The Southwest Fisheries Science Center, of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service often gets requests for information on marine biology careers. The following was prepared in answer to the most frequently asked questions.
What Does a Marine Biologist/Scientist Do?
Although many people today are familiar with the term "marine biologist," most don't realize that, in reality, the job title of marine biologist rarely exists. The term is actually used for many disciplines and jobs in the marine sciences which deal with the study of marine life, not just for those which deal with the physical properties of the sea--though many biologists study both. So a marine biologist might be a biological technician, ichthyologist, fishery biologist, marine mammalogist, microbiologist, systems analyst, or a mathematician. Even economists and sociologists, who deal with living marine resource issues, are found within the so-called field of marine biology. In addition, other marine scientists concern themselves exclusively with the physical and chemical aspects of the sea, such as physicists, hydrologists, and physical oceanographers.
What Schools Offer Marine Biology Programs?
Many colleges and universities offer degrees in marine biology or related fields. You can find information about marine academic programs in California and other states on the Web at www.oceancareers.com (click on "Education" then "Search by selecting a state"). For general information about marine science careers, see www.usc.edu/org/seagrant/careers.html .
On the Pacific Coast, strong schools in fisheries and biological oceanography include the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington in Seattle; the University of California programs at San Diego (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), Davis, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz; the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife or Department of Oceanography at Oregon State University in Corvallis; and Humboldt State University in California. Utah State University at Logan has a good program in freshwater aquatic biology and fisheries. In the Midwest, strong schools in the aquatic sciences include the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin. On the East Coast, some of the schools that offer marine programs are the University of Miami, University of Rhode Island, University of Massachusetts, University of Georgia, the University of Maryland (Chesapeake Biological Lab),and Cornell. On the Gulf Coast, Texas A & M University has a fisheries and wildlife program at its main campus and a strong program on marine biology at its Galveston campus. Other southern or Gulf universities include Louisiana State University and Auburn University in Alabama, which has a good aquaculture program.
What Courses Should I Take?
For marine biological careers, preparatory courses in basic biology, zoology, chemistry, physics, biometrics, mathematics, and statistics are important. English is important, too, because one of the most important activities of a marine biologist is writing scientific papers and getting them published. Courses in the aquatic sciences such as fishery biology, ichthyology, and oceanography are also important, as well as courses in your discipline of interest (for instance, ethology if you are interested in animal behavior). Courses in the social sciences are also recommended for occupations that deal mainly with the public, public policies, or management.
What Degrees Do I Need?
Some schools offer a marine biology degree and most of these are located in coastal states, but the undergraduate degree need not be in marine biology. It can be in biology, zoology, fisheries, or one of the other animal sciences. Physical oceanographers, who study the physical as opposed to the biological aspects of the sea, may work toward an oceanography degree, with course work weighted heavily in physics, mathematics, and computer modeling. Biological oceanographers study both the biological and physical aspects of the sea and their interactions. Your best bet would be to refer to the guides mentioned above and contact the schools that interest you and learn more about the programs and degrees they offer. A bachelor's or master's degree is usually required for most starting marine biological research jobs, but you should also be aware that the usual level of education required to carry out independent research in biology is a Ph.D., so if you are serious about a full-time career and want to organize your own research projects, you should get your doctorate.
What Should I Get My Degree In?
Many (but not all) of the biologists who work for the Southwest Fisheries Science Center are fishery biologists. Of the biologists who went on to do graduate work, most obtained their B.S. in biology (45%) and zoology (28%). Others did undergraduate work in the following categories: fisheries (12%), oceanography (5%), conservation (3%), chemistry (2%), marine biology (2%), biological oceanography (2%), animal sciences (2%), and mathematics (1%).
Of those who obtained their master's degree, most picked zoology (23%) or fisheries (21%), also oceanography (16%), biology (14%), marine biology (9%), and biological oceanography (7%). Other categories were ecology, physical oceanography, animal sciences, or statistics (2% each).
Similarly, most Ph.D.s at the Center obtained their Ph.D. degrees in zoology (22%) and fisheries (20%). Other doctorates were in oceanography (14%), marine biology (8%), ecology (8%), biology (6%), statistics (6%), economics/political science (6%), microbiology or physiology (4%), mathematics (2%), and operations research (2%).
What About Working with Marine Mammals?
If you are interested in dolphins or other marine mammals, research programs do exist at several universities. For example, UC Santa Cruz and the University of Hawaii have such programs. Like the study of fishes, marine mammalogy in itself has many disciplines: natural history (the study of how a species lives), taxonomy and systematics (study of their classification and evolution), anatomy and physiology, ethology (behavior), and ecology (how they interact with their environment). Some universities, like Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, may not have specific programs on marine mammals but have graduate students doing marine mammal-related research. For example, Scripps graduate students are currently conducting research at the SWFSC on many aspects of marine mammal ecology, population dynamics and acoustics.
What's the Job Outlook?
The employment outlook in this field is highly competitive. The supply of marine scientists far exceeds the demand, and the number of government jobs (the federal and state governments are important employers) is limited. Other employers are local governments, aquaria/museums, colleges and universities, and private research laboratories or 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 course work in the animal and aquatic sciences is critical for getting a competitive edge in the job market. Also, more universities are offering courses and programs in fisheries or wildlife management, another increasingly important aspect of the study of fishes, marine mammals, and sea turtles.