So you think a career as a Marine Biologist might be for you, or you’re passionate about oceans but not sure what to do after finishing school?
This article will highlight some of the key lifestyle and career factors of being a marine biologist, as well as university pathways and advice from a professional in the field.
If you’re still interested, read on to find out more!
Lucy Jillings is a Marine Biologist who has worked in the field for around 3 years!
She has been a research assistant and worked with various companies and universities around the world on research projects, particularly involving turtles and sharks. These include the US government, the University of Florida and The Turtle Foundation in Africa.
Image sourced from Lucy Jillings
How did you end up in this role?
Lucy’s university studies in Marine Biology lead her directly into this role. She has worked as a research assistant in marine biology in global locations including the Bahamas, Caribbean and Africa!
Lucy’s job is to carry out quantitative and qualitative research on habitats, populations and more, for various research projects led by head researchers.
Studies and Experience
Lucy studied Marine biology and Oceanography at the University of Newcastle (England) as well as a Masters in Marine Biology. Unlike Marine biology, oceanography involves the study of all aspects of the ocean with more emphasis on seafloor geology, currents, and physics (it is not an essential part of becoming a marine biologist but useful!).
Fortunately, her university had a lab located on the coast near the beach, enabling lots of practical work built into her degree. She also says there were many opportunities for trips that involved fieldwork in her degree, in places with various tropical and cold, climates such as Scotland, Bermuda and Portugal!
What made you want to work in this industry?
Lucy had always been passionate about the natural marine world, frequently visiting the Natural History Museum in London, where she grew up, in her childhood. “I always wanted to do it […] when I was five I adopted an orca off the coast of America.”
“When I went to uni I wasn’t sure there was a career in it, but I knew I always wanted to do it,” she adds.
What is a Marine Biologist?
Marine Biologists study the anatomy, physiology, functions, characteristics, behaviour and environments of all forms of life living in the sea and connected water bodies.
Today, marine biologists’ jobs are also highly focused on studying the effect of man-made pollution, fishing, and climate change on our ocean ecosystems.
Roles and Responsibilities
As a marine biologist in a researching role, you can expect to perform some of the following tasks in your everyday work:
- Preparing equipment for data collection such as snorkelling gear or boat gear
- Sample collection
- Data analysis
- Video data collection
- Categorisation of animal behaviour
- Recognition of different species
However, as a marine biologist “no day is ever the same” says Lucy, with research projects usually occurring in large chunks of several weeks on site. Therefore, the roles and responsibilities expected of this career often differ.
During her work researching sharks, Lucy says an average day involved early rising (about 6am), loading the boat, setting a line and waiting for a bite, measurement and blood sampling, tagging, and making sure the shark is safe before leaving (it can also involve snorkelling!). This was followed by cleaning equipment, loading off data (e.g. on a GoPro), and making recommendations to US fisheries based on the research.
She also tells me different seasons affect the activities marine biologists carry out, since their work is based on the ever-fluctuating natural world. In the case of sharks, she says, mating meant walking in the shallows whilst mating occurred.
On the other hand, marine biologists studying turtles will spend nights walking up and down beaches looking for turtles, often enduring little sleep, she says. Some of their tasks included digging up nests, building hatcheries to protect turtle eggs and maximise the species survival, measuring and weighing every baby turtle, and analysing turtle nests for temperature, humidity and bacteria.
Which industries can this career be found in?
Perhaps surprisingly, marine biologists are important over a range of industries today. Some of these include:
- Professional, Scientific and Technical Services
- Public Administration and Safety
- Education and Training
- Arts and Recreation Services
Areas marine biologists may work in include government sectors, museums and aquatic parks, resorts, and fisheries.
What jobs do people sometimes confuse this with?
Oceanographers tend to study oceans themselves, including chemistry, physics and geology of ocean floors, while marine biologists study marine organisms and their life cycles, such as plants and animals.
