What is marine biology?
Marine biology by definition is the scientific study of marine organisms. However, in practice this encompasses a wide variety of jobs and career pathways. There are two responses I typically receive when I tell people that I am a marine biologist. The first generally goes something like this: “That’s so cool! Do you train dolphins? Have you ever been attacked by a shark?” The second and much more common is, “I always wanted to do that but decided against it.” I am a firm believer in following your dreams, and allowing nothing to stand in the way of that, so it intrigues me to find out why these folks chose another path. A lot of the time their decision was based on the difficulty of the math and science courses required for a marine biology degree, many have said they were concerned with financial stability, others didn’t consider themselves the “adventurous” type, and some simply get sea sick.
And while the reasons for shying away from a marine biology career are diverse, they all share the fact that they have severely underestimated the number and variety career options available for a marine biologist. For starters, most dolphin trainers don’t actually have a degree in marine biology at all! Behavioral psychology degrees help them much more in understanding the complex social nature of mammals. Who knew, right? Secondly, there are a plethora of jobs in marine biology that have no requirement of ever getting in the water.
These include public outreach positions, educators, laboratory scientists, aquarists, conservationists, resource managers, anglers…the list is endless! Say you weren’t great at calculus, but your business or legal skills are phenomenal. That’s perfect! You may have a future in grant writing for marine research or as a Department of Fish and Wildlife employee. Essentially, marine biology is just a term that encompasses anyone whose job involves an understanding of how marine organisms exist and interact within the marine environment.
How to begin a career as a marine biologist
Anyone interested in a marine biology career has a bit of homework to do. First and foremost, it is important to do some research into what those different careers entail. For this I suggest using web browsers as a jumping off point, and eventually contacting a local professor or graduate student in marine biology, aquarium employee, or a department of fish and wildlife employee to schedule a meeting. In this meeting, be prepared to ask questions about what day-to-day life is like in their job, how they achieved their current status, and what background knowledge and skill sets are a “must” for being successful in the career they are in. Don’t shy away from asking for advice. Every marine biologist has their own path and story full of recommendations that may be very helpful.
Once you are sure that you have found the area of marine biology that suits you the best, you should then start searching for volunteer and internship positions available in that area. It is rare that an aspiring marine biologist is offered a paid position up front, but all of those volunteer hours and effort will be well worth the commitment in the long run. The letters of recommendation you will have as a reference on future applications all depend on your reliability and the hard work that you put into volunteering. Personally, during my undergraduate degree I volunteered on two masters thesis projects. One of these projects was a full year long, and I was able to commit to about 20 hours a week to helping the masters student with her work. She ultimately promoted me to lead field and lab assistant and I then trained and managed other volunteers. When I applied to labs for my own masters program I had letters of recommendations that showed those volunteer hours and skills in research, as well as long term dependability and determination. Marine biology is a very small world, and connections are everything. It is CRUCIAL to be a good volunteer and make strong connections
Advancing in marine biology
Most marine biology careers require at least a bachelors degree in marine biology. This is usually sufficient for a career as an aquarist, grade school marine biology instructor, field and lab technicians, or assistant diver, among other things. However, marine biology careers that are supervisory or involve research in any capacity will require a masters degree in marine biology. A masters degree can open up pathways to being a research field and lab biologist, scientific diver, teaching assistant at college level, environmental consultant and regulator, or a department and fish and wildlife employee. Lastly, a PhD. and post doctoral program will be required for anyone interested in becoming a professor at a college level and operating a research lab at a university. It is important to note that volunteering remains a prominent requirement throughout advancement in marine biology. Because it is such a small world, it is often required and expected that you will assist and volunteer for the research and projects of others in return for their help with your own work.