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Wanna Be a Marine Biologist? Here’s How

Maddalena photographing bowriding bottlenose dolphin
The author photographs a bowriding bottlenose dolphin. Credit: Maddalena Bearzi

“Oh my God! You study dolphins… How cool…!”

I can’t begin to say how many times I’ve heard this. It seems what I do is something many people dream about. The adventurous, romantic life of a marine biologist, out in the elements, investigating the lives of these magnificent creatures in the freedom of the vast ocean…

I am fortunate indeed, and I wouldn’t exchange my life and career for anything. But people don’t often realize what goes into the job. For every hour I log at sea, there are probably at least five to spend in the lab back on land. The work is as long and hard as it’s rewarding, both on and off the water, but the many hours passed hunched over a desk as the clock ticks late into the night, analyzing, writing, correcting, rewriting, are where the less committed tend to weed themselves out of the vocation… (Excerpted from my book Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist)

The number of emails, phone calls, and Facebook messages I receive has diminished a little in the last years, but they continue to come with regularity. They are not only from students; they are from people in all walks of life interested in finding out how to become marine biologists. After spending over two decades with volunteers and researchers both in the field and the lab, I believe that many don’t really know what it takes to get into and to stay in this field.

Here is my token of advice for the aspiring marine biologists out there. These are only my opinions, and of course, nothing is written in stone, but perhaps interested parties may be able to adapt some of these steps and suggestions to fit their own lives and circumstances.

First Steps

The first key question one should ask oneself is “what am I really interested in?” Here is where it gets confusing because when people question me about becoming a marine biologist they usually picture a field marine researcher, maybe because that is my specialty.

Marine biology, in a nutshell, is the study of marine organisms, their behaviors, and interactions with the environment.  It includes many different sub-disciplines and, consequently, an array of potential career directions. Would you like to be a microbiologist, an aquarist, a behavioral ecologist, a system analyst, a geneticist, a professor, or perhaps some combination of these? There are many roads to choose from and many organizations that hire marine biologists, so having a fairly precise idea of what you would like to do is an important first step in the right direction.

The author looks for dolphins and birds from the bow of a research ship
The author looks for dolphins and birds from the bow of a research ship. Photo courtesy of Maddalena Bearzi

Dolphin ConfidentialThe next step is to ask yourself what really fascinates you about the ocean. Are you passionate about biodiversity on coral reefs or algal blooms?  Is the structure of soft-bottom communities what inspires you or the feeding behavior of critically endangered blue whales?  Try to construct a “big picture” of what captivates you then narrow down your focus to explore something that is feasible, either in the lab or the field.

But don’t lose sight of your big picture. Not getting roped into a “specialization” has the advantage of keeping you flexible and more responsive to a challenging and changing job market. Your first topic of choice may, later on, morph into your real career, but that’s not always the case and may not necessarily be the best road to take.

It’s important to concentrate attention on unanswered questions more than on a specific species. It’s also a good idea to be practical in your choice of a subject by giving some thought to where and how you plan to accomplish your studies. It’s imperative, whatever your topic of choice, that you are passionate about it because it is passion that will help you accomplish what you set out to do, even if it takes pushing your limits.

Whatever you choose to study, you should keep conservation in mind given the current range of environmental issues facing our oceans and their inhabitants. What will the cetologist engaged in studying the migration of right whales do if these leviathans disappear within his or her lifetime?

Next Steps

Read, write and get experience. Its’ unlikely you can read all there is to know in this discipline but try to know as much as you can. Do your homework, peruse the Internet in search of information (not blogs only), read books and, if you can’t afford to buy them, go to the library.

Study how scientific papers are written because this will likely be the output of your studies in the future. Seek advice and help in the academic world or through research institutions. Learn how to communicate science! Being a great communicator will help you advance faster and further in a marine biology career, and may help you reach out to the general public about marine conservation issues if the need arises.

Solid practical experience in your field—or a field related to it—is certainly key to becoming a marine biologist. Being involved with different projects, working on diverse hypotheses and learning about different species and processes also helps keep an open mind while gaining experience beyond your selected subject.

Volunteer opportunities are offered everywhere today and are easily found, thanks to the Internet. If you work well and are adaptable, if you’re willing to commit, if you are enthusiastic, you might slip from being a volunteer into acting as a real researcher. You may even find the opportunity to write a collaborative peer-reviewed paper, something that will help you when entering graduate school.

