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How to Become a Marine Biologist: Specialties & Best Schools

11 Jul, 2021
How to Become a Marine Biologist: Specialties & Best Schools

If studying the organisms and the ecosystems of the oceans and more widely, any saltwater environment, is what you want to do, the job of marine biologist is perfect for you.

This is an extremely rewarding career and is particularly important when ocean life is so under threat from human activities.

A marine biology degree gives a wide range of career options:

  • Field work
  • Academic research
  • Lab work
  • Charity work around marine conservation
  • Policy making again around marine conservation and fisheries
  • Consulting

Table of Contents

Step #1: Make Sure you Have the Entry Requirements to Study Marine Biology

Step #2: Choose a School to Study Marine Biology in the UK

Step #3: Choose a Marine Biologist Specialty

Step #4: Become a Volunteer

Step #5: Prepare Your Application to Study Marine Biolog

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Step #1: Make Sure you Have the Entry Requirements to Study Marine Biology

Aside from an enthusiasm, interest and love for all sealife, big and small, aspiring marine biologists will need to show a high school qualification which includes the study of Biology to access an undergraduate degree in the UK.

Recognised qualifications

Generally, applicants will need to show 3 A-levels, including Biology and preferably further relevant Science subjects. These could be:

  • Chemistry
  • Geography
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Environmental Science
  • Geology

All applicants must have GCSE English and Maths at grade C / 4 or above or equivalent qualification.

International students may also take a Science Foundation which will refresh or upgrade their existing knowledge of Biology and relevant Science subjects to the levels required for university study in the UK.

At Kings we offer A-levels in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Geography. We also deliver an Advanced Level Foundation and a Science and Engineering Foundation for international students which can offer an equivalent preparation in key subjects.

English proficiency

To access degrees in Marine Biology and Oceanography in the UK, non-native speakers of English language will need to prove they have a level equivalent to a minimum of IELTS 6.0. This means they can cope with the amount of reading required and can interact with teachers and students in seminars and tutorials.

Step #2: Choose a School to Study Marine Biology in the UK

The UK is one of the best places to study Marine Biology. Typically, the best degree courses in Marine Biology will offer:

  • University-owned marine research centres and vessels
  • High levels of practice-based learning
  • Academic staff who are leaders in the field and expert communicators
  • High rate of graduate employability
  • Around 20% of total students and staff are international

Among the best universities in the UK to study Marine Biology are:

  1. Bangor University
  2. University of Aberdeen
  3. University of St Andrews
  4. Swansea University
  5. University of Exeter
  6. University of Southampton

Let’s see in a little more detail what each of these universities offers.

1. Bangor University

Bangor University website

Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences is one of the largest university Marine Sciences departments in Europe and even owns its own research vessel, the Prince Madog.

Framed by the mountains of Snowdonia and the waters of the Menai Strait, in North Wales, Bangor is conveniently placed to provide access to sea and land.

The historic institution was set up with funding by quarrymen and farmers who wanted higher education for local people. Today it has 14 academic schools, including the School of Ocean Sciences, and a wide-ranging curriculum across the arts, humanities and sciences.

Important research carried out by Bangor in collaboration with international partners includes the effects on seabeds of using trawlers and how sustainable usage of trawl fisheries can be achieved; coastal zone flooding and management; coral reef conditions and associated ecosystems; seabed sediments and lots more.

Courses offered at the School of Ocean Sciences include:

  • Marine Biology
  • Marine Biology with Zoology
  • Marine Biology and Oceanography

Location: Bangor, Gwynned, Wales

Website: bangor.ac.uk

2. University of Aberdeen

University of Aberdeen website

Aberdeen is the fifth oldest university established in the UK, dating back to 1495. Its teaching and student satisfaction ratings are consistently high.

The campus is a mixture of old buildings and prize-winning contemporary gems. In 2022 a new £37.5 million science teaching hub opened, offering spaces with fully digitalised learning facilities and specialist labs.

Aberdeen’s School of Biological Science is recognised internationally for its marine research on the deep sea, harbour seals and dolphins, seabird ecology, fisheries management, fish and shark biology, and marine protected areas. This expertise results in training that is both broad and current. In their final year project, students also benefit from access to the University’s specialist facilities, field stations and research vessels.

Courses offered include:

  • BSc Marine Biology
  • BSc Ecology
  • BSc Conservation Biology
  • BSc Environmental Science

Location: Aberdeen, Scotland

Website: www.abdn.ac.uk


3. University of St Andrews

University of St Andrews website

Founded in 1413 on the shores of the North Sea, St Andrews is one of the oldest universities in the UK and the oldest in Scotland.

