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Bioscience Careers

Marine Biologist

  • Photo: Climate Shifts

The field of marine biology — the study of aquatic organisms, their behaviors and their interactions with the environment — is considered one of the most all-encompassing fields of oceanography. Because there are so many possible topics of study within the field of marine biology, many researchers select a particular interest in which to specialize. Specializations can be based on a particular species, organism, behavior, technique or ecosystem. For example, a marine biologist may choose to study a single species of clams or all clams that are native to a climate or region.

Career Opportunities

One area of specialization, the emerging field of marine biotechnology, offers great opportunity for marine biologists. In addition, research in the new field presents a wide range of possible applications. For example, in the biomedical focus area, scientists develop and test drugs, many of which come from marine organisms. An example application of biotechnology research can be seen in industry or defense, where researchers have developed nontoxic coatings that prevent the buildup of fouling organisms, such as barnacles and zebra mussels. Such coatings are useful for ships and intake pipes used in power plants.

Molecular biology — the branch of biology that deals with the formation, structure and function of macromolecules essential to life, such as nucleic acids and proteins, and with their role in cell replication and the transmission of genetic information — is a related area of specialization in marine biology. Researchers apply molecular approaches and techniques to many environments, from coastal ponds to the deep sea, and to many different organisms, such as microscopic bacteria, plants, land animals and marine mammals. For example, molecular biology can be used to identify the presence of a specific organism in a water sample through the use of molecular probes. This is very useful when the organism being identified is microscopic or similar to other organisms.

The study of disease in organisms also has been furthered by the use of molecular techniques. Researchers have developed antibodies that are specific to a particular virus so that when the virus is present in an organism, detection and diagnosis is easier and faster. Likewise, new molecular techniques help scientists identify whether an animal has been exposed to pollutants and, in some cases, can determine the source of the pollutants. The field of molecular biology is growing and will continue to experience significant advances.

Marine biology researchers also are experimenting with ways to administer drugs to diseased populations of farm-raised fish. Disease can wipe out an entire crop of farm-raised fish or shellfish due to the confined setting in which they are raised. One technique for administering drugs involves exposing a pen of fish to ultrasound (high frequency sound that cannot be heard by humans).

Unfortunately, the supply of marine biologists far exceeds the demand, and the number of government jobs (the federal and state governments are important employers in the field) is decreasing. Other employers of marine biologists are local governments, aquariums/museums, colleges and universities, private research laboratories and consulting firms. In fishery science, where the study of fish and marine mammal population dynamics is in the most demand, a strong background in advanced mathematics and computer skills in addition to coursework in the animal and aquatic sciences is recommended for a competitive edge in the job market. Also, more universities now are offering courses and programs in fisheries and wildlife management, increasingly important aspects of the study of fishes, marine mammals and sea turtles.

Education/Training

Many colleges and universities offer degrees in marine biology and related fields. A publication titled University Curricula in the Marine Sciences and Related Fields and published by the Department of Commerce lists all the colleges with programs in marine topics. Ask your librarian, who might be able to get it for you on interlibrary loan.

Preparatory courses in basic biology, zoology, chemistry, physics, biometrics, mathematics and statistics are important for careers in marine biology. English is important, too, because one of the most important activities of a marine biologist is writing and publishing scientific papers. Courses in the aquatic sciences such as fishery biology, ichthyology (the branch of zoology that deals with the study of fishes) and oceanography also are important, as are courses in your discipline of interest (for instance, ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior, if you are interested in animal behavior). Courses in the social sciences also are recommended for occupations that deal mainly with the public, public policies or management.

Some schools offer a marine biology degree, and most not surprisingly are located in coastal states. However, interested students do not have to receive an undergraduate degree in marine biology. Instead, the degree can be in biology, zoology, fisheries or one of the other animal sciences. Physical oceanographers, who study the physical (rather than the biological) aspects of the sea, can work toward an oceanography degree, with coursework weighted heavily in physics, mathematics and computer modeling. Biological oceanographers study both the biological and physical aspects of the sea and their interactions.

A good approach would be to refer to the University Curricula in the Marine Sciences and Related Fields and contact the schools that interest you to learn more about the specific programs and degrees they offer. A bachelor’s or master’s degree usually is required for most entry-level marine biology research jobs, though a Ph.D. usually is required to carry out independent research in biology.

Salary

Biologists with less than one year of experience have a starting salary of around $33,000 per year. Data from a 2003 federal Bureau of Labor report show that the field of life sciences as a whole has a mean salary of almost $55,000 per year. As biologists gain more experience and education in their field, those in private industry can earn more than $80,000, while those working in government, academia and the nonprofit sector earn about $60,000 to $70,000. And those with more than 30 years of experience have a median salary of around $103,000. Keep in mind that salaries vary greatly depending on geographic location, job type, experience and education.

Higher salaries are found in private research companies and government agencies, where employees likely have more job security, advancement opportunities and independence in their work. While jobs in nonprofit groups or academic institutions generally have lower salaries, many biologists find great personal reward in working for an organization that is effecting change and has an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.