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How to Become a Marine Biologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Oct 20, 2021

Students wondering how to become a marine biologist must first explore what education is needed to become a marine biologist. Learn about the different degrees needed to be a marine biologist, as well as some additional marine biologist training.

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Marine Biologist Overview

A marine biologist specializes in the health of the oceans and marine life that live in them. They may study an array of topics ranging from viruses to marine mammals and climate change. Marine biologists are likely to work full-time and may conduct fieldwork in addition to working in a lab and/or office. Depending on their specialty, they may study a range of subjects and work to better understand the animals, habitats, and processes of the oceans and other bodies of water. Typically, these scientists will present their findings in reports and scientific papers. See the table below for a brief overview of the profession.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree
Degree Field Marine biology
Other Requirements Experience
Annual Median Salary (2018)* $63,420 (for zoologists and wildlife biologists)
Estimated Job Growth (2016-2026)* 8% (for zoologists and wildlife biologists)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Education is Needed to Become a Marine Biologist?

If you're wondering how to become a marine biologist, you can generally follow these steps -- earn a postsecondary degree(s) in a related field, participate in an internship, consider a graduate degree and complete any necessary training. Here we examine the different degrees needed to be a marine biologist at various levels and answer questions like 'how many years of college to be a marine biologist?' in more detail.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Entry-level positions as a marine biologist typically require at least a bachelor's degree. Students may pursue a range of marine biology-related degree programs, such as biology with a concentration in marine biology or wildlife biology degree programs, or a bachelor's degree specifically in marine biology.

Although online marine biology schools are rare due to the hands-on nature of the field, there are several schools that offer a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Marine Biology. These are typically 4-year programs that include a range of experiential learning through labs, internships, and research opportunities. Course topics in these programs may cover:

  • Marine biology
  • Ecology
  • Organic chemistry
  • Organism diversity
  • Oceanography

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

Earning a master's degree will typically allow a marine biologist to begin performing more advanced scientific or investigative work in their career. Again, there are a variety of marine-related degree programs available at the master's level, such as degree programs in marine conservation, but there are also master's programs available specifically in marine biology.

Master's degree programs in marine biology are usually offered as Master of Science degrees and are on-campus. Some of these programs may allow students to begin specializing in a particular species or ecosystem. These programs may be completed in as little as 15 months, but usually take around 2 years to complete. They commonly include extensive research and hands-on learning experiences.

Step 3: Earn a Doctorate

Marine biologists wishing to teach at a university and/or conduct independent research must earn a doctorate. Marine biology doctoral degree programs are available, but students may also pursue doctoral programs in areas like oceanography. These programs may require as much as 90 credits beyond a bachelor's degree and typically include comprehensive exams and a dissertation. Usually these programs require a minimum of 3 years and a maximum of 5 years of study.

Step 4: Complete Marine Biologist Training

Although formal training is not required, some marine biologists may need training and/or experience with various kinds of equipment and techniques in the field. For example, in order to conduct research on open water marine biologists may need to know how to operate a boat. Marine biologists typically learn these different skills and techniques through hands-on learning opportunities, such as internships, research projects, or volunteer work.

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