When choosing a volunteer position in your field, inquire to see who are the experts in that specific discipline. Try to work under the wings of these professionals and ask questions, get feedback and suggestions on how to improve your skills; this will help you get the right kind of experience.

Traditional academic education is important and going to graduate school, first a Master’s program and then a Ph.D., is certainly the way to go, especially if your goal is remain in academia. As a start, take all the science courses available to you in high school and as an undergraduate. Preparatory courses in basic biology, zoology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics are essential, but other courses such as ichthyology, conservation, and oceanography are also quite valuable, as well as those related to your specific field. Then there’s the study of statistics; this is something you must know and be good at and no, you can’t get around it.

School, however, won’t teach you everything you need to know to gain knowledge and expertise in your chosen field. You need to look outside the box and find other ways to learn and acquire practical skills. Attending conferences and workshops in your discipline, visiting universities, museums, and research institutions, meeting experts in your subject area (who could become your advisors later on) and asking questions, being part of email list serves in your topic of interest are just some of the things to pursue.

Maddalena Bearzi in the field with video camera.
The author in the field. Photo courtesy of Maddalena Bearzi

One Step Further…

Distinguish yourself as an independent thinker. Many people want to become marine biologists and that makes this a highly competitive discipline. A lot of people start toward a career in marine biology but end up working in completely different fields and almost everyone is struggling to find a job in today’s tough market. If you have chosen to be a marine biologist it is likely you haven’t done it for the money—as there isn’t much in it anyway—so you need to be creative and flexible. Look for something that your field is in need of, something that your peers are not offering. Learn practical skills like scuba diving, boat handling, GIS techniques, and statistical analyses that just a few know. Push yourselves to work better than everyone else.

The desire to study dolphins in the wild is probably not enough to take you out to sea among these amazing creatures or set you apart from the masses. It’s passion, enthusiasm, and learning what’s necessary to make you stand above the crowd that will help you attain your goals.

Maddalena Bearzi has a Ph.D. in biology and has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals and other species for over twenty-five years. Maddalena is co-founder and president of the Ocean Conservation Society and coauthor of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Harvard University Press, 2008). Her most recent book is called Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).

Comments

  1. Bridget Groves
    Ohio
    September 9, 12:39 am

    Hi. I’ve been interested in Marine Biology for awhile. I’m interested in the aspect of the coral reef and trying to preserve it and the marine life. I also enjoy photography and being in the ocean and watching all the fish swim. I don’t live anywhere near the ocean and not sure where to start or how to go about doing this. I’m 24 and seriously want to do something with my life. I’ve always wanted to open an aquarium at some point. Just love and enjoy everything about the water. Except crabs. They freak me out! Lol. Please can you help me? Thank you so much for your time!

  2. mason
    cms
    August 28, 9:13 am

    cool I want to be one

  3. ablo
    maldives
    August 23, 7:09 am

    i did not study well in school i will be doing marine study fundation courses I dont know how much it will help me to become a marine biologist is it a good palce to start i am a bit lost. I have done my padi OWSI i do littil bit of under water Photograpy do you have any ideas for me?

  4. Alexis kis
    ohio
    August 2, 3:57 pm

    My whole life from as soon as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the sea and photography. I’m 16 and getting scuba certified now and I want my career to have something to do with it. I’m fascinated by everything about the ocean but I think I wanna work with animal rehabilitation and that would be my dream!!!

  5. author
    July 1, 7:20 pm

    Response for Carrie Ann (from Nebraska)

    Dear Carrie, I am suggesting some of the classes to take in my article (read NEXT STEPS) so I hope you can find some ideas here. Also, as soon as you can, try to participate to volunteer camps near the oceans, perhaps during the summer months…
    all the best

  6. author
    July 1, 7:16 pm

    This response is for Liberty (happy birthday!) but it might also help other readers…
    I think you should pursue your dreams to be a photographer as well as a marine biologist – or an oceanographer . There is no reason why you can’t combine these two passions. You can become a “field marine biologist” (like me) and study ocean creatures such as marine mammals or seabirds. YOu can also become an oceanographer and help gaining a better understanding of how our oceans, and living creatures in them, function as an ecosystem. It really depends what specific topic you would like to study… You will spend lots of time at sea with both of these careers. For now, you can start getting some experience by volunteering for environmental organizations and then decide what you would like to pursue later one… The most important thing is that you keep your passion for the oceans and their inhabitants.
    Happy birthday

  7. liberty loreto
    USA
    July 1, 2:46 pm

    I am turning 13 in two days and i have a question on what i should do. I love photography and marine life . I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist since i was 7, but i recently discovered my love of photography. Is there a job where you spend your whole day with marine life studying and learning about the ocean and how creatures interact with one another and there environments?
    Second question if the answer is no to the first one.
    Marine Biologist, or Oceanographer which would you say spends the most time with marine life?
    I hope you see and or answer my questions. That would be the best birthday present ever.

