Wondering how to become a marine biologist?
I get a lot of questions about this. Here, I’ve tried provide some honest answers based on 20 years of study (BSc, BSc [Hons], PhD) and employment (I’m a Principal Scientist at the Marine Megafauna Foundation, and – in a voluntary capacity – a regional Co-Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and a Science Advisor for Wild Me). I’m currently supervising two PhD students at UK universities, and have successfully ‘graduated’ multiple PhD and MSc students at various universities in the UK and Australia.
I mostly work as a shark biologist, but I also study sea turtles, manta rays, and marine protected areas. I’m involved in conservation and education projects in several countries.
Hopefully, these tips will be relevant to anyone working towards a career in field biology or conservation. Of course, these are my own opinions, but I’ve linked out to lots of great resources from other people and organisations too.
Note: important advice for younger humans (and their parental units)
This post is orientated towards high-schoolers or undergraduates that are thinking about a career in marine biology. If you’re the parent of a younger marine biology enthusiast, it’s probably useful to be aware of the information below, but it could be unnecessarily off-putting for someone that is still developing their passions and interests.
Check out the Gills Club website, along with their Facebook group, to get some great insight into real-life marine biology. Officially the Gills Club is for encouraging girls, but an interest in good science and fun shark facts isn’t gender-specific. Their class could also sign up for the Exploring By The Seat Of Your Pants initiative, linking scientists and explorers with schools. I’ve done a couple of those sessions myself.
Also, read this, so you can be aware of the challenges for a girl who is interested in the field, and overcome them.
First of all, do you actually want to be a scientist?
Love the ocean? Looking for a career that lets you work with marine life? Marine biology isn’t the only way, or necessarily the best way, to go about this.
There are career opportunities in natural history filmmaking, marine education, conservation, marine veterinary science, the dive industry, policymaking, advocacy, and all manner of other fields. These “alternative” careers might be far cooler. Killer whale freediving specialist? Yeah, that sounds alright. Being a conservation photographer would be fairly epic too.
Or, you could be rescuing and rehabilitating baby sea otters
I often meet people with amazing professional skills who think that, if they want to work towards ocean protection, they have to go back to university and do a marine biology degree. That isn’t true.
Instead, think about your existing skill set, and how you could leverage that for the ocean. Lawyer? Awesome. Marine policy. Marketer? Fantastic. How can you help to change people’s unsustainable behaviours? Teacher? Amazing. What can you do to ensure that all your students are inspired to appreciate nature? There are as many examples as there are people.
Marine biology is a science. If you’re a marine biologist, you will be a scientist. You will be spending long hours in the field or lab, performing complex statistical analyses, and writing reports and papers. And that’s after all the grant applications, many of which will be rejected for no apparent good reason. You will probably be dramatically underpaid relative to your level of education.
That is not most people’s idea of a good time.
Love that sexy marine biology talk
Becoming a marine biologist – education requirements
If you want to become an academic scientist (such as working as a university lecturer or professor), you’ll need a PhD in most countries. See below for some advice on how to start a doctoral program.
If you’d like to work as a more applied scientist, such as for government, a masters in marine biology or a related field may be sufficient, particularly if you have highly relevant experience. Plan on at least doing a masters, though.
How long does it take to become a marine biologist?
Normally a PhD will be 3-4 years, a masters will be 1-2 years, and an undergraduate degree would be 3-4 years (with honours). Hope you like cheap noodles.
In New Zealand and Australia, you can go straight to the PhD if you get a sufficiently high mark in your honours, although it can still be an advantage to do a masters first.
What should you study at school?
Sciences are, of course, required. Biology in particular. Statistics, or general mathematics, are also extremely useful. Don’t neglect writing, either. Scientists are, in practical terms, professional writers. Get all the help you can to learn to write well. Seriously. This book is routinely recommended as the best guide to improving your writing.
There are also some great resources to learn more about current shark research online, such as the The Gill’s Club.
What should you study at college?
Almost any biological or environmental major is okay, it doesn’t have to be marine biology. I studied ecology, and barely did any marine courses (they weren’t offered at my university at the time). I had a lot to learn when I switched to studying sharks, but learning is fun.
