Careers in marine biology

Marine biology is the most well-known branch of marine science and is the study of all aspects of life in the sea and the environment on which it depends. Unlike the common misconception, marine biology does not just involve large mammals such as whales and dolphins, but is actually a very broad area of science ranging from work on a molecular scale to work on whole ecosystems.

Marine biology aims to improve on current understanding of the marine world and use this knowledge to optimise how we use the oceans in human society without harmful consequences. Marine biology and the surrounding fields are also vital in predicting future changes in ecosystems caused by human and natural disturbances and helping us to understand these.

Specialising in a particular area is often required to progress in your career, whether that is a career in research, or any other career path. Even though many Marine Biologists hold degrees in various marine related subjects, the real key to getting into a career in marine biology successfully is gain experience relevant to what you want to do, or even in general. Work experience can be paid or voluntary, but voluntary work experience is often the best way in. There is a lot of competition for jobs in Marine Biology, meaning that experience can have a big influence on whether you stand out from the competition. Experience helps to prove your commitment and dedication, as well as enhance your skillset. Places that could help you gain work experiences are going through university departments, government bodies, marine related organisations, research institutes and applying to volunteer at local organisations. Attending events or conferences relevant to marine biology, or even science in general can be brilliant ways to learn and gain relevant skills. Wildlife trusts, local charities, marine conservation organisations, ocean cleans ups etc. can be excellent experience especially in terms of field work. Local or university societies can also help you connect with others interested in marine biology or already in the field – networking is very important.

The MBA represents a worldwide community of marine biologists working together to raise the profile of the marine environment. Joining the Association representing the profession as a member shows commitment and is a great way to enhance career prospects with opportunities throughout the year to expand your knowledge, improve your skills and network with like-minded marine biologists. For more information and to join please visit https://www.mba.ac.uk/membership

Not all marine biologist work in the field – but some do! Image: MBA.

Additional Resources:

Society of Underwater Technology’s Oceans of Opportunity:
http://www.sut.org/educational-support-fund/information-for-careers-in-underwater-technology-and-science/

British Ecological Society’s Top Ten Tips for getting a career in ecology:
http://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/Top-10-tips-for-getting-a-career-in-ecology.pdf

Greer, P., 2014, A career in marine biology, The Marine Biologist, 3: 29:

https://www.mba.ac.uk/career-marine-biology 

Many of our Classroom Resources could also be printed and taken to the shore as additional sources of learning.

How To Be a Marine Biologist

Marine Biology is an exciting and diverse discipline and is understandably an extremely popular area to work in. The MBA provides a number of opportunities for those interested in pursuing study or work in marine biology, especially for members of the Association. Every July we run a work experience week for students aged between 14 and 18, which is a fantastic way to get a taste of what it is like to work in marine biology. We also run training courses for a range of ages and ability, and regular survey events which are an opportunity to develop relevant skills and meet professionals in the field.

Careers in marine biology

Specialising in a particular area is often required to progress in your career, whether that is a career in research, or any other career path. Even though many Marine Biologists hold degrees in various marine related subjects, the real key to getting into a career in marine biology successfully is gain experience relevant to what you want to do, or even in general. Work experience can be paid or voluntary, but voluntary work experience is often the best way in. There is a lot of competition for jobs in Marine Biology, meaning that experience can have a big influence on whether you stand out from the competition. Experience helps to prove your commitment and dedication, as well as enhance your skillset. Places that could help you gain work experiences are going through university departments, government bodies, marine related organisations, research institutes and applying to volunteer at local organisations. Attending events or conferences relevant to marine biology, or even science in general can be brilliant ways to learn and gain relevant skills. Wildlife trusts, local charities, marine conservation organisations, ocean cleans ups etc. can be excellent experience especially in terms of field work. Local or university societies can also help you connect with others interested in marine biology or already in the field – networking is very important.

Studies

Any student aspiring for a career in Marine Biology should aim to study the following subjects at secondary school (aged 16+): Maths, the sciences (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) and English. Once you have enrolled in the relevant subjects, make sure you work as hard as you can to get the best results possible. Other GCSE’s/Aged 16 exams qualification which could be useful for Marine Biology are I.C.T/Computer Science, Foreign languages and Geography. Picking subjects you enjoy will help you get the best grades possible!

For AS and A level or the further education equivalent, it is a good idea to have a look at universities you may be interested in and see their entry requirements and preferred subjects. This will help you get an idea of what type of subject would be beneficial for a career in Marine biology. For Marine Biology, Biology is the most important subject to take at this level. Other subjects which would be beneficial include Chemistry, Maths, Geography, Computer science and Psychology, however preferred subjects can vary between universities so looking this up is a good idea. Most universities recommend studying at least two sciences if you plan to study Marine Biology.

