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Salary and Job Opportunities for Marine Biologists

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By Johnny Bevers

It is extremely difficult to say exactly what a marine biologist salary is, as this salary varies greatly according to qualifications, experience and the exact position.  There is a vast array of job opportunities for marine biologists and, depending on the position, a marine biologist might find him or herself: tagging squid; analyzing oceanic data; writing grant proposals; giving lectures on environmental issues; writing articles for scientific journals or a number of other tasks.  It’s not all scuba diving off the Seychelles unfortunately!  Let’s look at the various factors that dictate salary and job opportunities.

Who Hires Marine Biologists?

Unfortunately, the job market for marine biologists is saturated, with far more applicants than jobs available.  This means that marine biologists often work wherever and whenever they can, even if the position is not their first choice.  Beggers can’t be choosers, and although it is difficult to describe a qualified marine biologist as a beggar, it can’t be emphasized enough that this description is not too far wide of the mark when they are seeking work.  Marine biologists have generally chosen this career path because they have a true love for the field and not because of a wealth of jobs available, the prestige of the work or because of high potential salaries.

However, on the bright side, there are many different places that marine biologists might find work and many different positions available.  Marine biologists might work, depending on their particular field and the job-market, in aquariums or zoos, in Universities, for local government, for fish farms, for environmental agencies, for seaweed growing companies, for government research labs or for NGOs.

How Much Do Marine Biologists Make?

As mentioned before, it is extremely difficult to give a definitive figure as to a marine biologist’s salary. There are three, perhaps four, very important variables that play a part in answering the question. Let’s look at these factors:

  1. Probably the most important variable is the level of education a marine biologist has achieved. The better qualifications a marine biologist has, the better chance they have of finding well-paid work, or indeed work at all. And while this is true in most fields, it is doubly or triply so for marine biologists. In the current job market, it is extremely difficult to find work without holding a PhD. It is not impossible, but marine biology jobs are highly sought after. Those with merely a bachelors or masters degree will more than likely find themselves up against PhD holders at most job interviews. If, however, a marine biologist is lucky enough to find work without a PhD, then they are looking at a salary of approximately 30,000 dollars a year for their first year of work. This rises up to 45,000 dollars with a PhD.
  2. Experience is the second important variable.  Salaries rise considerably with considerably more years on the job and after 30 years or so, marine biologists could find themselves earning a salary of closer to 100,000 dollars.
  3. However, this brings us to our third variable, or caveat.  The salaries mentioned above are for permanent positions, and for marine biologists these represent something of a holy grail; this is especially so to those with little experience and / or lesser qualifications. Most marine biologists work on projects that might last one, two or even three years and then they have to find more work.  Finding more work often involves writing grant proposals.  These grant proposals can take months to write, with no guarantee of success at the end of it.  So a job earning 50,000 dollars a year for two years might be followed by several months, or evenyears, of job searching.
  4. Our forth, perhaps less important variable to take into consideration is location. So if you were to ask purely, “Where can I make the most money as a marine biologist?” the answer would be that Washington DC and New York State offer the highest salaries for marine biologists in the US.  These highest paying jobs of up to $100,000 dollars or more are usually found working for zoos as researchers.  This location “variable”, though, lags far behind the other three in importance.

Where To Go To School For Marine Biology?

As mentioned previously, it is extremely important to be well qualified in a hunt for marine biology work. There are far more marine biologists than jobs and these sought after jobs tend to go to the enthusiastic, the experienced and, yes, the best qualified.  It is not absolutely necessary to attend a school that focuses solely on marine biology, as long as the school has a good science department.  This is vitally important as marine biology is, fundamentally, a science field. In fact, it is not even necessary that the school offer marine biology courses, as courses in biology, zoology or fisheries are considered equally relevant at this primary level.  What is necessary, or at least highly recommended, is that during the summer, potential marine biologists spend their time doing internships in marine labs. This gives valuable experience, and looks good on future resumes. After finishing school, it is at graduate school where marine biologists acquire further theoretical knowledge in marine biology.   Finally, it is strongly desirable that they acquire a PHD in order to maximize their chances of finding work, especially work that is close to what they wish to do, rather than just anything in order to pay the bills.

Top schools to consider for Bachelor’s Degrees, Masters Degrees and PHDs include: Boston University, The University of Maine; The University of Georgia; The University of Texas and Duke University.

What’s A Typical Day Like In The Life Of A Marine Biologist?

There is no typical day as the positions available vary so much. Depending on the position, a marine biologist could be glued to the computer all day analyzing data or, alternatively, sailing the high seas and scuba diving 20 weeks a year. The exact position a marine biologist will hold will depend on their specialties and the position they manage to secure. Most though can expect at least some time doing field research (for field research read: out on a boat with scuba diving equipment) if it is their desire.

Is There Much Travel Involved In The Job?

Again, it depends on the exact position held but generally, yes.  The marine biology field is big on international cooperation so marine biologists can expect to be taking many trips around the world to participate in seminars, conferences and international research.  This travel also means that marine biologists tend to make friends and contacts with people from as far afield as places such as Japan, Australia and South Africa.

Working as a marine biologist is a labor of love and only for those most passionate about it as a career.  This is not the career to consider if you are after the big bucks; however, if money isn’t the most important thing in your life and you would like to spend your life doing something you love, then marine biology may well be the career for you.  That is, if you can put up with the hard work, low pay and frequent unemployment spells that many marine biologists, even successful ones, experience.

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