For the first time ever, it ranked first, above Oxford and Cambridge, in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022. The University uses a small size class model and during the Covid pandemic, it quickly transferred this model online, thus guaranteeing the highest levels of student satisfaction.

For aspiring marine biologists, it offers a location near grey and common seal colonies and bottlenose dolphin feeding areas. This makes it the ideal place to study marine wildlife in its natural habitat.

St Andrews also offers fieldwork and diving expeditions to locations such as the Antarctic and Indonesia.

The School of Biology at St Andrews is recognised as a world leader. Students are taught by subject experts and learn through lab work and field work.

The research conducted by the school is diverse and has had an impact on government agencies and international bodies.

Courses offered include:

  • BSc Marine Biology
  • BSc Ecology and Conservation
  • BSc Evolutionary Biology
  • BSc Zoology

Location:St Andrews, Scotland

Website: https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/

4. Swansea University

Swansea University website

Swansea University was founded in 1920 by King George V and celebrated its centenary in 2020. In 1920 86 students enrolled. Today (2022) the total of enrolled students on undergraduate degrees is 15,505.

A five-mile sandy beach separates the University’s original Singleton Park campus on the west of Swansea, from the £450 million 65-acre Bay Campus, opened in 2015. The Bay Campus has direct access to the beach and houses about 1,000 students in its on-site halls of residence.

The University has been broadening its degree offer, adding this year a BSc in Environmental Science and the Climate Emergency.

Swansea offers students the option to complete an undergraduate degree in three years, or to do it in four with the addition of a year abroad or in industry.

Students interested in studying marine biology at Swansea will be taught by world-class researchers who are experts in their field and enthusiastic communicators.

Courses offered include:

  • BSc Marine Biology
  • BSc Environmental Science and the Climate Emergency
  • BSc Zoology

Location: Swansea, Wales

Website: www.swansea.ac.uk

5. University of Exeter

University of Exeter website

The College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter prides itself on being a vibrant community supported by excellent research and teaching across a number of related disciplines.

Exeter itself is consistently ranked in the Top 30 universities in the UK and in high demand across all its degrees. Substantial investment on the two campuses (Exeter and Penryn, in Cornwall) continues to provide cutting edge facilities and labs and additional accommodation.

Students learn from experts through lectures, seminars, tutorials, field work, laboratory sessions, independent study and regular research seminars, by staff and visiting lecturers. They will be involved in research as teachers will bring their findings into lectures and seminars and students will be asked to collect data.

Exeter has very close links with a wide range of conservation organisations in the UK and overseas, such as the British Trust for Ornithology, Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Marine Conservation Society.

Courses offered include:

  • BSc Marine Biology
  • BSc Marine Science
  • BSc Zoology
  • BSc Evolutionary Biology
  • BSc Animal Behaviour

Location: Exeter, England

Website: www.exeter.ac.uk

6. University of Southampton

Southampton website

The University of Southampton is a research-intensive university and a founding member of the prestigious Russell Group.

The University has 5 campuses in the city of Southampton; one in Winchester and one in Malaysia. The Waterfront Campus, in the docks located in the south of the city, is where ocean and earth sciences courses are delivered. The Campus is part of the National Oceanography Centre Southampton (NOCS).

Watch a video showcasing the state-of-the-art labs and research vessels the marine and earth sciences students can use even from year 1 at the University of Southampton:

Students learn from field experts and benefit from the Research Aquarium, the Coral Reef Laboratory and the National Oceanographic Library. One of the Research Vessels, the Callista, is a 20-metre catamaran, used for coast and shelf research.

The Marine Biology degree at Southampton is accredited by the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST). This shows the University’s commitment to creating courses that have in-built professional development and which are industry-relevant.

Courses offered include:

  • BSc Marine Biology
  • BSc Biology and Marine Biology
  • BSc Marine Biology with Oceanography

Location: Southampton, England

Website: www.southampton.ac.uk

Step #3: Choose a Marine Biologist Specialty

Influenced by their personal interests, and the field specialists they come into contact with during their studies, Marine Biologists will generally specialise in a particular field of Marine life.

Marine Biology graduates could go into academic research and stay on to do postgraduate degrees and doctorates.

They can apply for work in research laboratories and research institutes.

They can work in government agencies, businesses or non-governmental organisations to help with environmental impact assessments of human activities on marine ecosystems. Their research skills can serve charities well, as well consulting, policy making and outreach about climate change and marine ecology.

Some of the specialisms related to marine biology are as follows.

Phycology

This is the study of algae. Algae are an extremely vital segment of the food chain under the water but they are also an important food source for humans in coastal areas.

