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 all aspects of life in the sea and the environment on which it depends. This includes marine plants, animals and other organisms, both vertebrate and invertebrate, in deep oceans, shallow seas 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 field work, academic research, laboratory work, consulting, charity, outreach or policy making.
Types of marine biologist
Job titles range from:
- marine ecologist and dive operations manager
- reef restoration project manager
- marine biology technician
- research assistant
- fishery data manager
- environmental engineer
- professor in marine ecology
- postdoctoral fellow
- oil spill response specialist
- consultant in marine ecology
- marine biotechnologist
- marine policy expert.
Although most roles require strong technical, research and scientific skills, specialising in a particular area is usually required for career progression - whether in 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, the key to breaking into this career is to gain relevant experience, either voluntary or paid. There is a lot of competition for jobs, so seizing opportunities to develop your skillset and prove your commitment is key.
Depending on your area of work, your duties as a marine biologist could include:
- conducting species inventories, testing and monitoring sea creatures exposed to pollutants
- collecting samples and data-using processes such as coring techniques, geographic information systems (GIS), visual recording and sampling
- analysing samples in a lab and developing new research theories from them
- preserving specimens and samples of unknown species and diseases and mapping the distribution, ranges or movements of marine populations
- scuba diving to survey endangered organisms and implementing preservation strategies
- designing scientific experiments and collating findings
- preparing detailed reports for agencies, funders, commercial organisations, governmental bodies such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) or oil companies drilling on the seabed
- communicating the latest advances in marine science to help improve the ways in which we look after our oceans through academic publications, conferences or outreach
- carrying out environmental impact assessments evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, including socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts
- interviewing local divers, fisherman and stakeholders about animal behaviour and local marine practices
- lecturing or teaching on policy, planning and management of marine activities
- conducting expeditions on fishing and research vessels in polar, temperate and tropical seas
- providing policy makers with the scientific information needed to best manage the marine environment and advocating this in the policy process through government liaison, press and media
- carrying out educational work and raising awareness of issues with the public, governments and commercial organisations
- developing, implementing and managing projects relating to the marine environment
- conducting educational and awareness-raising work by presenting talks to government ministers, the public, fellow academics and commercial employers
- coordinating and tracking of assignments, scopes, schedules budgets and deliverables
- senior level management of existing and new projects within or outside an academic setting
- writing grant proposals, contract negotiations, marketing and business development
- keeping up to date with new research and technologies and attending training courses
- liaising with colleagues across the field including fellow research staff, technicians, ships' crews and research assistants
- lecturing on specialist subjects and supervising Masters and PhD students.
- 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 £45,000 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.
- USA salaries will be higher.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours vary according to your area of work.
Field work contracts are usually between 40 - 50 hours a week although the exact hours are project specific and may be dictated by the tide. 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, 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-term contracts (12-24 months) as projects are typically funded by grants.
Part-time work is also available.
What to expect
- The dress code is casual for fieldwork and fairly informal for most marine biology roles, unless you're working for a consultancy.
- University work is usually office and lab-based, although these roles may include short or long-term expeditions abroad.
- There are plenty of opportunities to work all around the world, from Greece, Mexico and Hawaii to New Caledonia, the Falklands and Tobago.
- You'll need to be ready to seize opportunities in a variety of places, whether volunteering, interning or otherwise, to gain the experience necessary to stand out from the crowd.
- Field work can be arduous. You might be diving for up to seven hours a day or working at sea in difficult weather conditions.
- Marine biology is a gender-equal career field.
To become a marine biologist, you'll need a marine-focused degree such as:
- marine biology
- marine biology and coastal ecology/oceanography
- marine science
- ocean and earth science
If your undergraduate degree is a broader-based science degree, you'll require postgraduate, marine-related study. Other undergraduate science degrees include:
- environmental biology
- natural sciences.
It's not unheard of for graduates who have studied other scientific degrees such as geology, zoology, statistics or computer science to move into marine biology, using a Masters as a springboard in.
