Experts Interview: So You Want to Be a Marine Biologist?

An Interview with Dr. Simon Pierce and Dr. Andrea Marshall

Written by: Melissa Hobson

Swimming with sharks, dolphins and turtles every day? Marine biology jobs might sound like a pretty awesome career choice. But what does it actually involve (spoiler: there’s a lot more to it than lazing on a boat surrounded by idyllic, azure waters) and what does it take to make it in this competitive industry?

To find out, we chatted to world-renowned marine conservationists Dr. Andrea Marshall and Dr. Simon Pierce. Andrea and Simon co-founded the Marine Megafauna Foundation to research threatened megafauna (aka “ocean giants”) such as manta rays and whale sharks. The charity undertakes groundbreaking research around the world and works to inspire governments, policymakers and individuals to make changes that will protect marine life and their habitats.

The pair has extensive experience in the world of marine conservation and were happy to give us some tips for those keen to get into the industry.

MMF Moz team

What is an average working day like in marine biology jobs?

Andrea: In the field, we don’t have typical working hours. We’ll wake up early to get out onto the water and collect data before spending the afternoon inputting it into our systems, fixing our gear, working on research papers and replying to emails. There’s a lot to do so they can be very long days.

What’s the best part of your job?

Andrea: Being in the water with the animals. It’s what makes all the challenges worthwhile. Since I’ve started working with manta rays, I’ve fallen in love with these magical animals and nothing can brighten my mood like diving with them.

Simon: I couldn’t agree more. For me, marine biology is the most fulfilling life I can imagine. While trying to make our world a better place, I get to work with smart, fun people and awesome animals. My job is freakin’ amazing.

And the worst?

Andrea: Seeing firsthand the damage we’re doing to our oceans is really sobering and is the part of the job that depresses me the most.

Simon: But it’s also what keeps us motivated to solve the problem.

Andrea Marshall Marine Biologist

What traits to you need to succeed in marine biology jobs?

Simon: Sheer, bloody-minded determination and sense of purpose!

Andrea: Agreed. Also, a good work ethic is crucial. You’ll be expected to work hard and put in long hours without much free time or money as a reward. But the experiences we’re lucky enough to have are compensation enough.

Are there any particular skills that are useful?

Simon: For fieldwork specifically, fishing experience, freediving, outboard motor maintenance and repair skills are all valuable, as well as having a PADI Divemaster level scuba diving certification.

Andrea: There are so many other skills that come in useful too, such as advanced 4×4 training, negotiation skills and being able to speak or understand different languages.

What advice would you give to a budding marine biologist?

Andrea: One of the key things I’ve learned since starting out is that it’s OK not to be able to do everything. There is so much to be done in marine conservation and if you try to do everything, you’ll just spread yourself too thin. Instead, try to focus on one project and make a success of that.

Simon: It’s also important to be clear whether you actually want to be a scientist because, at the end of the day, marine biology is science. It involves long hours in the field or the lab and analysing complex statistics to write reports and papers as well as grant applications. But marine biology isn’t the only way to have a career working with marine life. There are lots of alternatives to jobs in marine biology that might better fit your skill set: filmmaking, marine veterinary science, the dive industry, policymaking, marine education or working as a marketer, business development officer or accountant at a marine conservation organisation. Personally, I think some of them are far cooler too!

Andrea: Exactly – work to your strengths and you’ll go far. Also, never take no for an answer because hard work will always be rewarded – in whatever career you choose.

Manta Ray silhouettes diving

What should you study if you’re interested in marine biology jobs?

Simon: Studying science at school, biology in particular, is required and statistics or maths is also very useful. Don’t underestimate the importance of writing, though. In practical terms, scientists are professional writers so it’s really important you have strong writing skills. In terms of your degree, almost any biological or environmental major – even if it’s not marine biology – is OK. I studied ecology and had done very little in terms of marine courses before I switched to studying sharks – I had a lot to learn but it’s so interesting!

How long does it take to become a marine biologist?

Simon: Becoming a marine biologist takes time and hard work. In most countries, a Master’s in marine biology may suffice to become an applied scientist, if you have highly relevant experience, but to become an academic scientist you’ll need a PhD. An undergraduate degree usually takes 3-4 years, a Master’s will be 1-2 and a PhD normally 3-4 more. Hope you like cheap noodles…!

How much do marine biologists earn?

Simon: Yikes – you’re probably not going to like the answer to this one. It really does depend on where you’re working as the pay scale varies widely… from not much to not enough!

Wow. That all sounds like hard work – what if I don’t want to be a marine biologist after all?

Simon: If you don’t, that’s totally fine. Our ocean needs you and there are lots of other things you can do to help protect it.

Andrea: Yes, you don’t have to be a scientist to fight for ocean protection. Going diving, contributing to citizen science projects, and signing petitions about causes you care about are all things you can do to help. Even if you’re not a scientist, we rely on your support.

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