Ichthyology

Ichthyology is the study of fish. Marine Biologists specialising in ichthyology will be concerned with the classification of fish, their anatomy, behaviour, population and ecology.

Invertebrate zoology

Marine biologists who focus on organisms with no backbone (no vertebrae) work in the realm of invertebrate zoology. Invertebrate marine organisms include jellyfish, sponges, mollusks and plankton.

Marine mammalogy

Biologists dedicated to marine mammalogy listen to and study marine mammal sounds, identify species, estimate abundance, document distribution and make potential correlations to behaviour.

Jobs undertaken by marine biologists specialising in marine mammalogy range from conducting research on the health and ecology of dolphins, whales, seals and otters.

Fishery biology

Fishery biologists study fish populations which are used for commercial value. So for example, they will monitor and examine saltwater fisheries, freshwater fisheries and fish farms in both freshwater and saltwater. It is their responsibility to make sure a fishery can be used sustainably and ensure that all species involved in the fisher ecosystem are looked after.

Marine biotechnology

Also known as Blue biotechnology, marine biotechnology is the study of under-explored marine environments and marine organisms for applications in a wide range of sectors, from pharmaceutical and biomedical to food and agricultural. This specialism has benefited hugely from recent advancements in science and technology.

Life in marine environments is diverse with wide environmental gradients in the physical, chemical, and hydrological parameters such as temperature, light intensity, salinity, and pressure. Marine organisms have adapted to these diverse environments by developing a broad spectrum of forms, functions, and strategies that play a crucial role for survival, adaptation and thriving in the multitude of these competitive ecosystems.

Studying how these organisms have adapted enables the discovery of new and innovative applications with a commercial interest. Marine resources remain largely under explored and under valorised so this is a really interesting specialism for aspiring marine biologists who want to make sure we use this largely untapped resource in a sustainable way.

Marine microbiology

This is the study of microorganisms found in the marine environment. Marine microbiologists may work in research, academics and in governmental and non-governmental agencies.

Research projects and academics might revolve around genetics, for example investigating genetics basis for salt tolerance, adaptation to live in cold temperature and extreme pressures; fossil microbiology, for example focussing on fossilized remnants which can give us new insights into the Earth’s history.

Environmental agencies might require marine biologists to investigate marine pollution and its effects on marine microorganisms.

Marine ecology

This is the study of marine organisms and how they interact with the marine environment.

Marine ecologists may collect animals which live on the sea floor or in the sediment, or observe them in their environment using underwater video.

They study and analyse the data to understand their habitat, what they live on and what could potentially have an impact on their life. Marine ecology is an interdisciplinary science which takes in geology, meteorology, chemistry and physics.

Step #4: Become a Volunteer

Like most paths in life, it is good to test the waters and the best way to find out if you want to become a marine biologist is to take on some voluntary work.

There are lots of different organisations that are dedicated to the conservation of ocean and sea wildlife and habitats. Some are country-specific, others are global.

See for example:

https://www.mcsuk.org/

The UK Marine Conservation Society is very active with initiatives from the Big Seaweed Search to wildlife sightings

<iframe title="vimeo-player" src="https://player.vimeo.com/video/561401622?h=93521829d2" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

https://saveourseas.com/

This is a marine conservation organisation with a global outreach.

There are lots of organisations that offer marine conservation volunteering opportunities.

Step #5: Prepare Your Application to Study Marine Biology

Work experience, internships and volunteering will be very useful when applying to study a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology.

You will also need to show:

  • Interest and care for the marine environment and its inhabitants
  • Analytical and problem-solving ability and good mathematical skills
  • Good written communication skills
  • The ability to work as part of a team

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do I need to have some scuba diving qualification to be a marine biologist?

It could help but it is not strictly necessary unless you are going to do some underwater field work.

Will I find a good job after graduating as a marine biologist?

As we have seen, a marine biologist has a wide range of choices when it comes to work: research laboratory work or in the field, academic and environmental agencies or often in commercial enterprises. The average salary of a marine biologist in the UK in 2022 is £38,500.

Is it only coastal universities which offer Marine Biology degrees?

Universities located on the coast usually offer the best Marine Biology courses as they will be involved in local marine conservation projects and offer easier access to field work.

What are the best A-levels to take if I want to access a Marine Biology degree?

The best combination of A-levels will include Biology and ideally another Science subject and/or Maths.

Do I need a Graduate degree to increase my employability as a marine biologist?

Though many Marine Biology graduates go on to do a Master’s degree, there are plenty of job opportunities and a career as a Marine Biologist doesn’t generally require graduate postgraduate study.