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 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
- communicating the latest advances in marine science to to the public, governments, agencies, and commercial organisations
- 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
- developing, implementing and managing projects relating to the marine environment
- 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.
- 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.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours vary according to your area of work.
Field work contracts are usually between 40 and 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.
- You'll need to be ready to seize opportunities by volunteering, interning or otherwise, to gain the experience necessary to stand out from the crowd.
- Field work can be arduous. You might be diving 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 will probably need a postgraduate degree in a marine-related study.
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:
- accuracy and attention to detail, for recording observations and results
- excellent problem-solving skills to find solutions to problems
- research skills like 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
- 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.
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
- 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 organisations 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.
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.
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.