What Does a Marine Biologist Do?

Marine biologists study plant and animal life in saltwater environments. They may focus on migration patterns of marine mammals, photosynthesis of underwater plant life or methods to promote coral reef protection. Continue reading for more information about the various career possibilities within marine biology and degree programs that can prepare you to enter this career field. Schools offering Biology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Defining a Marine Biologist

According to Southwest Fisheries Science Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the specific job title of marine biologist is rare. Instead, the title of marine biologist is an umbrella term that can refer to a variety of jobs and purposes, like fish biologist, microbiologist or marine mammalogist.

Marine biology is the study of marine ecosystems, which can range from studying individual microorganisms to entire environments. Because about 70% of the Earth is covered with oceans, you'll find any number of specializations to choose from in the marine biology domain. Some of the scientific areas a marine biologist may study include marine mammals, aquaculture and the chemical and physical properties of oceans, estuaries or wetlands. These biologists often work to determine the impact of human activity on various ecosystems. Continue reading for more information about what a marine biologist might do.

Important Facts About Wildlife Biologists

On-the-Job Training None
Key Skills Excellent oral and written communication, detail oriented, interpersonal, logical, physical and emotional stamina, keen observation, problem solving
Certifications None
Similar Occupations Agricultural and food scientists, biochemists, biological technicians, conservation scientists, foresters, environmental scientists, veterinarians

Working Conditions

As a marine biologist, you may find yourself in a variety of settings that can range from working in an aquarium to collecting underwater samples and data to working in a research lab. Most research positions require a doctoral degree. Tools of the trade range from nets and fiber-optic cameras to sonar and remotely operated vehicles sent into the depths. NOAA even has an undersea research center near the Florida Keys that allows for 10-day stints of studying and observation near a coral reef.

Depending on your interests and specialization, you may find opportunities to study microorganisms and their effects on marine ecosystems or their uses in human medicine. Marine biologists who specialize in fisheries or aquaculture may work to protect biodiversity, studying the effects of over-fishing or cultivating certain species for fish farms. Marine biologists may also study the health of coastal ecosystems by assessing the impact of pollution or environmental and man-made disasters. This work could be done using on-site observation and testing, satellite images or both. Other specializations include studying fish species or the behavior and habitats of marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins or sea lions. Career opportunities that don't involve fieldwork also exist in education and regulatory agencies.

Education Required

A marine biologist should have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in a biological or marine science; degree programs may be focused on marine biology, marine science, oceanography, zoology or fisheries technology. Undergraduate degree programs typically involve coursework in biology, chemistry, geology and animal physiology, in addition to coursework in English that will prepare you to write scientific papers. Marine biology-specific coursework may cover oceanography, coastal geology, marine mammalogy, marine phycology, marine pollution, atoll ecosystems and coral reef ecology.

Master's and PhD degree programs in marine biology are also available, and they may even offer specializations, like molecular biology, aquaculture genetics or chemical ecology. Also, graduate degree programs in biology may offer concentrations in marine biology or ocean sciences. These programs include research requirements, and programs often have several institutes and centers that provide research facilities. A thesis and a dissertation are required for graduation for master's and doctoral degree programs, respectively.

Career Outlook & Salary Information

Marine biologists may find employment with government agencies, research universities, aquariums and consulting agencies. According to NOAA, marine biology is a competitive career field that attracts many candidates. Since marine biology is an umbrella term encompassing many jobs, it's difficult to give an employment outlook for this field specifically. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides statistics on job prospects for a couple types of scientists that may work with marine life: from 2014-2024, slower than average growth of 4% is predicted for zoologists, wildlife biologists and microbiologists. Also, in 2014, zoologists and wildlife biologist made a median annual salary of $58,270 and microbiologists had a median of $67,790.

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