  8. Emacheeto
    June 27, 1:51 pm

    I’m 11 and love sharks, I’ve always wished of discovering sharks and other fish I’ve never heard of I just starting secondry school and was wondering when I got to year 9 what I want to do

  9. jazmyn monique trigg
    103 buffalo place
    June 18, 11:05 pm

    I am 12 years old and I been wanting to study underwater creatures for so long so in my lifetime I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist and 1 more thing that set my mind to becoming a marine is I watched a movie called dolphin tale and it was about a dolphin who didn’t have a tale and I started to cry because some marines helped it find and build a new tale for the dolphin and so I started to say to myself wow marines really do care about sea creatures because before I didn’t know what a marine biologist was until I saw the movie dolphin tale that’s why I wanted to become a wonderful and exciting marine biologist…!!!!!!!

  10. Anupam Rava
    INDIA
    June 13, 8:24 am

    Yeah….. i love the Marine biologist….now i am in 2nd sem on bsc(honours)….. when i am graduate for this then i will be reach arch on the subject…..i realy realy love it..!

  11. Maria
    spain
    May 30, 2:46 pm

    Thank you very much!! I´m about to start Uni, just one year left in deed; and this is very usefull info for me. I´ve know I wanted to be a biologist since I was 13 or 14 and I´m also really interested in marine biology.
    So thanks again!!

  12. kalinn komives
    delta Colorado
    May 11, 11:14 pm

    Thank you so much for clearing that up because im only 12 I know I want to be a marine biologist. But I just didnt know what category of marine biologist I fell under

  13. Johnk931
    eetptuei
    April 30, 1:56 pm

    You are my inhalation, I have few blogs and sometimes run out from to brand. edgfdaekgbak

  14. Achintya Bose
    India
    April 29, 5:57 am

    hi , i have always loved the whole of the dolphin family (including orcas , as they fall in the dolphin family) . thnx for the information , its very inspiring , being 13 , i wud like to no the path through which u walked to be at such a position in society and rank today . i hope to have our frst tlk soon . ciao !

  15. Mason
    ~~ Sunshine State ~~ (Florida)
    April 28, 3:49 pm

    I absolutely love this article! I want to be a marine biologist and specialize in shark studies. I am 12 years of age and definitely passionate for the deep sea.

  16. Nida Quraishi
    INDIA
    April 23, 4:29 am

    This article posted by Maddalena Bearzi is very inspiring and motivating for a person like me who aspires to be a Marine biologist/zoologist specializing in marine animals. I am currently in my 3rd year B.Sc.(Hons.) Biotechnology and plan to do my M.Sc. in Marine biology. I love watching Nat Geo and other related channels since I was a little girl, spending loads of time in the lab and I’m willing to actively participate in field work. There’s more to Marine biology than what people think of, its not just “swimming with dolphins” but requires much more dedication, hard work and will to pursue a career like this. Being a marine biologist is not only my dream job, but the only thing I am passionate about. I have some queries related to this field, hope you can help me with them. Eagerly waiting for your response. Thanx !!

  17. Anonymous
    anonymous
    April 21, 1:13 am

    Hey I’m 13 and really want to be a marine biologist! I have always been very fascinated with the ocean, and when I was little all I would do is sit in front of the tv and watch Animal Planet. I am especially interested in creatures DEEP in the ocean…. I plan to go to Flagler in Florida… Really good article! :)

  18. kassidy hayward
    florida
    April 15, 5:11 pm

    I am in 11 years old, i have been thinking about what i want to be when i grow up. i started doing research about being a marine biologist ,and i love animals because they are beautify, graceful learned a lot just reading your say and i like it I’m now going to do the steps and i hope to became a marine biologist.

