The image of a marine biologist swimming in an exotic tropical sea, surrounded by colorful plants and ocean wildlife, has some truth in it. For example, there’s a difference between a marine field researcher -- who might be the one doing the swimming -- and an aquarist, yet both are marine biologists. Marine biology, like many occupations, requires specialized education.
Programs in marine biology can be found throughout the United States, but not all states offer programs in this field. Although you might first think of coastal states as potential places for marine biology programs, landlocked Kansas has a marine biology program at Southwestern College, and so does Northwest Missouri State University. Large coastal states in temperate regions, such as California and Florida, have many more options than smaller states or those in which weather might make it more difficult to conduct field research, such as Alaska.
Technically, a marine biologist studies organisms that live in saltwater, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In reality, however, marine biology is an extremely broad field. A marine biologist might specialize in a species, a group such as marine mammals, marine animal behavior or a marine ecosystem. Researchers in molecular biology might study environments such as coastal marshes or the ocean depths and organisms varying from plant to fish to viruses. In each case, the student must first learn the broad aspects of a subject such as biology that apply to all species, and then learn specifics about a particular group such as cetaceans -- whales, dolphins and porpoises. Your courses will include chemistry, microbiology, genetics, evolution, zoology, marine ecology and maritime history.
Being a marine biologist isn’t all scuba diving. However, you do need certain skills in the field, and learning to scuba dive is one of them. You’ll probably also need to learn how to operate small watercraft, all aspects of water safety, lab safety principles and how to work in various field situations. You’ll spend some time in the lab, where you might dissect specimens or raise captive animals, marine organisms and plants to study how they live. You'll also learn how to care for and feed these animals and plants.
Although a bachelor’s degree in marine biology might get you an entry-level job, if you really want to be successful in the field, you need a doctorate, according to marine biologist Maddalena Bearzi, Ph.D., of Ocean Conservation Society, who studies the ecology and conservation of marine mammals. Writing in a September 2013 article for “National Geographic,” Bearzi notes that graduate school is important, but so are other forms of education. She recommends that aspiring marine biologists take courses outside their specialty, such as ichthyology, conservation and oceanography. Statistics, she notes, is mandatory for any marine biologist. Bearzi also recommends attending conferences, volunteering and visiting museums, universities and research institutions in pursuit of knowledge.