Marine scientists are involved in research, analysis and forecasts in relation to the oceans, their life forms and coastal areas. They 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.

Marine science is a broad-ranging field that covers subjects as diverse as:

  • biogeochemistry and ecosytems dynamics;
  • coastal processes;
  • geology and geophysics;
  • hydrographic surveying;
  • marine biology;
  • oceanography, ocean modelling and forecasting;
  • paleooceanography;
  • zoology.

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

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

Responsibilities

Work can be field-based, including on sea-going vessels, office or laboratory based and may include:

  • collecting samples and data using processes such as coring techniques, GIS systems, visual recording and sampling;
  • working with computer databases and specialist software to analyse information, e.g. to carry out population assessments of particular species or evaluate ongoing damage to coral reefs in a narrowly defined area;
  • preparing 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;
  • designing scientific experiments, collating findings and designing and building the appropriate equipment;
  • building new research theories and testing hypotheses;
  • conducting sea-based sampling and experimentation, involving periods on sea-going vessels;
  • costing, planning and writing grant proposals, as well as identifying new sources of funding;
  • managing research budgets;
  • preparing research papers for journals and other specialist publications and presenting research findings at conferences;
  • keeping up to date with new research and technologies and attending training courses;
  • advising on matters such as climate change, sea-based energy technologies and environmental impacts;
  • liaising with colleagues across the field including fellow research staff, technicians, ships' crews and research assistants;
  • if based in an academic institution, lecturing on specialist subjects and supervising Masters and PhD students;
  • conducting 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 the scale is dependent on experience.
  • Salaries at senior level (heads of department or leaders of large projects) is £37,000 plus.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours may be very long. On field trips, which may vary in length from a few days to a number of months, it is possible to be in attendance 24 hours a day. Even on land, the nature of experiments may demand long hours in the laboratory. Part-time work is also available.

What to expect

  • Experienced marine scientists may go on to work on a self-employed consultancy basis.
  • As projects are often grant-funded, work opportunities are frequently short term (12 to 24 months) and individuals are often responsible for sourcing further funding to continue their projects.The brevity of the contracts may lead to frequent changes of geographical location, either to gain experience or to follow funding.
  • Many jobs are based in academic or marine institutes close to the coast.
  • Field trips may be physically demanding, particularly when at sea in difficult weather conditions.
  • Patience, tolerance and adaptability are needed to endure long periods at sea in confined quarters.
  • Commitment to health and safety is paramount on ocean-going vessels and when building and handling heavy equipment.
  • Travel within the working day and overnight absence from home is common. The amount of overseas work or travel involved will depend on the nature and requirements of individual posts.

Qualifications

Relevant degree 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.

Entry is possible, though not common, with relevant access and HNC/D qualifications. Positions at this level include seagoing technicians and scientific support roles.

While it is possible to gain work as a marine scientist with a first degree only, a relevant Masters or PhD is a distinct advantage when applying for jobs. A PhD may be a requirement for some posts, for example in management or for lecturing positions. A good class of first degree is often sought, especially if you are hoping to progress fairly quickly onto a funded Doctorate programme. Search for postgraduate courses in marine science.

PhD opportunities are available through marine research organisations and universities. In some cases, it is possible to undertake a PhD on a part-time basis while working. It is important to identify a supervisor working in the specialist area that interests you.

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 are interested in. See the NERC website for more information and for a list of organisations offering funded places.

Marine science offers the possibility of making a valuable contribution to real world issues such as climate change, environmental assessments and protection, knowledge and protection of fishing stocks, and coastal protection. The range of jobs is very broad, with opportunities to suit most work or research interests.

However, it 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 into your preferred organisation or field.

Attendance at conferences, presenting papers, volunteering as a research assistant to a specialist and building good background knowledge and experience will all help to raise your profile and secure an entry-level position and employment in the specialist area you have chosen.

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • strong analytical and interpretive skills;
  • meticulous accuracy and attention to detail;
  • teamworking skills and a willingness to take on the challenges of seagoing research and life on board ship;
  • inquisitiveness and tenacity;
  • competency in a range of computer packages;
  • 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.

For work with international organisations, it is useful to have relevant languages and experience of living or travelling abroad.

Work experience

It's important to get relevant work or voluntary experience. Laboratory work and experience of relevant techniques may give you an advantage. Involvement in related societies or groups during your degree will also help when applying for jobs. Keep a record of any voluntary experience, holiday work, including field trips, and other relevant events and conferences.

Employers

Marine scientists are employed by marine institutes, universities, large governmental departments and well-known multinational companies.

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;
  • marine research laboratories and agencies.

Some employers, especially academic bodies or government agencies, may employ marine scientists specifically 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 frequent overseas travel to visit research sites makes up a significant portion of your role.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist environmental recruitment agencies also handle vacancies.

Also, check the websites of marine and marine-related conservation organisations and government bodies.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional develpoment

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

Training opportunities are commonly offered by employers and other specialist organisations such as the MBA. The MBA offer advanced courses and workshops in specific areas of marine science.

The nature of research trips to sea requires good, hands-on, practical, analytical and decision-making skills. Training provided by employers may include:

  • boat handling and crewing;
  • sea survival, fire fighting and responsibility at sea;
  • first aid and health and safety;
  • emergency procedures and related maritime law;
  • geographical information systems (GIS) and other specialist software;
  • risk assessment;
  • leadership and management skills;
  • project management skills;
  • budget management skills;
  • the use of heavy lifting equipment - cranes, A-frame, winches and hydraulic packs;
  • environmental impact assessments;
  • the use of acoustic and seismic technology;
  • effective lecturing and presentation techniques (in academic institutions).

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 also need to assess your own skills and to volunteer to attend courses or present papers at conferences in order to ensure your ongoing personal and professional development.

Career prospects

Some areas of marine science lack a clearly defined promotional structure and career development is dependent 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 a marine scientist's career and you may need to make a series of lateral moves to gain experience and establish contacts.

As marine scientists work increasingly on a multidisciplinary level with other scientists, a flair for teamwork and collaboration is essential to career progression, as is keeping up to date with research and new techniques.

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 work for a public body, such as the Marine Management Organisation, progress is defined by Civil Service grades. Promotions are not automatic and are dependent on a more senior position becoming available.

For those 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.