  19. Ellie Frostick
    united kingdom
    April 15, 4:10 am

    Hi I’m Ellie and I am 12 I have loved dolpins and have always wanted to be a marine biologist. I have a jumper that says future marine bioligist and I have done loads of reaserch during the years. I love science but I hate maths and want to keep learning about dolphins and other marine mammals. I hope that one day I can become a marine biologist thank you for the help you posted. :)

  20. Loudivine Tano
    Philippines
    April 7, 1:49 pm

    Uhmmm this article is great, I am now a highschool graduate and i am making a new step on college in achieving my dream as a marine biologist. I really love the sea and I’m living near the ocean. I want to specialize on sharks and rays or maybe dolphins…. This is a great help thanks :-)

  21. Kaycie Rock
    March 26, 12:28 pm

    I really love dolphins. I been liking them since I was 8 and I’ll be turnin 18 in November :). I really wanna become a marine biologist once I’m done with high school and start college.:) I wanna be able to study the animals and study the plants and stuff that lives in the water. I don’t know what type of marine biologist that is but I wanna be able to study everything in the water practically:)

  22. Dee drummond
    Colorado
    March 10, 3:34 am

    I love dolphins want to learn about them and swim with them and want to save them from Pochards who want to kill them

  23. Natalie P
    United Kingdom
    March 6, 6:58 pm

    Hi,
    I am 13yrs old and I am home educated. As of this September I would be going into yr 10. (as I am 14 in Aug) I want to start trying to carve a career path. I like science but I don’t like maths very much, I have always loved the sea since I was quite little, I have thought about the career of a Marine Biologist/Ecologist a couple of times now and was wondering if you had any advise for me? I also express an interest in horses and was thinking about a career in that aswell, because I really don’t mind having to muck out ad stuff :-) But I feel at my age it is hard to try to decide what future you want for yourself.
    Thanks, Natalie.

  24. Carrie Ann
    February 12, 4:30 pm

    I would love to study any form of Marine Biology! Problem? I go to small town in Nebraska and don’t know what classes to take in order to achieve it…. maybe you could help?

  25. Luis A
    Colombia
    January 24, 10:40 pm

    HI. i´m only 16 years but when I was a child I love the ocean and acuatic´s animals. I like some inforation a other advice…… thanks for everithing. :P

  26. Abbey
    Adelaide, Australia
    January 16, 11:07 am

    This is so inspiring, I’m almost 14 and a Pisces I’ve loved the water and all marine life since I can remember. I have so much passion for marine science I could never pursue another occupation! I already have big dreams for my p.h.d and am constantly asking for volunteer work but I’m a bit too young. I do well in school and I’m up late every night doing homework just so I can be ahead in class and get accepted to a good university when the time comes. I have plans of studying in Queensland after highschool and have already started looking at courses. All I can say to you guys who aspire to marine biology is to go for it!!! If you work hard enough you can do anything! Dream big!! X

  27. Joseph Andrew Maliberan
    Philippines
    January 11, 10:34 pm

    Hi, I just read this inspirational article. Since childhood, I,m always fascinated by fish and corals. Honestly, after school. I always drop by at the Local Fish Store to look at the fishes in the aquariums. I’m 13 yrs. old now. I spend my free times reading books, surfing the internet reading articles about coral reefs.I wanna be a Marine Biologist in the future. I want to focus on marine life living and interacting in coral reefs.I also want to study unique habits and behavior of fishes and corals. I want to hear some advice and tips from you ms. Maddalena Bearzi. Thanks for your article… :-)

  28. Sarah Belka
    Coon Rapids, MN
    January 7, 9:56 pm

    I live in the middle of the US and not any were near an ocean. I really love marine biology and want to really experience more branches of it. I am 13 so I am too young to travel much. This article has given me new light- because I live so far away from an ocean I have been feeling a bit lost lately, so I thank you for this article.

  29. katie shepherdson
    ingersoll,ontario,canada
    January 6, 1:27 pm

    this was such an amazing piece. I am only 12 but I have wanted to be a marine biologist for as long as I can remember. I love sharks and I want to be in the ocean with them. When I am old enough to actually start my career and get out there the ocean will be worst then it is today, so I am also focusing on conservation. Thankyou so much for the tips!:)!

