Tips + FAQs for Aspiring Marine Biologists

Updated: Mar 3

So, you want to be a marine biologist? I've compiled the most frequently asked questions I'm asked on a daily basis by you all for your benefit. It was a long, complicated journey to get where I am, and that's why I want to share my insights with all of you. The world needs more marine biologists and ocean advocates, sooner rather than later. There's a million ways you can help. I hope this article serves as a resource for young students looking for guidance in the field :)

I'm Carissa and I'm based in Hawaii and have been gaining experience in the marine conservation for about 10 years. I've worked many different positions and my "focus," has changed a lot over the years. I've conducted research, lead education and outreach, worked in the field, in labs, done data management, overseen volunteers and interns, designed conservation programs, fundraised, designed media for science communication, and even assisted in policy-making. I would say my general focus has been endangered species (typically megafauna) and education up until this point. Right now, I'm passionate about using media as a tool for our oceans (like this blog post!) and working with a number of clients continuing to create modern educational initiatives and inspiring climate action for our oceans.

coral reef ocean conservation marine biology diving hawaii
Partially bleached coral reef in Kona, Hawaii. Studying and conservation coral reefs is one way to be a marine biologist.

What should I study to work in marine conservation/rehabilitation? Can I major in environmental science?

Great question. If you have 100% certainty of what you want to do, I would choose a major that is most closely related to that. However, I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted and I knew I was going to go to graduate school. My university didn't offer marine biology as a major and my advisor knew my plan - so I chose a general major. My major was Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB) but other general majors can be Biology, Environmental Science, Ecology, Chemistry, etc. I know many successful marine biologists that did not major in marine biology in their undergraduate career.

What are some job options as a marine biologist?

Infinite options. When we're growing up, we sometimes think of marine biologist as what we see on TV. Sometimes, that's true. But there are endless options and I'm going to name some of the most common ones.

  • Researcher - You can run your own lab as a PhD, associate with a university, conduct research on your own, teach classes, mentor students, and apply for your own funding. This is the academia route.

  • Field/Lab technician - You can work to support research in the lab and/or through field work. These positions don't require a PhD and are usually seasonal, allowing you to gain a lot of different experiences in different places if you want. They are a great option after you graduate college.

  • Fisheries Observer - Another great introductory job where you record data to help understand how much fish is being taken from our oceans. This can require spending time at sea and working closely with fishers and is a wonderful option after you graduate college if you are willing to relocate.

  • Husbandry - This would be taking care of animals and often includes aquariums, zoos, marine parks. Working in husbandry means you are helping keep these animals alive.

  • Aquaculture - This is the field of growing fish for consumption and there is a huge need for it. It can be working in a facility maintaining tanks, or at sea pens monitoring growth. This field is growing enormously as seafood decreases in our oceans, so we need more active biologists in aquaculture.

  • Animal Rescue & Rehabilitation - Often some of the most competitive jobs, you would be working typically for a nonprofit, institution, or government agency keeping federally protected species alive through field response, assessment, and working with veterinarians and other animal caretakers to heal them for release or captivity. I worked in this field for a few years, but without rehabilitation.

  • Policy - With a strong legal background, you can work to create laws, regulations, and other policy to help marine animals and the ocean ecosystem. This would be with a government agency (local, state, federal) and doesn't include time in the field.

  • Education & Outreach - You would use communication tools to teach others about marine life and the ocean ecosystem. This could be to the general public, children, or a combination of both. This is the field I specialized in and communicating complex issues to others is a key skillset to develop if you want to be a successful marine biologist.

  • Data Analyst - This is someone who analyzes large data sets to help answer questions and inform decisions about animals and the ocean. Understanding how to analyze data is also important if you're interested in research and policy, and requires an understanding of statistics.

The main thing I want to emphasize is that you can work in a job that uses a few of these things together. I worked in animal rescue and education & outreach, I also worked in education & as a lab technician. The main piece of advice is to take note early of what you like and what you're good at and go from there.

How can I find organizations to gain experience with like internships, volunteering, and jobs?

One of my best resources for finding positions is subscribing to the MARMAM email list (specifically for marine mammal opportunities). Some others are Seven Seas Media weekly newsletter, signing up for alerts through Indeed or other job sites using keywords like "marine science," or other terms related to your interests. I highly recommend taking initiative when looking for experience. You should search up some local opportunities where you live and send them an email to set up a call. Offer free work and come off professional. This is how you build a network of professionals and valuable skillsets.

Preparing for a dive to remove marine debris from the coastal waters of Oahu on behalf of a local nonprofit organization.

What should I major in if I want to work in marine animal rehabilitation?

Because of how competitive this specific field is, I would try to develop related skills as early as possible. In rehabilitation, you have to have an understanding of anatomy, care, medication, disease, and this takes a lot of time. Going to vet school, or at least acquiring a vet tech license, and taking internships in animal care is essential. You don't need to worry about specializing very early on - learning how to care for a bird will still be a step toward success later on when you work with marine life.