You’re going to have to learn some statistics. R has become the default package for most of the statistical programming that shark scientists do. This book, Getting Started With R: An Introduction for Biologists, is a great introduction to the program. Use of GIS analysis is also a useful skill to develop: GIS for Biologists: A Practical Introduction for Undergraduates looks like a good way to get started on that.
— Meaghen McCord (@MeagAShark) July 27, 2017
What other skills are useful?
If you’re keen to do fieldwork, you’ll need to be competent on or below the water. Fishing experience can be useful, scuba diving (PADI Rescue level or equivalent is a good level to aim for), freediving, boat handling, and some outboard motor maintenance and repair expertise would be a valuable practical skill set. Tangible, useable field abilities are always a great way to get offered more time on the water.
Marine biology internships
There are two different models for marine biology internships. I’ll call them the “training” model, and the “research” model.
Training internships are set up for people that may have recently left school, or undergraduates. Often these internships will involve introductory scuba dive courses and some basic data collection on fish, reef life etc. These can be a great way to learn to dive, and learn some fundamental research techniques. Expect to pay full costs for programs like this – you’re there to learn. Programs that have a good reputation include Operation Wallacea and Blue Ventures.
Beware: there are a lot of organisations in this space that aren’t great. Positive signals to look for include:
- Publication of their scientific results
- Oversight from, or a clear association with, credible scientists or organisations
- Involvement of graduate students
The “research” model is more suited to advanced undergraduates or recent graduates looking for practical experience. This is where research organisations recruit scientific volunteers to assist with projects. You should still expect to pay – most organisations don’t have enough funding to cover your costs. You’re basically an apprentice to more experienced scientists.
If you’re pretty sure you want to be a shark biologist and want specific experience, try the Large Marine Vertebrates Project in the Philippines or the South African Shark Conservancy in Hermanus, South Africa. I know both those organisations well, they run excellent programs that genuinely need help from volunteers, and they’re great people.
The best marine biology colleges
Anywhere with a good program will be fine. There’s a list of colleges in the USA (which appears to have claimed a couple of other territories on this page, such as Nova Scotia), and some international universities, here.
If you know you want to study sharks (or insert any other animal here), then you’ll have an advantage if you choose a university that has academics or students studying sharks. That will potentially give you the opportunity for relevant project or volunteering experiences, and there’s likely to be more shark-related material in lectures.
Currently, I know of “shark labs” at James Cook University (Australia), The University of Queensland (Aus), Florida International University (US), University of Miami (US), Simon Fraser University (Canada), Murdoch University (Aus), Flinders University (Australia), University of Exeter (UK), and the University of Southampton (UK). I’m sure there are lots of others.
Of course, there’s more to marine biology than sharks… apparently.
Check out the marine conservation graduate programs here. One of the most important human pressures on the ocean is, of course, fishing. There’s a list of colleges with graduate programs in fisheries in North America here.
NOAA Fisheries has a page for people interested in marine mammal science, as does the Society for Marine Mammalogy (they’ve also compiled a list of funding opportunities here). There’s a list of marine mammal science graduate programs here.
Cleaning whale shark vertebra (from a dead, stranded shark) for age and growth studies
Should you do a postgraduate degree?
If you actually want to work as a scientist, yes. You will need a postgraduate degree. Be aware that undergraduate study helps a lot of people realise that they *do not* want to be a scientist. That’s not a problem.
There are lots of great career paths that don’t require a postgraduate degree.
Starting a PhD is a bad idea unless you still really, really want to be a scientist at this point.
While I was updating this page, one of my PhD students sent me this… just sayin’.
In New Zealand and Australia, where I studied, if you want to do a PhD then a good honours degree is a short-cut to entry. If you want to work in more applied science, such as conservation management, you might opt for specialised masters courses that focus on your specific interest.
You typically do a masters before a PhD in the US or UK. I imagine that if you can pick a masters project that gives you the background required for a PhD, in terms of subject matter or skill set, it would be a smart move.
Still, be prepared to feel like this guinea pig. A lot. I briefly considered becoming a professional ghostbuster. But just keep walking.
How do you find a supervisor and project?