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.
Postgraduate degrees range from a Masters in tropical marine biology to tropical coastal management and aquatic ecology and conservation. If you're an undergraduate who wants to keep their career options open, you may prefer to study more general science-based undergraduate degrees and a Masters later on so you're not specialising too early.
PhDs can also be advantageous, particularly if you're following an academic 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.
Entry without a degree is possible in seagoing technician and scientific support roles.
Depending on your area of expertise, you'll need:
- a passion for and knowledge of the marine world
- a thirst for discovery and making a difference to future generations
- an interest in travelling for foreign field work and living abroad
- flexibility to work short-term contracts with variable hours and on varied projects
- adaptability to live in basic living conditions in minimalist environments, to work in all types of weather and to live aboard research vessels
- interpersonal skills, to work with a variety of people from local fisherman and government officials to activists and professors
- strong teamwork skills, whether working as part of a research team in a laboratory or an expedition team at sea
- experience in practical areas such as scuba diving, boat handling and first aid
- high levels of physical fitness for field work
- a methodical and analytical mind for analysing and interpreting data
- accuracy and attention to detail for recording observations and results
- laboratory skills, such as sequencing, writing risk assessments and standard operating procedures, if you're working as a technician
- strong numeracy and IT skills
- an interest in teaching and supervising students for academic university roles
- strong communication skills for report writing, academic publications, press releases, grant applications, environmental impact assessments, conference presentations and standing out in job applications
- drive and opportunism to secure work experience, internships, volunteering and jobs
- a willingness to keep up to date with current marine information and research.
It's essential to get work or voluntary experience to 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.
You could also attend conferences, present papers and volunteer as a research assistant to a specialist. Consider approaching establishments like the Marine Biological Association and other marine organisations.
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 field work, consider volunteering for local wildlife trusts, marine conservation organizations, 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.
Making relevant contacts through LinkedIn, Twitter, volunteering, careers fairs and your university department can also be a great way in.
Marine scientists are employed by marine research institutes, universities, international organisations, commercial companies, government agencies and not-for-profit organisations.
- energy, oil and gas exploration firms involved in marine energy
- fisheries and aquaculture organisations; find a worldwide company listing at Worldfishing & Aquaculture
- 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 Law & Your Environment - Regulators and Agencies
- 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 organizations and NGOs such as Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, WWF, Earthwatch.org (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:
- Environment Jobs
- Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology
- Nature Jobs
- Wise Oceans
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.
Marine biology is an ever-evolving field so continuous professional development in relevant research, technical and practical skills is a key part of the work. It also evidences your commitment, passion and drive.
Training courses and workshops are offered by organisations such as the Marine Biological Association and the Institute of Marine, Science and Technology. Courses vary depending on your area of expertise and can include:
- species identification
- survey skills
- practical skills for marine scientists
- GIS and other specialist software
- environmental impact assessments
- the use of acoustic and seismic technology.
For research trips to sea, you'll need hands-on, practical, analytical and decision-making skills. Training provided by employers may include:
- boat handling and crewing
- sea survival, firefighting and responsibility at sea
- first aid and health and safety
- risk assessment
- the use of heavy lifting equipment, such as cranes, A-frame, winches and hydraulic packs.
Training opportunities vary between employers and you should find out the nature of training provision and opportunities for professional development when applying for jobs.
There are opportunities to undertake research and 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.
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 is vital in the early stages of your career 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.
Entry-level positions are available with a first degree and provide opportunities to work in ocean laboratories and research institutions with a view to undertaking a PhD at the same institution. More senior posts will require a PhD, management experience, considerable experience of successfully obtaining funding and extensive publication within the field. Progression in a lab technician role means greater management and supervisory emphasis than science.
If you're following an academic career, the usual starting point is obtaining a doctorate before moving on to research assistant, lecturer, fellow and professor, with deanship being the highest post.
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.