How to Become a Marine Biologist and the Salary to Expect

Marine Biologist

As we venture into the world of the Marine Biologist, we are going to explore what personal characteristics you should have, what the academic requirements are, the salary you can expect, and other aspects such as job satisfaction and upward mobility. You will also discover some things that are odd, so you might want to prepare yourself for a few surprises as you read along.

The media has presented a number of articles over the last few months about the continued contamination the oceans have suffered as a result of negligence by humans. A sea of trash literally the size of the state of Texas has been discovered floating in the Pacific Ocean, and attempts to corral the waste by one environmentalist have failed. Some of the trash has been found on the inside of mammals and fish, while other waste has found its way to the beaches of the Pacific where birds have also fallen victim to the waste. If you are someone who wants to be involved in helping to understand the effects human mismanagement of waste has on ocean life, and be involved in potential solutions, a Marine Biologist may be the right career path for you.

Desired Personal Characteristics

Obviously, you will want to love being in and around the ocean since that is where you will be spending a certain amount of time. Becoming a Marine Biologist is also a STEM type of occupation, so an interest and innate ability to excel at science will help you be more comfortable as you pursue your education. There may be a few positions where you will not to need to know how to swim well, but as a general rule swimming is a skill you should excel at.

Here is the first oddity of the profession. You would expect states such as California, Florida, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska to have large numbers of Marine Biologists employed because they are located next to the oceans. But there are other states that employ Marine Biologists that have not a single ocean near them – Minnesota, Colorado, and Idaho also have a sizable number of the ocean lovers. We will deal with the specifics of where the best employment opportunities are, but at this point it is important for you to be flexible about your thinking and your future in the field.

Depending on where you work and the specific job requirements, you may find yourself on a boat for a number of hours, or even days or weeks. If you get sea sick easily or prefer to have a position that doesn’t require long periods of time away from home, you will need to do some homework and find out how you can specifically prepare yourself to get a job once you graduate. The academic requirements will take you a number of years to complete if you want to make a decent wage, so knowing where you want to work and what your realistic options are is essential before diving in.

Academic Requirements

Unlike many STEM programs, a Marine Biologist is likely to need a Master’s degree to find a company that will hire them. There are positions that you can get with a Bachelor’s degree but they will pay less and you are likely to end up attending graduate school anyway down the road. This is more of a personal choice, as some people want to get some hands-on experience and avoid the classroom as much as possible. Others may opt to work with less than a Master’s degree simply because of the stack of student loans that can potentially pile up over 5 or 6 years. Still others may need a break from 4 continuous years of college.

There is another reason employers prefer hiring a Marine Biologist with a Master’s degree: bringing to the table a proven history of research skills. Many Marine Biologists end up in research positions or a combination of field study and research. While the undergraduate curriculum will focus on acquiring the needed scientific knowledge, graduate programs will primarily focus on doing significant amounts of research based on the acquired knowledge. The top employers are not likely to be willing to train a new hire in the protocols and practice of putting together a peer reviewed quality research paper or article.

As for the specific classes, you can expect to see some or all of these specific subjects covered in your undergraduate education:

  • Biology
  • Zoology
  • Ecology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics/Statistics
  • Public policy
  • Communication

As much as the Marine Biologist curriculum is STEM-oriented, it is also important to realize that there are critical non-science requirements that can mean the difference between holding on to a position or losing it. Having a keen awareness of public policy is essential in dealing with issues such as the aforementioned pollution of the oceans by humans. Being able to effectively communicate is also essential, not only with colleagues but with the general public as well.

Some universities that specifically offer degrees in Marine Biology include Duke, Boston College, the University of Tampa, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Hawaii. All of these schools are conveniently located near an ocean. But as another oddity there are not many Marine Biologist positions in the state of Hawaii, so expect to move elsewhere after graduating. But you do not have to have a specific undergraduate curriculum to get a position as a Marine Biologist. Graduates who have degrees in Biology, Zoology, and Ecology also can pursue the career. Also, Environmental Science comes to mind. You may choose one of these alternative avenues into the profession if you want some additional flexibility to give you employment opportunities. Some people may want to pursue a Ph.D. in Marine Biology and dedicate themselves to university research and teaching. For the purposes of this article we will only briefly discuss the job and salary topics later, as this is more in line with a teaching profession than that of a Marine Biologist.