At this stage, if you’re starting to think seriously about postgraduate study in sharks, you’re going to have to get up to speed on current research. I’d read something like The Biology of Sharks and Rays to get a good overview, or take an equivalent online course if the timing works. You can dive deep into your topic of interest through an advanced reference such as the Biology of Sharks and Their Relatives textbook. Then do a Google Scholar search for recent papers on the topic and, y’know, read them.
There are two basic means of finding a project. Either find an academic you would like to work with and discuss a potential project with them, or develop a project outline and find an academic with similar research interests. For a real-world account of setting up a whale shark research project in Madagascar, check out this article from my research collaborator Stella Diamant.
This question was the focus of a recent professional development chat on the American Elasmobranch Society’s Facebook group. I’m taking the following section (with permission) from the introductory post by Dr. David Shiffman:
To identify a prospective graduate school advisor, you need to determine what research questions or methods interest you, and find advisors who either do that kind of thing already or are willing to help you do it.
I will note that several PIs in AES have complained that they get lots of e-mails from prospective students that simply say “I want to study sharks,” which is not a research method or a study question, or “I want to save the sharks,” which is not really what most researchers do. This can suggest to a potential advisor that you haven’t looked into them, or your own career goals, very much. When a potential supervisor gets dozens of applicants for one spot, this doesn’t help you to compete.
One great way to look into which possible PIs do the kind of work you’re interested in doing is to read some recent published papers about that kind of work, and see who the authors are. Similarly, if you’re able to attend a conference, see who is presenting on topics that interest you.
Once you have identified potential advisors (and I stress advisors plural, graduate school applications are competitive and you likely don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket), you’ll need to reach out to them (usually by e-mail at first), briefly introduce yourself and your interests, and say that you’re interested in applying to work with them. This should be brief, specific, and professional. It should demonstrate that you’ve thought about what you want to do a little bit, and should demonstrate that you’ve looked into what that advisor does. Some prospective advisors have a website along the lines of “if you’re interested in joining my lab, you should do X Y and Z.”
There’s an example of a “letter to prospective shark science grad students” for Dr. Neil Hammerschlag’s lab here.
Choosing the right supervisor is important. If they already have a few students, see if you can have a quick chat (postgrads are busy) with one of them about what it is like to be part of that lab. Maybe offer to buy them a coffee. Postgrads often drink a lot of coffee. There’s some great advice here and here.
You also need to develop a practical project. If there’s a project that fits in well with what the lab is already doing, there is funding available, and you have or can quickly learn the skills required, life will probably be a lot less stressful.
A huge part of this equation is being the student that academics *want* to work with. Get experience. Work hard. Collect great references.
To reinforce David’s advice above, *before* you email an academic to request that they take you on as a student, read their latest papers. Check if they’re on Twitter, or have a blog. Find out who they are and what they do. Then, prepare a pitch that clearly shows you’ve done some serious preparation.
Keep in mind that, while academics do take on students, they get a whole load of requests. See below for suggestions on cutting through the crowd and getting a response.
Non-academics (such as people working for non-profits, like myself), often have no particular incentive to take on students or volunteers and, in fact, students can add to their workload. It’s your job to convince them that you, like Liam Neeson, have a particular set of skills that will make you an asset.
Collecting parasites off a whale shark nose for genetics work
How do you get experience, and then a job?
Many (probably most) shark scientists have done some voluntary work before, during or after their postgraduate studies. It’s a great way to build contacts in the field, develop relevant experience and skills, and decide what you would specifically like to do.
One of the best ways to get experience is to help other graduate students with their projects. They often need assistance, they’re your future research colleagues and collaborators, and it’s fun. There are lots of informal volunteering / experience-building opportunities around, don’t feel like you have to look exclusively at volunteer-based research organisations.
There aren’t many paid shark biology jobs advertised. Most will go to people who are already familiar with that organisation, or to at least some of the people that work there. How do you find out about those jobs? Networking. Online (lots of shark scientists are on Twitter) or, preferably, in person.
My opinion: in the shark world, I think studying fisheries or taxonomy is a great way to be useful, known, and valued as a researcher (and to have a positive impact on the world).
There’s a good Facebook group for work and volunteer opportunities: Marine Biologist network and job postings. The Society for Conservation Biology has a jobs board here, and career advice here. WiseOceans has a list of job opportunities here. Conservation Careers is a great resource too. There are jobs with sea turtles here.