Do I need to go to graduate school to be successful?

This is a tricky question. It depends on what you want to do. Technician jobs, high school teachers, fishery observer positions, aquarists, and some contracted government positions don't require more than a high school or college degree to get them. It can be more about your experience, which is often years of unpaid work. Honestly, you can be "capped," at your salary wage in some positions without further education. I suggest graduate school if you see yourself in this field for your entire career. When promotions and growth opportunities come, degrees can make a difference for you. It's so silly to me, but that has been my experience.

Do you do more lab work, field work, or other work?

Exploring the intertidal zone in Mexico and holding a brittle star. Taken on a class field trip.

This depends. When starting out to develop experience, which is often when you are younger and working in unpaid internships and volunteering, you should say yes to everything. Getting experience in the lab and field will help you down the road and teach you what you like most about each. I feel that what's not communicated enough is that later down the road, when you have a strong background of diverse experience, you can choose which positions to apply for. If you drastically don't like lab work but have a good resume, you can avoid applying for those positions (like me!). Some days you are at a computer all day, some days you are in the field for 12 hours, some days you are in the lab. It all depends and that's what so alluring about this field - your work day can be drastically different every day.

Is it difficult - school and the job?

I'm going to be honest here - yes. It is. This is a competitive field, and the process to get there is challenging. You go through "weed out," classes in college that cause many people to realize this may not be the path for them. I graduated top of my class and applied for 75+ jobs before finding the one I wanted. I did 6+ years of unpaid work on top of waitressing to make ends meet. I gave up a lot - my hometown, many nights with friends for work, etc. Sometimes, you can find yourself questioning it. But once I was in the job I always wanted, it wasn't hard to me because it was exactly what I dreamed of. I woke up loving my job, every day. So remember that those harder days in the beginning do pay off.

Can you travel as a marine biologist?

Absolutely. Seasonal positions are some of the easiest to get - they are short-term, often moderate to low pay, and require relocation. You don't need a PhD to get these either and they are a great opportunity to see different places of the world while helping the ocean. If you're a researcher, educator, or even a manager at a nonprofit, you can travel for a number of other reasons too. Conferences, partnerships, and other opportunities are all possible reasons for travel when you're working in marine biology.

Did you do a lot of unpaid work?

Yes, and please know that this is part of getting that experience that makes you a great applicant for a position. I did unpaid work for 6+ years, and all of it helped me. I try not to view it as something bad though, because I was really just spending my time learning something that would serve me later. This is one of the hardest obstacles in the field and sometimes why the field is described as made for privileged people. Some positions I did unpaid are below:

  • Served as Outreach Coordinator and Vice President of a college marine conservation club (so much work that I cannot explain)

  • Helped care for and rehabilitate ground squirrels and desert birds in Arizona

  • Ran a marine discovery lab at an on-campus planetarium

  • Volunteered at a cetacean stranding lab for class credit

  • Interned at NOAA

  • Interned at a zoo (cleaning poop and preparing diets!)

  • Paid to study abroad in the Galapagos for course credit

  • Served as the manager of our education sector (yes, unpaid) for a cetacean stranding lab during graduate school

  • Wrote science communication blog posts for a local organizations

  • Created media graphics for a local organization to raise awareness

What things can I do now in highshool to set me up for success in the field? What courses should I take?

Your high school may not offer anything specific to marine biology - mine definitely didn't. If they have a marine biology class, absolutely take it. That's not very common though. I would suggest focusing on becoming successful in core STEM classes - math, chemistry, biology, physics, statistics, etc. Do your best and ask your classmates and teachers for support. Laying the foundation of a strong understanding in high school will set you up for success in college. By the way, I almost failed physics. I don't use it in my work. Don't worry if you're not great at everything.

Whats the pay like?

I'm going to be honest, there are ways have successful pay in this field but they are few and far between. With an already competitive field, the high paying positions are even harder to get. It's possible though. Money had never been a deciding factor for me, I wanted to be happy and fulfilled and saving the ocean. However, and I've gotten older I've realized that I need basic income to build the life I want. This is part of the reason I transitioned from organization-based education to media-based ocean education. So far, it's working great for me.

I want to work with whales. How can I do that?

You and me both, sis. Please know that this is so much more to the ocean than whales. I say that, completely committed to saving whales (only) when I was younger. There's also so much more than biology (the study of life). You can study the oceans physical features, it's circulation patterns, it's chemistry, history, trajectory, etc. as an oceanographer. The study of life is just one path - and there is infinite amount of life in the ocean. Species are being discovered to this day! Yes, even whale species.

Can you come and speak to my club, class, organization about marine biology as a career?

I'd love to! I'm happy to help serve as a resource and talk about a number of topics related to marine conservation and the field itself. I ask that if you find it valuable, you donate to support my work. Send me an email so we can set something up!

Diving for an underwater photoshoot.

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