Marine biologists study the fascinating animal, plant and microscopic life in oceans. An estimated 80% of all life on earth is found under the ocean surface! Plants and animals act as indicators of the effect of human activities on the planet, including pollution and climate change. Marine biologists play a vital role in studying these effects.
What does a marine biologist do?
Marine biologists investigate all kinds of issues and problems. Here are some typical areas of concern:
- Overfishing has led to a reduction of worldwide stocks of certain fish species
- Plastic pollution has led to over 12 million tonnes entering the oceans every year, causing huge implications for biodiversity, ecosystems and threats to food security
- Ocean acidification and warming oceans have resulted in significant levels of coral cover loss and coral bleaching
- The release of hot water and other effluents by various industries has altered the ecological balance of the oceans
- Oil spills wreak long-term havoc on local ecosystems and biodiversity
- Pollution has caused an increase in water-borne infections in humans
- The use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers in farming has had serious consequences on food chains
- Chemicals can cause ‘gender-bending’ and fertility problems in fish, shellfish and other aquatic organisms
On a positive note, marine biologists are able to help address many of these problems. For instance, they are working for offshore oil and gas companies to reduce the negative impact of their operations on marine life. They are also involved in developing designated marine reserves and creating artificial reefs/wrecks in order to encourage wildlife into an area. Concern for the marine environment and an interest in water-based leisure activities have made this area of applied biology a popular career choice. The opportunity of doing a job that involves outdoor work (perhaps including fieldwork at sea) is one attraction. But don’t be misled into thinking it’s a soft option as the work may involve lengthy, routine fieldwork and one field trip can generate many weeks of laboratory-based analysis.
Obviously, the balance of time spent outdoors and in the lab varies from one job to another. Most jobs are in research, development and monitoring. You could be involved in pure research – mapping what species are present in a particular area, surveying the health of coral reefs or trying to better understand marine ecosystems through novel research projects. Or, you could work in applied research, using the results of pure research to solve practical problems and to aid industries based on marine life. There are also opportunities for consultancy work, for example, conducting environmental impact assessments, environmental audits or waste management studies on behalf of governments, oil companies and organisations involved in renewable energy etc. Laboratory assistants and technicians support professional marine biologists in the more routine aspects of their work.
What skills and personal qualities do you need?
A marine biologist needs:
- An affinity with the marine environment and an interest in aquatic life
- Excellent numerical and statistics skills (particularly sought by employers)
- Practical fieldwork skills
- Patience and good observation skills
- Excellent teamwork and personal communication abilities
- Good written and oral communication skills
- To be prepared to work outdoors in all weathers – perhaps at sea
Marine biology is a popular career choice and there are more people trying to work in the area than there are jobs available. In order to put yourself ahead of other candidates, it is important that you make yourself stand out. You can achieve this by working on improving both transferrable soft skills and more niche technical skills specific to the marine biology sector, beyond that which you may have learnt in a higher education course. Key skills to develop include:
- Scientific writing skills – including both journalistic writing and science communications
- Knowledge of policy and legislation in the marine sector
- Wider socio-economic contexts and how they impact the marine sector
- Applied maths skills – many marine biologists utilise advanced statistics
- Presentation & public speaking skills
- Leadership qualities
- Project management
What about entry, training and qualifications?
Professional Marine Biologists
The usual requirement for professional posts in marine biology is a degree in biology or biochemistry. Specialist interest in marine studies is, of course, helpful and there are some degree courses specialising in marine biology or marine science. It is also worth checking courses that offer ecology or environmental studies as options. However, it’s advisable to start with a broad degree as this may offer you more possible career options and will ensure that you get a good understanding of how biology ‘fits into’ your marine interests. A relevant degree can be followed by a postgraduate degree specialising in marine biology – in fact, most jobs now ask for postgraduate qualifications. Suitable subjects to take at an advanced level for entry to biology-related degree courses are biology and chemistry, and either maths, physics or another science.
The IMarEST accredits a number of higher education courses around the world. Please visit our accredited courses webpage to look for a course that might be of interest to you, which we have assessed to be of an acceptable standard to apply for professional registration.
Professional registration is a globally recognised professional credential, offering international recognition for your skills, qualifications and experience by identifying that you possess key competencies that employer’s value. The IMarEST offers Chartered Scientist and Chartered Marine Scientist status to suitably qualified, competent and experienced people.
The IMarEST provides distance learning degrees and higher education qualifications through its learning arm, the MLA College, in a range of marine-related subjects. The courses allow you to gain the extra skills you may need to enter the workplace in a marine biological profession, through its broad range of access, undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
Laboratory Assistants and Technicians
For those with good GCSEs or equivalent qualifications (including sciences and maths) and even for those with a couple of A levels (including biology) or equivalent qualifications, there are a few openings for laboratory assistants and technicians. However, many employers prefer to appoint people trained to a higher level of specialism in biological sciences. An HNC/D in applied biology or a relevant foundation degree can also lead to technical and research-related posts.
Who employs marine biologists?
Employers of marine biologists include:
- Research and advisory bodies (such as the institutes funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science)
- University research teams
- Non-governmental Organisations
- Commercial fisheries
- Government-run regulatory and environmental bodies, e.g. the Marine and Fisheries Agency and the Environment Agency in the UK
- Large industrial concerns, such as offshore oil and gas exploration companies
- Environmental consultancies
What about future prospects?
Job vacancies are often offered for a fixed-term of two to three years to work on a particular project. Many jobs are based overseas…or at sea! It is possible for marine biologists to progress to senior research scientist and management-level positions.
The IMarEST keeps an up-to-date Jobs Board, on which it advertises job vacancies from across the marine sector, including those in marine biological professions. Please visit the board regularly for a job that may be of interest and to give you an idea of the types of jobs that exist in the marine biology domain.
One of the IMarEST’s Marine Partner’s, Marine People, is a specialist partnership based recruitment business aimed specifically in placing candidates in high-quality permanent UK and International jobs across the marine industry. Get in touch with them to assist you in your job search and entry into the field of marine biology.
What else can you do to improve your employability?
Joining a professional institute, such as the IMarEST, provides you with a range of benefits and services that are tailored to your point in your career, to support your professional development, raise your profile and connect you with other like-minded professionals from around the world.
Once you have joined a professional institute like the IMarEST, you can join your local branch to become involved in local activities and communities to get more from your membership and further boost your profile. Additionally, you can join a Special Interest Group, either as a corresponding member or, if you are advanced enough in your career, as a member of a committee and start influencing the profession at a higher level.
You could also gain relevant experience by volunteering. Many non-governmental organisations run conservation research expeditions that you can gain practical fieldwork skills and research skills, whilst also having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Check out the list of the IMarEST’s NGO Partners for ideas as to where you could go. The IMarEST also offers a variety of volunteering opportunities. Take a look at our ‘get involved’ brochure as well as our volunteering brochure to find out more!
Where can I find out more?
- IMarEST – https://www.imarest.org/resources/weblinks
- Maritime UK – https://www.maritimeuk.org/careers/download-maritime-career-pack/
- Prospects – https://www.prospects.ac.uk/job-profiles/marine-biologist
- Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) – https://nerc.ukri.org
- The Science Council – https://sciencecouncil.org
- Royal Society of Biology – https://www.rsb.org.uk/
- The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom – https://www.mba.ac.uk/
- The Society for Underwater Technology – https://www.sut.org/