Marine Biology Careers: Scope, Salaries & Future

Diving Deep into Marine Biology Careers: Opportunities, Salaries, and Future Prospects

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By Edward Zhang Marine Biologist

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Embarking on a Marine Biology Career

Are you ready to plunge into the depths of marine biology? Marine biology isn’t just about getting your feet wet; it’s an adventure into the heart of the ocean’s enigmas, from the smallest microorganisms to the grandest marine mammals, and all the marvels in between. As our oceans bear the brunt of climate change, the drive to comprehend and safeguard these precious waters is more vital—and thrilling—than ever. Ready to embark on a career that truly makes waves?

Marine Biology Careers: Scope, Salaries & Future
Marine Biology Careers: Scope, Salaries & Future

What Does a Marine Biologist Do?

There are many specializations in the field of marine biology, so depending on your specific role, here are some responsibilities that may apply to you: 

Assessments

Carrying out environmental impact assessments to see if and how a developing project might affect its immediate marine environment

Sample Collections

Collecting samples through methods such as visual/audio observations, water collections, and physical organism collections

Data Analysis

Collect and analyze data using statistical software (i.e. MATLAB, R-Studio, etc.) to answer research questions, monitor changes, or suggest new conservation methods 

Research

Summarize and communicate research results to the public, specific agencies, governments, research institutes, or companies/businesses so to inform/advise on new research advances/policy suggestions

Teaching

Lecture or teach in subjects such as biology, ecology, conservation, policy, and management strategies

The work environment of a marine biologist depends heavily on their specific job position and responsibilities. Some examples include: 

Laboratories
Fieldwork
Classrooms

Research institutes, government agencies, universities, etc.

Some typical specializations within the field include: 

Marine ecologist

Marine conservation officer

Research assistant/associate

Lab technician

Professor (marine ecology)

Marine ecology consultant

Environmental engineer

Fisheries data manager

Marine Biology Careers

There are various career paths a marine biologist can take, with some common ones being research, conservation, education, and policymaking. 

Marine Biology Research

Marine biology research focuses on making constant discoveries about life in the ocean. With over 80% of the ocean still unexplored, there are limitless opportunities for new scientific breakthroughs. 

With research always being a team effort (introductory data collection to faculty leading their labs), there’s bound to be a position fit for any experience level or background.

Marine Conservation

With climate change-induced ocean warming becoming an ever bigger issue, there’s an increasing need for marine biologists to assist in controlling what people put in/take out of the ocean to maintain sustainable ecosystems.

Most marine biologists in this area work on jobs related to tracking populations of animals and using modeling software to predict and determine how human activities impact them.

Marine Biology Education

Whether through universities, aquariums, marine science centers, or marine science summer programs, there are plenty of people looking to learn more about life in the ocean and how they can protect them. Having a strong marine biology background and excellent teaching skills will allow you to effectively communicate with audiences of all ages and introduce them to the wonders of the ocean.

Policymaking

A career in marine policymaking and management involves collaborating with researchers and regional fishery management councils to create new and oversee current policies so to protect marine life and ecosystems. 

Different Employers

Depending on your job preference, you may find yourself working from research institutes and universities to government agencies and NGOs. 

Research institutes (i.e. MBARI, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, etc.) mainly focus on specific research interests, such as the monitoring of harmful algal blooms (MBARI) and climate change research (PML). Meanwhile, government agencies and NGOs (i.e. NOAA, Coral Reef Alliance, etc.) can focus on more comprehensive issues, such as *ENSO effects on fisheries management (NOAA) or specific ones like protecting reefs from climate change (CRA). 

ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation), represents a cyclical variation involving changes in the sea surface temperature and atmospheric pressure patterns throughout the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

Marine Biology Salaries

The average annual salary for a marine biologist in 2024 is roughly USD 85,000, while the range is between USD 60,000 and USD 104,000. The salary depends heavily on a multitude of factors, such as education, experience level, location, and specialization.

Education and experience level are particularly important, as they both factor into your responsibilities and subsequent income. For example, a research technician with a bachelor’s degree fresh out of college won’t be able to adequately handle the same duties (and be paid as much) as a professor with a postdoc degree and years of prior job experience. 

Is Marine Biology a Good Career Choice?

When choosing marine biology as a career, there are several pros and cons to consider before making your decision. Here are some things to ponder: 

The Pros and Cons of a Career in Marine Biology

PROS

CONS

Marine biologists generally don’t find their work stressful, hence leading to satisfaction in their careersMarine biologists often require significant educational backgrounds (master’s or PhD) to be considered for higher-paid positions
Marine conservation projects help with the protection of hundreds of marine species worldwide (i.e. NOAA is tasked with the conservation of over 160 marine species under the Endangered Species Act)Unpaid work is not uncommon in this field; and, depending on which sector you work in, consistent funding can be very difficult to achieve (during times of economic hardship, funding can be all but absent)
Marine biologists often have the chance to travel to a variety of diverse and beautiful environments as part of their fieldwork responsibilitiesIn addition to high educational demands, many marine biologists often require additional certification for their particular job

Professional Insights

When it comes to marine biology as a field, Stefan Mulitza, a postdoc from Bremen’s Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM), explains that it is highly multidisciplinary. It takes parts of physics, biology, chemistry, and geology to contribute to scientific progress in this field. He also believes that, with currently expanding university systems, there will be many more academic opportunities for new marine biologist prospects. 

