Consider becoming a marine scientist if you want to make a valuable contribution to real world issues such as climate change, environmental protection, protection of fishing stocks and coastal protection

As a marine scientist you'll be involved in research, analysis and forecasts in relation to the oceans, their life forms and coastal areas. You'll analyse the sea and its interaction with the land, atmosphere and sea floors and use the information gained to predict changes to the earth's infrastructure, inform statutory legislation and encourage environmental protection.

Types of marine scientist

Marine science is a broad-ranging field. Within it, you can work in areas as diverse as:

  • biogeochemistry and ecosystems dynamics
  • coastal processes
  • geology and geophysics
  • hydrographic surveying
  • marine biology
  • oceanography, ocean modelling and forecasting
  • palaeoceanography
  • zoology.

While all roles require good general expertise and scientific abilities, specialising in one particular area such as coastal management, fisheries biology, mathematical modelling of ocean change, ecosystem dynamics or chemical risk assessment is usually required for career progression.

Responsibilities

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

  • collect samples and data using processes such as coring techniques, geographic information systems (GIS), visual recording and sampling
  • work with computer databases and specialist software to analyse information, for example to carry out population assessments of particular species or evaluate ongoing damage to coral reefs in a narrowly defined area
  • prepare detailed reports, such as environmental impact assessments, for agencies, commercial organisations, governmental bodies such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), or oil companies drilling on the seabed
  • design scientific experiments, collate findings and design and build the appropriate equipment
  • develop new research theories and test hypotheses
  • conduct sea-based sampling and experimentation, involving periods on sea-going vessels
  • cost, plan and write grant proposals, as well as identify new sources of funding
  • manage research budgets
  • prepare research papers for journals and other specialist publications and present research findings at conferences
  • keep up to date with new research and technologies and attend training courses
  • advise on matters such as climate change, sea-based energy technologies and environmental impacts
  • liaise with colleagues across the field including fellow research staff, technicians, ships' crews and research assistants
  • if based in an academic institution, lecture on specialist subjects and supervise Masters and PhD students
  • conduct educational and awareness-raising work by presenting talks to government ministers, the public, fellow academics and commercial employers.

Salary

  • Salaries for entry-level positions are in the region of £19,500 to £24,000, although salaries can vary considerably depending on the role, type of organisation and sector.
  • The range of typical starting salaries for PhD holders is £26,000 to £36,000. Reaching the higher end of this scale is dependent on experience.
  • Salaries at senior level (heads of department or leaders of large projects) are in excess of £45,000.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours may be long, especially if you're on a field trip. These vary in length from a few days to a number of months, and it's possible to be in attendance for a full, 24-hour day. Even on land, the nature of experiments means you may spend long hours in the laboratory.

Part-time work is also available.

What to expect

  • Work can be field-based - whether that's on a sea-going vessel, in the office or the lab. Field trips may be physically demanding, particularly when at sea in difficult weather conditions. The amount of overseas work or travel involved will depend on your area of expertise.
  • Many jobs are based in academic or marine research institutes close to the coast.
  • You'll need patience, tolerance and adaptability to endure long periods at sea in confined quarters. It's also vital that you're committed to health and safety on ocean-going vessels, and when building or handling heavy equipment.
  • Experienced marine scientists may go on to work on a self-employed consultancy basis.
  • As projects are often grant-funded, contracts can be short term (12 to 24 months). This means you may need to change location, either to gain experience or to follow funding.

Qualifications

You'll usually need a degree relevant to the area of marine science you want to work in. Subjects include:

  • biology
  • chemistry
  • ecology
  • geology
  • marine science
  • marine biology
  • maritime studies
  • oceanography
  • palaeontology
  • physics
  • zoology.

Joint honours degrees, combining these subjects with other relevant areas of study such as mathematics, statistics or computing are also good preparation.

A relevant Masters or PhD can be a distinct advantage when applying for jobs. You may need a PhD for some posts, for example in management or for lecturing positions. PhD opportunities are available through marine research organisations and universities and you may be able to undertake a PhD on a part-time basis while working. It's important to identify a supervisor working in the specialist area that interests you. Search for postgraduate courses in marine sciences.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) provides NERC PhD and training for NERC PhD studentships. This funding is awarded directly to universities and other research organisations, so you must apply direct to the institution you're interested in.

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

Marine science is a popular field and competition can be fierce. Making relevant contacts and getting your name and specialist interests known can help you find a way in.

Skills

You will need:

  • strong analytical and interpretive skills
  • meticulous accuracy and attention to detail
  • teamworking and collaboration skills
  • a willingness to take on the challenges of seagoing research and life on board ship
  • inquisitiveness and tenacity
  • IT skills
  • experience in practical areas such as scuba diving, boat handling and first aid
  • strong communication skills for report writing, conference presentations and grant applications
  • experience of habitat mapping and species identification
  • enthusiasm and commitment to the field.

A driving licence is an advantage in this line of work.

Relevant language skills and experience of living or travelling abroad are useful for jobs with international organisations.

Work experience

It's important to get work or voluntary experience. Laboratory work and experience of relevant techniques may give you an advantage. Also, get involved with related societies or groups during your degree. Keep a record of any voluntary experience and holiday work you've done, including field trips.

If it's a career in research you're interested in, attending conferences, presenting papers, volunteering as a research assistant to a specialist and building good background knowledge and experience will help build your profile.

Employers

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
  • renewable energy companies using sea-based and seabed turbines
  • marine and coastal management organisations
  • marine conservation and environmental consultancies
  • pollution and water control companies
  • statutory environmental protection agencies
  • environmental and conservation charities
  • public bodies, such as the Marine Management Organisation (MMO)
  • marine research laboratories and agencies.

Some employers, especially academic bodies or government agencies, may employ marine scientists 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 develpoment

Ongoing training in relevant research, technical and practical skills is a key part of working as a marine scientist. The diversity of research positions and projects allows you to build up a range of skills, technical experience and subject knowledge.

Training courses and workshops are offered by organisations such as the Marine Biological Association. Courses vary depending on your area of expertise and can include:

  • species identification
  • survey skills
  • practical skills for marine scientists
  • geographical information systems (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 - 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.

Career prospects

Some areas of marine science lack a clearly defined promotional structure and career development will depend upon 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.

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.

If you're following an academic career, the usual starting point is getting a Doctorate, and then moving on to research assistant, lecturer, fellow and then professor.

Most marine scientists will have to undertake a number of short to mid-term contracts before becoming eligible to apply for a lecturing position, and success is determined by your research, teaching and publications. An international reputation is an important factor if you want to progress within academia.