your institution or other research organisations.

You could also attend conferences, present papers and volunteer as a research assistant to a specialist.

Also consider writing speculative applications to organisations that interest you such as aquariums, museums or environmental consultancies, so you can build up a range of skills and work out what you enjoy before specialising.

In terms of fieldwork, consider volunteering for local wildlife trusts, natural history groups, marine conservation organisations, local charities, ocean clean-up organisations, and sanctuaries and rescue centres (this includes paid-for experiences across the world).

Also, get involved in related societies or groups during your degree. Keep a record of any voluntary experience and holiday work you've done, including field trips.

It's a good idea to become a student member with a relevant professional body such as the Marine Biological Association (MBA). This provides you with access to the member community for networking purposes, as well as discounts on training and events, a subscription to the Association's magazine and access to online resources and career guidance.

Making relevant contacts through LinkedIn, X (formerly Twitter), volunteering, careers fairs and your university department can also be a great way to learn about relevant careers and find opportunities for jobs or volunteering.


Marine scientists are employed by marine research institutes, universities, international organisations, commercial companies, government agencies and not-for-profit organisations.

Examples include:

  • energy, oil and gas exploration firms involved in marine energy
  • fisheries and aquaculture organisations
  • engineering companies
  • marine environmental surveying consultancies
  • marine conservation and environmental consultancies
  • pollution and water control companies
  • statutory environmental protection agencies; find a list of government bodies and agencies responsible for nature conservation at Sustainability Exchange
  • public bodies, such as the Marine Management Organisation
  • marine research laboratories and agencies; check the list of national governmental agencies that deal with the oceans and the law of the sea at the UN's Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea
  • not-for-profit organisations and NGOs such as Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, WWF, (UK-based), WildAid and Greenpeace
  • universities - leading UK universities in marine biology include Southampton, Plymouth, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Liverpool with roles including marine biology technicians, research assistants, research fellows, lecturers and professors
  • environmental research institutes
  • museums and aquariums
  • environmental and conservation charities and organisations
  • wildlife trusts - found in every county, see The Wildlife Trusts for more information
  • environmental research councils - NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in atmospheric, earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science.

Some employers, especially academic bodies or government agencies, may employ marine biologists to undertake a short or long-term research project, linked to a fixed-term contract.

Opportunities to work overseas are common, either through a permanent or semi-permanent posting abroad or where overseas travel to visit research sites makes up a significant portion of your role.

Look for job vacancies at:

Jobs may be advertised on university and marine institute websites, as well as on the websites of major companies. Specialist environmental recruitment agencies also handle vacancies.

Professional development

Marine biology is an ever-evolving field so continuing professional development (CPD) in relevant research, technical and practical skills is a key part of the work. It also evidences your commitment, passion and drive and can enable progression.

Training courses and workshops are offered by organisations such as the Marine Biological Association (MBA) and the Institute of Marine, Science and Technology (IMarEST). Natural History skill development courses and identification workshops can be found with the Field Studies Council. The Chartered Institute for Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) similarly supports aspiring ecological consultants and offers CPD training.

It's useful to become a member with a professional body, as they will support your career development and provide access to member communities for networking and industry resources. The MBA and IMarEST both offer various levels of membership categories that you can progress through as you move through your career.

Training opportunities vary between employers, and you should find out the nature of training provision and opportunities for professional development when applying for jobs. You may be offered in-house training, or your employer may use external courses.

There are opportunities to undertake research and some employers may support you to gain a PhD if you don't already have one. For a research career, you'll need to present research and papers at conferences, get published in peer-reviewed journals and apply for research grants.

You can also stay abreast of marine news and developments through magazines such as The Marine Biologist, online publications such as Science Daily and New Scientist and following marine biologists on social media.

Career prospects

Some areas of marine biology lack a clearly defined promotional structure and career development will depend on a combination of commitment, hard work and establishing appropriate contacts in your chosen field. A willingness to relocate can be beneficial in the early stages of your career to obtain available jobs at different organisations and you may need to make a series of lateral moves to gain experience and establish contacts. Your ability to create and seize opportunities will have a decisive bearing on your rate of growth within the field.

In charities, non-governmental organisations, advisory bodies and other organisations there may be more established progression tracks from entry level positions to management, senior management, and strategic development positions. Progression will be dependent on gaining experience in the job requirements, which may include gaining specialist knowledge, skills, and people and project management experience.

If you're following an academic career, the usual starting point is obtaining a doctorate before moving on to postdoctoral research assistant, lecturer, fellow and professor. More senior academic roles have responsibilities with increased focus on administration and strategic oversight, such as head of department managing finances and overseeing research opportunities for all staff. deanship or equivalent, is the highest academic post responsible for academic administration and research strategy across a collection of departments.

Most marine biologists will have to undertake a number of short to mid-term contracts before becoming eligible to apply for a lecturing position, with success dependent on your research, teaching and publications. The timeline to professorship can be quite short depending on how novel your research is, your international reputation and your ability to bring in income and develop a research group.

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