Although the responsibilities of zoologists and biologists often overlap, marine zoologists usually investigate and research particular types of animals, while biologists study ocean ecosystems and animal populations.
Characteristics and Qualities
Lucy says some of the main skills of marine biologists across research areas include wild animal handling, drawing blood take swabs, tagging, statistical analysis, scuba diving and boat handling, PCR, bacterial cultures, analysing in the lab, and species recollection (knowing particular species by sight).
|Biology, mathematics (statistical and data analysis), chemistry, computers and electronics, language
|Reading comprehension, science, writing, active learning, speaking and communication
|Oral expression, oral comprehension, written comprehension, inductive reasoning (use lots of detailed information to come up with answers or make general rules), written expression
|Keeping your knowledge up to date, collecting and organising information, making sense of information and ideas, looking for changes over time, researching and investigating
Steps to Becoming a Marine Biologist
What should you study?
You must study a Bachelor’s degree in Science majoring in Marine Biology, Marine Science or a related field to work as a Marine Biologist. It is also common to complete postgraduate studies.
You might consider studying a Bachelor of Science majoring in Marine Biology at the University of Sydney, a Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Advanced Science (Honours) majoring in Marine and Coastal Science at UNSW, or a Bachelor of Marine Biology at UTS.
Check out some other universities that offer Science degrees below:
How long does it take to become a Marine Biologist?
Most Marine Biology courses in Australia take 3-4 years to complete, however postgraduate study, such as a Masters or PhD, usually takes a few more years. Lucy says it also depends on your pathway.
If you decide to go into research, then you would already be experienced after that time and could potentially be named in some scientific papers. However, usually a year or two after leaving university most people are in their area of interest and have a full-time paying role!
Learn more about different tertiary qualifications!
Lucy says that marine biologists learn to be skilled in boat-handling and scuba equipment often through experience.
New devices for data collection and studying marine ecosystems are constantly emerging, with some marine biologists choosing to specialise in the technological side of things. These include certain drones (for whales), cameras/GoPros, audio recognition and recording devices, Accelerometers (used to study acceleration forces), and suction cups on turtle shells!
What will this career look like in the future?
How in-demand is this career?
Marine biology is a fairly in-demand career, even though the number of people working as Marine Biologists (in their main job) in Australia fell over 5 years: from 840 in 2011 to 670 in 2016.
Despite being a relatively small career field, marine biologists are important figures in the modern world, in guiding governments, countries and companies on how to conserve the marine environment while managing constant threats such as oil spills, mining, climate change, ocean acidification and overfishing.
Are there opportunities to grow or specialise?
There are definitely many opportunities to grow and specialise as a marine biologist, says Lucy. Primarily it may include focusing on a particular species or habitat.
Marine biologists may also specialise in tourism and education of the general public, working at aquatic reserves and natural museums; they may work with oil or mining companies building in the sea to make marine safety assessments, as well as government regulators and fisheries to set quotes on fishermen and protect certain areas.
Marine biologists may choose to specialise in navy work as coastal guards, or in researching and journalism writing for companies like National Geographic. Charity and conservation work is also a pathway for marine biologists, as well as biotechnology (e.g. developing and using drones for marine research) and mediating the conflict between animals (usually sharks) and humans in highly populated marine areas such as beaches, via buoys, drones and tagging.
|Skill Level Rating
|Stable over the next 5 years
|Very high skill
Technological developments are definitely influencing the way research and data analysis is carried out by marine biologists. Techniques are constantly being fine tuned and marine biologists are always finding out more about the ocean.
For example, Lucy shares how: “The whole justification of Japanese whaling is the need to check the age of the population, and the only way to do that was by collecting earwax, and you have to kill them to take that out. But there’s some researchers here in Australia who have tracked a humpback since it was born… and have been able to develop a method of taking a bit of skin DNA and ageing the whale that way [using technology].”
Climate change and human activities are also constantly shaping the job of marine biologists, as previously mentioned.