  30. caitlin crockett
    Missouri ( usa )
    December 4, 2013, 10:06 am

    this was so inspirational. im only 16 but i have dreamed about becoming a marine biologist for nine years. my favorite animal is a manatee!!!! but i also love sharks. i want to dive with them and take pictures and study them and try to save them from boat perpellers that are harming them all the time! any help is accepted! email me with information. caitlincrockett16@yahool.com

  31. Eric Faith
    United States
    November 30, 2013, 10:45 am

    This was extremely helpful. I’m only 13, but someday I would love to either be an Elasmobranchologist (biologist who specializes in sharks, rays,a nd skates), Cetologist (biologist who specializes in dolphins, porpoises, and whales), or Pinnipedologist (scientist who specializes in seals, sea lions, and walruses), and this was very helpful.

  32. abbey ferreira
    November 11, 2013, 4:20 pm

    this post is amazing, you are truly inspirational as i am only in year 10 however have a huge passion for marine biology and you have really directed me to which pathway i want to get in to
    thank you <3

  33. Ivan Patrick Baquiano Tualla
    Philippines
    October 22, 2013, 3:39 am

    Thank you for this! This made me crave more in fulfilling my dreams. I am a Marine Biology student as of now and I’m currently on my Junior year in college. I’m hoping that someday I will have a chance to work in National Geographic :))

  34. Danny Gowen
    San Diego
    October 12, 2013, 9:43 am

    She makes me want to be any kind of biologist :)

  35. Joshua Stephens
    Bermuda
    October 2, 2013, 9:59 pm

    Thanks for posting this article…… I find it is hard to know what to specifically get into as many say you need to specialize in a a specific area of expertise. I have thought hard and deeply, but the each thought seems to be replaced by other ideas. I have always loved the ocean and have been on the water since I was born….. My original aspiration was the tracking and studying of many sharks in general, but since working in the field with helping to teach people scuba diving, another aspiration has been to show to people the importance of conservation of our coral reefs. Therefore this article has helped me to understand how to actually stay in this field.

  36. Arthur
    Hawaii Honolulu
    September 19, 2013, 4:48 am

    Thanks that helped me to think more about it .if I wanna specialise in sharks what should i choose of all the marine biologist carrers and thanks again

  37. Jessica Van Vaerenbergh
    Tampa Fl
    September 18, 2013, 8:12 am

    Thank you so much this is an amazing article! It sounds like I am already on the right track! I just need to find some professionals I talk too! The ocean is my passion and I have been scuba diving for awhile now! This article gives me great hope!!!

  38. Brendan O'Connor
    Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    September 17, 2013, 10:19 pm

    Hello my name is Brendan O’Connor. I am a biologist major that has always been interested in becoming a marine biologist. I am starting with a basic degree in biology because it is broad. I am working to get into a graduate program that Milwaukee which would mainly be based around fresh water biology. I don’t know if Maddalena Bearzi will read this comment but I am a very ambitious undergrad who has some prior experience in aquaculture. I worked on a fish farm for 4 or 5 months where I learned much about Wisconsin’s fresh water fishes. I am extremely excited to get my feet wet in any kind of biological study and am willing to do the late nights, numerous pots of coffee, and staring at a plate under a microscope. So, I would love to hear from you Maddalena because I agree that marine biology is seen as a glamorous life and when I tell people that is what I aspire to be they ask me, “Are you going to swim with the dolphins?” This kind of upsets me that this line of work has been wrongfully labeled as “swimming with the dolphins”. So, I would love to hear from you, but I understand if you are busy.

  39. Anjanette
    Philippines
    September 17, 2013, 7:23 pm

    Yeah… I want to be a Marine Biologist.. Someday I’m gonna be a marine Biologist…or maybe other field of Biology… . Thanks for the advice… I love National Geographic…

  40. Mohini Venkatesulu
    Levittown, PA
    September 16, 2013, 9:38 pm

    Avery useful article .
    Sent it to my grd dtr @ penn state.
    She is taking micro or molecular biology.
    Thanks .Mohini Venkatesulu.

  41. Jean
    Florida
    September 16, 2013, 8:07 pm

    What do you think the best field would be if you wanted to spend as much time as possible with marine life? I understand the work that comes along with it but to me, it’s only worth it if I am able to spend as much time as I can with marine life.

  42. Suzannah Kolbeck
    Marietta, GA
    September 16, 2013, 3:48 pm

    This is great; I often have several students who express interest in marine biology, and I have forwarded it them.

    Thanks!