Doing the Job

Regardless of the type of degree you earn, the specific requirements of a Marine Biologist position can vary widely based on a number of factors. Earlier we mentioned the state of Idaho has a relatively large number of positions, so you can expect the job requirements to be different than those of a Marine Biologist in Florida. While field studies and research are two of the more common duties, there are others that you can be expected to perform. In the following short list you probably see at least one surprise. There are also a few useful observations made about the responsibilities.

  • The use and maintenance of scientific instruments used to track organisms and measure the properties of the ocean environment
  • Apply computer modelling to build predictive data

Yes, there can be a technological aspect to what largely is a non-technical profession. If you find a position that has these types of responsibilities, you are likely to find it to be a nice change of pace from the more routine tasks.

  • Analyzing the diversity and health of the marine environment
  • Provide consultation and get involved in the rebuilding of damaged marine ecosystems

These are two specific areas where you can really believe you are making a difference in the future of the marine environment. The latter of these two responsibilities has to make you go home at the end of the day feeling especially good about yourself and your chosen profession.

  • Consulting with stakeholders about programs related to the monitoring of pollution
  • Be a monitor and advocate for environmental compliance by businesses

This last group of two are examples of how classes such as Public Policy and Communication can be very useful when communicating with the public, businesses, or even politicians. There are many groups who have a stake in the management of the ocean’s vast resources, some which may conflict with the health of the marine environment.

All of the above additional requirements are mostly done by non-management professionals. There is also the managerial aspect of a marine Biologist, though it not everyone’s cup of tea. It tends to more paperwork and politics, but for someone who has spent a number of years in the field it may be the right career path change while remaining active in the field. A few of the management duties include:

  • Constructing grant proposals for the funding of research and fieldwork
  • Determining the scope of work for projects and calculating project budgets and schedules

This is likely to involve some project management types of software, so you will want to plan on learning to use it sometime in the future. But the bottom line for these two management duties is that most Marine Biology projects will have to apply for and acquire some type of grant money to keep projects alive. This includes getting everyone paid.

  • Present research findings and analysis to policymakers and stakeholders
  • Determine jurisdictions for various laws and regulations

Notice on this first task that it is management who will do the actual presentation (and likely have to answer questions) while the non-management Marine Biologist will be responsible for getting the presentation together. This is one of those situations where it depends which end of the discussion you want to be on. The second duty seems to lean over to the legal side of Marine Biology, and here you are likely to be working with not only with legal staff but also public policymakers.

  • Engage the public and help educate them regarding issues that affect marine ecosystems
  • Create and encourage a positive team environment using clear communication and present opportunities for mentoring

These two management responsibilities have one thing in common: effectively engaging people to get them join take an active role in the overall purpose of the project. Project teams need motivation to not lose sight of their purpose, while the public often does not understand the significance of the work of the Marine Biologist. (This realization often comes too late.)

Some of these unique job responsibilities can add a whole new dimension to you career and also have the potential to add dollars to your annual salary. The next section is going to discuss the salary issue, but at this point you should already have put the salary issue in second place, behind the type and purpose of your work as a Marine Biologist. This is not suggesting that earning a fair wage is not important, but that to pursue a career as a Marine Biologist is more about the purpose than the pay.

Salary and Employment

If you are thinking that the last sentence was a harbinger to what to expect when it comes to salary, you are correct. Based on the research, only one state, Maryland, has a median salary of six figures that is in the top 75 percent of all Marine Biologists. In less statistical terms, there are not very many Marine Biologists who are making $100,000 a year or more. This should make it clear you don’t choose this career path expecting to retire early.

But there is some good news at the other end of the numbers. The bottom 25% of Marine Biologists make around $50,000 a year, with a few exceptions where the median salary dips to around $36,000 a year. This latter number is not very good news regardless of where you live. Take into consideration the fact that you have spent at least 4 years in college, if not 6. You have an advanced degree that based on simple averaging comes out to be between $9,000 and $6,000 for every year spent in school. Your accumulated student loans over that period of time could actually put you in negative number territory. It could take you years just to break even and try to justify the expense of going to college.