The Future of this Industry
Lucy says that there are many more people studying marine biology than previously, with larger groups now specialising in niche areas. It is often said that humans know more about the moon than the ocean, she says, and thanks to technology new discoveries are being made everyday, making it an exciting field to work in!
There is a lot more research in remote areas such as Antarctica and the deep sea than previously due to new technology, as well as the ever-increasing threat of climate change. This is prompting marine biologists to study the effects of warmer oceans on different ecosystems and ways to ameliorate or adapt to the damage being caused, as well as its future consequences.
Best Thing & Worst Thing
What do you enjoy most about this job?
“My favourite thing was working with the people I worked with… every place that I went to, the people were so fun and enjoyable, but it was always because we were doing something so amazing,” says Lucy.
What do you feel is the worst part of this job?
“When I was studying turtles, it was sleep deprivation. It was the most difficult thing,” says Lucy.
“Also… I had to move away from all my family and friends for months at a time, and I always made new friends so it was fine but it is one of the toughest parts of it. You have to be away… there’s not much time to keep up with everyone at home. But the pay off for what you’re being able to do is not that much. It’s definitely worth it.”
Advice for Aspiring Marine Biologists
What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career?
Lucy wishes she had known even more about how important networking was to her career, particularly your relationship with lecturers and peers. “Once you’ve made those connections in the industry, everyone just wants to help you out.”
It’s okay to change gears, she adds; there are so many opportunities and skills to try out, so don’t feel pressured into sticking with one category. It’s important to also get as much experience as you can.
This can be simple things you may not immediately think of, such as volunteering with charities (e.g. beach clean ups), scuba diving, and watching marine documentaries for information!
Why should people consider taking on this career?
“It is incredibly interesting. There is always something new to find out. It’s really worthwhile to do because the ocean is such a vast thing covering our whole planet; it’s survival is based on the ocean’s condition, and it’s important you yourself are informed about what choices you’re making and how the world functions as a unit,” says Lucy.
Lucy also emphasises the travelling aspect of marine biology, “You get to go to amazing places. I’ve been to nearly every continent… you meet amazing people and have incredible experiences. You are so privileged so often to go to certain areas. Like in Indonesia, you’re only allowed to go if you’re doing research to the most amazing coral reefs in the world.”
It’s fascinating to learn about an environment so vastly different to our own, she adds, and the ways animals have adapted to them. There is no end point to what you can learn, and “no two days are ever the same”.
Additionally, it’s okay to not be good at maths or chemistry, she says. Every skill can be taught in the role, and you are constantly collaborating and being helped by others.
The work of a marine biologist is not structured, says Lucy. “When you’re working, you’re working,” she says, referring to the week or month long periods spent studying various ocean habitats around the world, often solely with other researchers.
This is because animal migration and mating periods are sporadic, unlike a normal 9- 5 job (e.g. if you’re studying the whale migration period off the coast of Sydney). It often means marine biologists must sacrifice seeing friends and family for long periods of time.
However, once active researching (data collection) is complete, marine biologists usually have a lot of flexibility in their jobs, which consist of analysing the data that was collected.
What is the workplace culture like?
Lucy says the workplace culture of marine biology is incredibly friendly, collaborative and hard working.
“Everyone’s usually incredibly passionate about what they do. Everyone’s very hard working. It’s not something you go into to be rich… so in a way that makes it quite nice to be there. Everyone’s there because they want to do it, they’re really passionate about it, protecting a species… or enhancing an area,” Lucy concludes.
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Zara Zadro is a Content Writer for Art of Smart and a current undergraduate student at the University of Sydney. She studies a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies majoring in Media & Communications and English. In her free time, she enjoys reading, listening to music and discovering new parts of Sydney. She has also written for the student publications Honi Soit and Vertigo. After she graduates, Zara hopes to do a Masters in creative writing and live overseas, which she cannot wait for!