MARUM’s director, Gerold Wefer, backs up the idea that new marine biologist graduates will have many more opportunities in the future whether within academia or out. Research, consulting, oil industries, governmental agencies, and teaching are just some directions a marine biologist can go.

Educational Pathways to a Marine Biology Career

Marine biology is known for being a field that, at its basics, requires a solid educational background, starting with a bachelor’s degree. While some agencies or research institutes, such as NOAA, occasionally employ employees with a high school diploma, typically you’ll need at least a bachelor’s or master’s, sometimes even a Ph.D., to be competitive in the job market. 

Relevant Fields of Study

Majors usually include biology, zoology, fisheries, ecology, or any other major associated with animal sciences. 

Many majors have more specific specializations that you can choose so to narrow down your studies further. Examples include ecology and evolution, marine biology, and marine ecology.

Besides classes directly related to your major, some others you can expect include: chemistry, physics, mathematics, statistics, policymaking, writing, and physiology. 

It’s wise to keep your options open early on in your studies, as choosing a specialization too soon might limit your choices later. 

Skills to Consider

Besides your studies, there are certain skills an aspiring marine biologist should have that will benefit them in their job prospects. Examples include: 

Logical and analytical approach to solving problems

An interest in research

Excellent communication and presentation skills

Comfortable working indoors or outdoors (i.e. fieldwork)

Adaptable to changing environmental conditions

Getting Your Feet Wet: Gaining Experience in Marine Biology

Whether it’s continuing to grad school or applying for jobs, having prior hands-on experience in marine biology is a sure way to make you stand out amongst the crowd. 

There are many opportunities available both during and after college. If you’re looking to start early, you can consider pursuing an internship or volunteer opportunities (in the form of research assistantships) while you’re an undergrad. You may also consider taking summer courses during your breaks, or embark on a fellowship during undergrad or while you transition from undergrad to grad school. 

Paid research assistantships are also available as jobs after you’ve received your bachelors. 

Depending on your specific specialization, these opportunities can take place either in a completely enclosed laboratory setting (i.e. if you’re more data science orientated) or a combination of lab and fieldwork (as part of a field research project). 

In layman’s terms, if you’re work involves mostly computers, you’re considered working in a “dry lab”, while hands-on research is considered “wet lab” work.

Programs and Organizations Offering Practical Experience

There are a plethora of programs offered by different research/gov/academic organizations that provide undergrad and grad school students opportunities to gain experience. Here’s a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of common programs (and who offers them) you might find helpful: 

Darling Marine Center Summer REU Fellowships | Uni. of Maine

The Great Lakes Commission – Sea Grant Fellowship | Great Lakes Commission

NSF Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP) / Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) | EPA

NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship | NOAA

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Fellowships | The Smithsonian Institution

Although these are called fellowships and/or scholarships, many include a fieldwork component where you’ll have the opportunity to conduct hands-on practical research in a variety of environments both indoors and out. 

Keep in mind though that these opportunities are highly competitive, and will often require you to have an excellent academic record to be considered. On the other hand, you can also consult your university to find more local research opportunities within its faculty. 

The Future of Marine Biology Careers

There is currently an ever-increasing interest in understanding the mechanisms behind ideas such as survival, food webs, communication, interactions and competitions, and diversity. With

roughly 80% of the world’s oceans still undiscovered and climate change-induced-ocean warming being an ever-present issue, there’s going to be increased demand for marine biologists in a wide array of positions in the foreseeable future. 

Because of this need, the future career prospects for marine biologists are similarly high, with the employment rate expected to grow by 8% in 2024. 

Although competition remains high for those specializing in marine biology, there should be no shortage of jobs as research centers, universities, governmental organizations, and NGOs continue tackling issues such as reducing carbon emissions, introducing sustainable fishing methods, and improving habitat conservation.

Using Technology and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Advance Marine Research and Conservation

As previously mentioned, marine biology uses a highly interdisciplinary approach to the study of marine ecosystems. Hence, with increasing technology in a variety of fields, our understanding of marine environments and their resident organisms is becoming much broader and more defined. Here are some examples of the types of technology (and which field they belong in) being used today:

Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler | Chemistry and Hydrography

The ADCP is a device that uses sound waves to measure the speed and direction of currents within the water column. This knowledge can then be used to better understand the biogeochemical processes within the ocean.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) | Biology

eDNA is material that is shed by marine organisms into the water column. Mucus, feces, and tissue particles (together known as detritus) are collected and analyzed to make new biological discoveries.

CTD | Biology

CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, and depth, and represents a group of electronic devices that together measure changes in conductivity and temperature of the water as a function of depth. These are critical to the understanding of oceanography, and can also help determine the biological properties (i.e. algae growth or distribution of animals) within the water.

Charting Your Course in Marine Biology

So, you’re ready to plunge into the depths of marine biology? Here’s your next wave of action: Consider connecting with a career or academic advisor at your university’s career center to find out what courses are available. This will help you tailor your educational journey to match your aspirations.

Don’t just stop there—immerse yourself in the marine biology community. Engage with faculty members in your department for mentorship opportunities, or cast a wider net by exploring professional organizations online that align with your passions and are involved in research projects.

Embarking on a Marine Biology Career

Embarking on a marine biology career is akin to setting sail on an open ocean: it demands dedication, education, and a hefty dose of experience. Yet, for those of you who carry a torch for the mysteries beneath the waves, with passion as your compass, you’ll navigate through the challenges and discover a role in the marine world that feels like it was charted just for you.