If A Levels aren’t for you, there are a number of other options: Access courses, BTEC/Applied Science (or equivalent) or extended science/foundation year. Access courses are educational programmes which enable people without traditional qualification such as A Levels (or equivalent) access to higher education after completion of the course. BTEC’s/Applied Science enables student to gain UCAS points, which they can then put towards a university course. Extended Science or Foundations years are also a great way to gain the previous knowledge needed to start an undergraduate degree, and a lot of universities offer these which means you can then go straight onto a Marine Biology course the year after completion.

University

Undergraduate degree courses in Marine Biology are offered at various universities across Britain (most of which are located by the sea!) as well as many more abroad. There are loads of universities to choose from, and each has slightly different variations of the course so reading the course outline and meeting the lecturers at open days is a great way to get a feel for what the university and course is like and whether it’s right for you. There is also the option to take a gap year rather than going straight into university which allows you to reflect on what career route is right for you, and also try out a number of different things before choosing your university and course. If you are unsure whether Marine Biology is specifically right for you, you can always consider doing a more broad science based course such as Biological or Environmental Sciences and specialise later on. Post graduates options for specialising in Marine Biology include a range of MSc or MRes courses. If you plan to go straight into research based work after your degree, looking into universities with strong science departments with PhD opportunities is also a good idea.

Top Tips by Dr Colin Munn is a marine microbiologist and was Admissions Tutor for biological sciences and marine biology course sat the University of Plymouth  for over 15 years.

  • Remember that marine biology is a branch of science that covers a huge diversity of subjects — from the tiny microbes that drive ocean processes to the physiology of a whale — with activities ranging from laboratory work in molecular biology to field work in ecology.
  • Search the internet for blogs and websites of marine biology and oceanographic organizations to find out about their research. You can sign up for alerts and newsfeeds about recent discoveries.
  • Read some of the inspiring popular books written by marine biologists (a quick internet search for this phrase will give you lots of ideas — good suggestions to relatives for birthday and Christmas presents!
  • Choose GCSE and A Level subjects (or college diplomas) that give you the strongest possible foundation in science and maths.
  • It’s never too late to start! Some of the most successful students that I recruited joined — even in their 50s or 60s— from a non-science background by taking an Access or Foundation course.
  • Before university, try to undertake some practical experience. You might be lucky enough to get work experience in a zoo or aquarium, or volunteer for a marine organization, but it doesn’t have to be directly related to marine biology — anything that will help your observational or technical skills is useful.
  • Study the course pages of university websites and choose a course that will equip you with the analytical and technical skills to explore the full range of the subject. Visit your shortlisted universities at open days and course preview events. Find out as much as you can before making your choices via UCAS.
  • During your course, be ready to be excited by areas of science that you haven’t previously considered. Seek out volunteering or placement opportunities to work alongside researchers. Start exploring future career opportunities early in your course.
  • After you graduate, seek further education and training that you may need for your desired career. The path to your ideal job may have many twists and turns. Be flexible — take advantage of opportunities that will enrich your skills and experience even if they involve a shift in direction.

Joining the MBA as a Member or Young Marine Biologist is a fantastic way to begin your career and develop your knowledge of marine biology. Find out more about YMB here.

Work Experience at the MBA

The MBA receives many enquiries about work experience and as a result now runs a work experience week every July for school and college students aged between 14 and 18.

2019

Our 2019 work experience week will take place between the 15th and the 19th of July. The deadline for applications is January 8th 2019.  Applicants will be notified within two weeks of this deadline whether or not their application has been successful.

To apply

Please email your application to education@mba.ac.uk.

Your application should consist of a single Word document or PDF (max 1 page, font size 11) explaining: 

  1. Your name, date of birth and email address
  2. Why you want to take part in work experience at the Marine Biological Association
  3. How you think the placement will benefit you in your future career aspirations
  4. A little bit about yourself, including why you think you would be a good candidate and any relevant achievements
  5. The name and contact details of a teacher who we can contact for an informal reference if necesary 

Other Work Experience Opportunities

You may also be interested in the series of 2019 Marine Science Camps taking place around the UK and led by the Field Studies Council. These residential training courses are for young people aged 16-18 years old in various locations around the UK, and aim to inspire and educate young people about the marine environment.

As part of this programme, there are also work experience opportunities for Student members of the MBA to mentor on the camps, assisting experienced FSC field tutors and MBA marine biologists with the delivery of the courses. Applications for 2019 are now closed but please do get in touch if you would like to find out more by emailing membership@mba.ac.uk


If you are seriously considering a career in marine biology, we now have membership categories for everyone, including a new Young Marine Biologist category. Becoming a member is a fantastic way to learn about marine biology and to find out about opportunities to enhance your career prospects. Visit membership for more information.

We offer a number of opportunities to work with us as a volunteer, as well as a schools work experience week and internships and traineeships for undergraduate and post-graduate students.   

Details of all of these posts and opportunities are sent to members and advertised on our vacancies page, but please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.