There is no single reason why salaries can be so low; there are a number of factors involved. The state of Oklahoma pays Marine Biologists a paltry $33,630 a year but also has only 90 positions it needs to fill throughout the state. A reasonable person can expect most of those positions to already be filled, and there is the obvious issue of location. In contrast, Rhode Island pays more than $60,000 a year but has only 40 positions to fill.

The issue of available grant money is a significant factor in determining salary. If someone from Oklahoma submits a request to an organization for grant money to conduct research related to Marine Biology, it is likely not to be well-received. It’s not the issue of whether the grant request has the best of intentions, but part of it is that many organizations that award grants simply do not understand the nature of what a Marine Biologist does or its value. Again, contrasting the state of Rhode Island, a grantor is more likely to award research, not because it understands Marine Biology any better than someone in Oklahoma, but because the state is near an ocean and it makes more common sense. At the same time, Rhode Island restricts the number of Marine Biologists to 40, while Oklahoma has double that number but pays them half as much.

The general consensus is that if you want to make a decent living as a Marine Biologist you will be looking at the federal and state government opportunities. It is there where you will likely strike that median annual salary of $50,000 and have a relatively secure job situation. Either at the state or federal levels, there is usually not much talk about halting funding for Marine Biology projects, as the politicians have bigger and more popular targets for budget cuts. Though you will not get much public exposure working for the government as a Marine Biologist, sometimes it is a good thing to be under the radar.

The projected growth rate over the next 5 years is between 3 and 8 percent, depending on which study you want to believe. Being on the lower end of projected job growth means that those who do venture into the waters will find there is considerable competition for almost every position. Popular opinion from working professionals says that getting a minimum of a Master’s degree is the only way to be seriously considered.

Years of experience is a driving factor in determining not only salary, but how to get the most desirable positions. There isn’t much to wonder about if you are only making $35,000 a year and have no hope of upward mobility at your present position. In fact, there is little upward mobility in the field, so the aforementioned field researcher and management dichotomy is all that is available to most career Marine Biologists. It is one reason many people who enter the field use an alternative college major such as Environmental Science to test the waters.

Another possibility to consider that can ratchet up your potential earnings in a big way is to have a major in a related field and move your Marine Biology major down to the second spot. One website, Sapling.com, says you can earn at least $12,000 a month (not a year) by combining your career as a Marine Biologist with a major in Biochemistry. There are obvious combinations of majors to be considered, but for the purposes of this article relegating Marine Biologist to second place seems to defeat the purpose. But in the interest of making more than $50,000 a year it is worth including.

Opportunities for Fame, not so much Fortune

We want to end the article on a positive note and conclude with some of these perspectives and fun facts.

  • Charles Darwin was a Marine Biologist – It’s not likely you will be the next Darwin (for better or worse) but there is always the possibility you will do something to make a seismic shift in the future of Marine Biology. He did write a book and all, so make sure your writing skills are above average. The more dramatic, the better.
  • You might extend your career tentacles into the area of medical science – Ocean life and the ocean in general is being explored for solutions to many human diseases. Sea squirts are used in the treatment of some types of cancer (the medical field of oncology). If you see a lot of doctor-types hanging around the facility, be sure to try and find out what is going on.
  • You might make it on to the Discovery Channel to debunk a myth– This is largely an ego thing since you are not going to get paid very much. But aquatic species such as sharks, whales, and dolphins are often a subject of interest to the general public. You will be able to broadcast that presumed useless piece of information you have known for years into a 15 minutes of fame video. By the way, did you know a group of dolphins is called a pod?

An Objective Assessment

To close on a serious note, choosing a career as a Marine Biologist is something you really need to love before doing your homework on the best colleges to attend. Practically speaking, you are looking at a minimum of 6 years of college. If you can manage to graduate without taking out any student loans, you will have more choices of where to work than graduates who starting looking for a position saddled with thousands of dollars in debt. If you live near an ocean you might be able to get some real world experience that you can connect to your degree and use it as a resume builder.

If you choose to work for the government, which is where most Marine Biologists are employed, you have to know and be prepared for what that involves regarding your career. You will make a decent wage, but at the state level you can find yourself looking for another job if the politicians are unable to rein in their spending habits. At that point you will learn that most people are really indifferent to your line of work.


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