How much do marine biologists make?
This question is a pretty big topic in Google searches about marine biology, and fair enough. It really depends on where you’re working – the pay scale varies widely, from not much to not enough.
I looked on the internet for some average salary information…
Shmoop.com lists the average salary for a marine biologist as $51, 180, and had this to say:
“The monetary rewards for marine biologists ranges from not great to modest to somewhat okay. Right out of college, a graduate can expect to make around $30,000 each year. The more initials you have after your name, the more money you’ll tend to make, though.” See their full article here.
Salary.com is less ambitious on earning potential (personally, I think this is a very low-end estimate):
“For all the excitement, the salaries are modest (about $35,000) and jobs are grant-funded, which means career stability depends on the success of grant applications for projects that last as long as five years. Still, being able to work with other scientists, many from foreign countries, on cutting-edge projects is why Chute loves her job. “I get paid to ask ‘what does this data mean’ and I get paid to do. I can’t imagine any other career.” See their full article here.
I think Shmoop sums up the situation nicely:
“The true reward for these intrepid marine biologists is the satisfaction that their work not only helps the environment now, but also well into the future. If you love the ocean, but really need to make the big bucks, steer clear of marine biology and satisfy your love for the sea with a nice aquarium.”
But nobody will reply to my emails!
Read this. Be aware that if you’re asking for a student project, internship, or even a voluntary position, these are often extremely competitive. Do your homework before even thinking about getting in touch, be literate, and be considerate of your recipient’s time.
Brutal truth here: you are being judged on first impressions. Check that you aren’t making these mistakes.
There’s an interesting section in Cal Newport’s excellent book, “Deep Work”, where he mentions a strategy for those suffering email overwhelm (probably the case amongst most marine biologists, who would frankly rather be playing outside). I’ve reproduced the section here (but read the whole book, it’s excellent):
“As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond.
Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behaviour: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If you didn’t make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by the professor to respond, you didn’t get a response.
For example, the following e-mail would likely not generate a reply with many of the famous names at the Institute:
‘Hi professor. I’d love to stop by sometime to talk about <topic X>. Are you available?’
Responding to this message requires too much work (‘Are you available?’ is too vague to be answered quickly). Also, there’s no attempt to argue that this chat is worth the professor’s time. With these critiques in mind, here’s a version of the same message that would be more likely to generate a reply:
‘Hi professor. I’m working on a project similar to <topic X> with my advisor, <professor Y>. Is it okay if I stop by in the last fifteen minutes of your office hours on Thursday to explain what we’re up to in more detail and see if it might complement your current project?’
Unlike the first message, this one makes a clear case for why this meeting makes sense and minimises the effort needed from the receiver to respond.”
That’s what you’re up against. Please apply the above philosophy liberally in any exchange where you would like a response. Make your email interesting, and make it easy to reply to. Don’t ask open-ended questions.
Done all that, but still haven’t gotten any email love?
Everyone is very busy. They simply may not have read your message, or had a chance to respond yet. Being gently persistent is a useful life skill… but ensure you’ve covered all of the points above first!
That all sounds super negative…
Yeah, sorry about that. Good news though: if you’ve made it this far down the page, you may well have the sheer bloody-minded determination and sense of purpose required for a successful career in marine biology.
In other words, you are my kinda people.
Personally, I’ve found marine biology to be the most amazing, fulfilling life I can possibly imagine. I am constantly in awe of the animals I study. I get to work with incredibly inspirational, smart, and fun people. I am routinely challenged to learn and apply my training to make our world a better place. My job is freaking awesome.
Whether you still want to be a marine biologist or not, our oceans need you. I hope the information and resources above (and below) help you to find your own path.
If you’re interested in more advanced material, I’m thinking of writing up some thoughts on creating your own career (like I have). It’s a bit unconventional.
If that’s of interest, you can sign up to receive updates here:
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I write a weekly article, just for my mailing list. They normally focus on something interesting, and possibly hilarious, that I've learnt about sharks (or other random animals) that week. There may also be groan-inducing jokes.
Real talk: there will be groan-inducing jokes.