Become an Aquatic Biologist: Education and Career Guide

Oct 20, 2021

Should I Become an Aquatic Biologist?

Aquatic biologists study the organisms, plants, and chemicals found in rivers, lakes, oceans, wetlands, and other water environments. Aquatic biology is commonly divided into two main areas of interest: limnology (the study of freshwater environments) and marine biology. As an aquatic biologist, you would collect data and analyze it to determine the factors that affect an organism's population within a particular environment. The analysis might be used to develop a conservation plan for the organism or to enhance knowledge of both the organism and its environment.

Careers can be found through federal, state, non-government, and nonprofit agencies and organizations. Aquatic biologists may conduct work in offices, but the job also usually requires fieldwork performed outdoors in sometimes severe weather conditions. Many professionals keep full-time schedules and may have to work unusual hours.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree for entry-level positions; master's for higher-level positions; most teaching and research positions require a PhD
Degree Field Aquatic biology or biology with an emphasis in aquatic biology
Experience Entry-level may require little experience; higher level positions may require multiple years of experience in the field
Key Skills Complex problem solving, critical thinking, science, writing, spreadsheet, word processing, data analyzing software, knowledge of centrifuges, microscopes, and other relevant lab equipment and techniques
Salary $58,270 per year (Median salary for all zoologists and wildlife biologist)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job postings (July 2012), O*Net OnLine.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Most entry-level positions require at least a bachelor's degree in aquatic biology or a related field. A degree in biology might suffice as long as the program includes a number of aquatic courses. A program in wildlife biology also might be acceptable if it covers fishery studies. This degree could be especially useful if one wants to work for a federal or state fish and wildlife agency.

Courses required in an undergraduate program might include general biology, ecology, evolution, and genetics. Electives differ depending on what the focus of the program is, but they might include fish biology, fisheries management, ichthyology, laws and policies related to aquatic habitats, limnology, stream or marine biology, and wetland ecology. Additional requirements often include lab or field projects and internships.

Success Tips:

  • Get good grades in general biology and other science courses. Some programs require students to complete their first two years of courses before allowing them to petition for entrance to an aquatic biology program. The first two years usually consist of basic college biology, chemistry, physics, and other courses that might be prerequisites to courses taken in the last two years of study.
  • Participate in volunteer or internship work. Hands-on experience is important when entering the field of aquatic biology. Students might volunteer or intern during any free time they have in their studies. Some programs allow for internships to be counted for credit toward the degree. Local zoos, aquariums, and government agencies are good places for aquatic biology students to gain hands-on experience.

Step 2: Find Employment with a Bachelor's Degree

This could be the final step for those who are content with a job at this level, or it could be a time to gain work experience and professional references before entering a graduate program in aquatic biology. Some jobs allow employees to work up to higher positions through experience, but major research positions typically require a graduate degree.

The type of job one gets likely will depend on the specific bachelor's degree program he or she has completed. For example, if the degree was in marine biology, one might be more qualified for jobs near a coast. If the focus was limnology, or fresh water studies, one might find a job with a government fish and wildlife agency, working near freshwater lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

Success Tip:

  • Work toward future research goals. For individuals who plan to continue their education so they can do independent research, opportunities to work with animal or plant species they plan on studying in the future could be useful. A greater amount of hands-on experience with a particular topic could prove useful when conducting research at the graduate level.

Step 3: Complete a Master's or Ph.D. in Aquatic Biology

To complete a master's program, one usually must take courses related to the field and finish a thesis. Courses might be similar to electives in a bachelor's program and include subjects like graduate-level ichthyology and plankton or reservoir ecology. The courses chosen typically will contribute to the research that's used to formulate a master's thesis.

Doctoral degree programs might be found in aquatic resources or biology with a specialization in aquatic biology. Required courses are focused on the chosen specialization (e.g. aquatic biology), and the dissertation is based on research in the field. The dissertation must be approved, conducted, and then defended. Some programs also require a certain amount of time spent as a teaching assistant, as well as seminars given about the research conducted for the student's dissertation. Students also might have to pass one or more oral examinations.

Step 4: Find Employment with a Graduate Degree in Aquatic Biology

With a master's degree in aquatic biology, one can find similar jobs as with a bachelor's degree, but with the added bonus of possibly starting at a higher level of pay and responsibility. A master's degree holder also might be able to perform research.

An individual with a PhD in the field might teach at the postsecondary level or conduct senior-level research with a university or other entity that supports and utilizes research in aquatic biology. Some federal research jobs require creation and implementation of programs based on an employee's research related to the animals, plants, and/or environments that the agency oversees.

Success Tip:

  • Join an association dedicated to aquatic biologists. Some of these associations serve those who work in a certain region, such as the mid-Atlantic. Members of these associations have the opportunity to present papers to their peers and participate in workshops given by professionals in the field.
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