How to become a marine biologist

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A montage of sea creatures

Know your cetaceans from your crustaceans? Never happier than when splashing around in a rockpool?

If you’re fascinated by the ocean and everything in it, marine biology could be the perfect career path for you. So zip up that wet suit, take a deep breath, and come with us as we explore how to become a marine biologist.

'Get the lowdown on the perfect career for ocean enthusiasts'

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What is a marine biologist?

Now you might have come to this page because working with life in the seas sounds like a pretty cool job, but we'll bet you're still wondering "just what is a marine biologist?"

Marine biologists study the creatures and plants that inhabit the sea, as well as the environment they live in. Given that the oceans make up 99% of the Earth’s living space, marine biology is a pretty big field!

When you picture a marine biologist at work, you may imagine some bronzed Adonis immersed in blissful tropical waters as dolphins and seals cavort alongside them. While some marine biologists do work with the cuddlier, more recognisable sea creatures, many more study things like plankton, algae and crustaceans.

What does a marine biologist do?

Marine biologists spend a lot of their time in the lab

Now we've answered the question "What is a marine biologist?", you'll no doubt be wondering "What does a marine biologist do?"

Marine biology is more a field of work than a specific job, and a pretty wide one at that. Marine biologists tend to focus on one area of marine life – whether that’s whales, sharks, crabs, plankton, or one of a multitude of others. They may spend much of their time focusing on their specific research topic, which may concern a very narrow issue relating to one of these areas.

Most researchers spend some of their time “in the field”, making observations relating to their research. However, much of their time is spent in the lab, analysing their findings. In an article for the National Geographic, marine biologist Maddalena Bearzi said that for every day she spends doing fieldwork, she spends five in the lab.

There are plenty of other things a marine biologist could do outside research, including:

What qualifications do I need to be a marine biologist?

Now we've answered the questions "what is a marine biologist?" and "what does a marine biologist do?", it's time to look at how you actually become one.

You’ll need a degree to begin a career in marine biology, so you should make sure you choose school/college subjects that will help you get onto your uni course, and give you a good grounding to begin your studies.

GCSEs that you’ll find helpful include:

At A-level or equivalent:

What degree should I study for a career in marine biology?

If you know marine biology is for you, you can do a bachelor’s (“undergraduate”) degree in marine biology.

You will need to study at university to begin a career

in marine biology

If you’re not certain, consider keeping your options open. Your first degree doesn’t need to be in marine biology. Other degrees you could consider are:

  • Biology
  • Environmental science
  • Ecology

If you find your interest in marine biology deepening, take any modules that will provide a good basis for a master’s or PhD in the subject. Topics such as ichthyology and oceanography will prove useful, as well as anything in your area of interest. Volunteering will also help you with that (see below).

If you decide to continue with marine biology, your next step will be a master’s and/or a PhD in your specialism.

What skills do marine biologists need?

  • Communication: You’ll need to be able to get ideas across in your written research. Depending on what you do, you’ll also need to communicate complicated information in layman’s terms to governments and charities.
  • Analysis: You’ll need to be able to understand and interpret numbers, statistics and other information.
  • Initiative and independence: You need to be able to predict problems in your day-to-day labwork and fieldwork. With competition fierce, if you can think creatively to develop skills and specialisms that other people need, you’ll be more likely to find work.
  • Problem solving: Whether you’re in the lab or the field, you’ll often come up against complex problems, which you need to be able to work through and crack.
  • Teamwork: In the field, you’ll often work with other people with different skills and specialisms.

Can I prepare through work experience or volunteering?

Yes. Any extra experience you gain will help you narrow down your interests and give you an advantage when it comes to applying for a master's course or PhD and future work.

You’ll be realising by now that marine biology is a diverse field, and you may be wondering how to narrow down your options. Understanding what fascinates you about the ocean early on is a good way to begin along the right path.

Activities and volunteering opportunities you could get involved with now include:

  • Volunteering with research teams while you're at

    school/college will give you a real head start

    Beach cleans and rockpooling excursions are a great practical way to learn about the habitat. You could do this through a university, aquarium or even your local council, or a charity.
  • Volunteering with a research team at a university, laboratory or aquarium will help you learn about what interests you, and whether this is the kind of environment you want to work in.
  • Joining an organisation like the Marine Conservation Society or Marine Biological Association, who will keep you updated about new research and developments in marine biology.
  • Do a scuba-diving certificate so you’re ready to, ahem, jump head first into marine biology.

Have I got what it takes to be a marine biologist?

Marine biology is a fascinating and rewarding career for people who are passionate about our oceans and the animals and plants that live in them, but it’s not for everyone. Here are some things to think about:

  • If you end up in research, you’ll often work on temporary, which means you won’t have the job security of a regular job.
  • Competition for contracts is fierce, so make sure you excel academically and build lots of experience to boost your chances of winning work.
  • Don’t expect a footballer salary. Pay is generally under £10,000 for master’s and PhD students, and a marine biologist salary tends not to exceed £30,000 for qualified professionals.
  • You’ll probably have to apply for funding for your PhD and/or master’s degree, and money is less readily available than in the past.
  • You won't spend all your time out on the open ocean. 

What does a marine biologist earn?

According to The Guardian, a marine biologist salary is between £18,000 and £30,000 per year.

Now you know how to become a marine biologist, perhaps it’s time to explore other environmental careers in our Agriculture & Environment Career Zone.

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Image credits

Lead image via Freepik

Scientists in lab via Navy Medicine Live

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