The term marine biologist refers to anyone who studies or works with animals or plants who live in salt water – from the tiniest microbes and plankton to the largest whales, and every species in between. These scientists are responsible for understanding marine life by studying the distribution, abundance and life histories of animals and plants in the sea, and how these aspects are governed by environmental factors.
The study of marine biology includes a wide variety of disciplines such as astronomy, biological oceanography, cellular biology, chemistry, ecology, geology, meteorology, molecular biology, physical oceanography and zoology and the new science of marine conservation biology draws on many longstanding scientific disciplines such as marine ecology, biogeography, zoology, botany, genetics, fisheries biology, anthropology, economics and law. Thus, there are many specialties within the field of marine biology:
- Ichthyology- the study of fishes, both salt and freshwater species.
- Deep-sea ecology- the study of deep ocean gases as an alternate energy source, how animals of the deep live in the dark, cold, high pressure environment, deep sea hydrothermal vents and the lush biological communities they support.
- Environmental marine biology- the study of ocean health. It is important for scientists to determine the quality of the marine environment to ensure water quality is sufficient to sustain a healthy environment.
- Microbiology- the study of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa and algae, is conducted for numerous reasons. One example is to understand what role microorganisms play in marine ecosystems.
- Marine mammology- the study of cetaceans—families of whales and dolphins, and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and the walrus). Their behaviors, habitats, health, reproduction, and populations are studied.
To gain an entry-level job in marine biology, you need to have a Bachelor of Science degree in marine biology or a related field such as biochemistry, biology, botany, ecology, microbiology or zoology. Depending on the requirements of the employer, a Master’s degree in marine biology is typically sufficient for many applied research positions. Some schools offer combined bachelor’s-master’s degree programs, allowing students to earn both degrees in less time. The curriculum typically covers research and lab methods, research equipment, and professional science writing. Courses at the graduate level also cover more niche topics, like shark biology, Pacific coral reefs, and plankton ecology.
If your goal is to be involved in research or university teaching, then a Ph.D. is a prerequisite. At the doctorate level, enrolling in the right program is important, since the research and dissertation can set one’s foundation for a professional marine biology career. One should select a Ph.D. program that is supported by faculty who actively teach and research the subject the student is interested in.
According to the website, marinebio.org, there are 28 states with colleges or universities offering courses in marine biology. The states with the most degree programs are California and Florida for logical reasons.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), zoologists and wildlife biologists, including marine biologists, can expect slower-than-average job growth through the 2012-2022 decade. Marine biology itself remains a small field, and may have more interested candidates than available jobs. The BLS also notes that even basic research positions in the field generally require a doctoral degree. The median annual wage for zoologists and wildlife biologists, including marine biologists, was $57,710 as of May 2012.
These statistics are not encouraging for the student who has a passion to make marine biology his/her profession. Further investigation may be prudent for the prospective student due to the array of work environments:
- Office- marine biologists working in an office setting provide advice and counsel to businesses, environmental groups or government agencies.
- Classroom- teaching at the college level
- Laboratory- these marine biologists spend the majority of their time conducting, documenting and analyzing research in a laboratory setting.
- Field work- field–based marine biologists are involved in the identification and documentation of species, ecosystems and habitats, as well as the collection of biological samples.
Other career opportunities to research are: industrial research centers, private companies, government research laboratories, marine biology consulting companies, aquariums, and eco-tourism companies.