Nearly three-fourths of our planet is covered with oceans, providing a wealth of possibilities for study that, like the ocean, are broad and deep. Marine biology is such a varied field, there's no such thing as a typical marine biologist. Any area of study involving the sea falls under that umbrella, including the study of marine creatures, coastline management, environmental impact, aquaculture and biomedical research. The amount of education required depends on your career goals.

Bachelor's Degree, and Done

While some colleges offer a bachelor’s degree in marine biology, you may also choose a degree in biology, zoology, microbiology or environmental science, and concentrate on marine studies. Each degree is built on a strong foundation of the major sciences: biology, zoology, chemistry, organic chemistry, microbiology and physics, as well as calculus and statistics. Many intensive programs require 8 to 10 credits of science per semester including specialized courses such as oceanography, environmental science, physiology, molecular biology and aquatic botany. Bachelor's degrees generally take four years to complete and require 120 to 130 credit hours. If you want to pursue a specific area of marine biology, start your search for a school with MarineBio's list, "Marine Biology Degree Programs in the U.S." With a bachelor’s degree in marine biology, you can work in a museum, aquarium or park, teach school, serve as a research assistant or work for a nonprofit conservation organization.

Bachelor's Degree, and Onward

Marine biology students take general science courses as well as those that focus on marine topics.
Marine biology students take general science courses as well as those that focus on marine topics.

A B.S. in marine biology is not generally recommended for those who intend to continue on to graduate school as specialized topics will be covered there. According to NOAA, graduate schools look for candidates with a well-rounded educational background that promotes creative thinking and problem solving. Since marine biologists must write scientific papers and communicate clearly, they also recommend you take a strong writing program. Many jobs in the marine biology field deal with management and public policy, so students should take courses in social science. In preparation for graduate school, a B.S. or B.A. in any one of the fields of science require 120 to 130 credit hours, half of which are in science.

Master's Degree

A marine biologist is just as likely to wear a lab coat as a wet suit.
A marine biologist is just as likely to wear a lab coat as a wet suit.

Marine biology is typically pursued in graduate school when students can focus on a specialty such as physical oceanography, microbiology, environmental science or ichthyology. There is no hard and fast rule covering the number of hours required to complete a graduate degree, but on average, a master's degree requires the successful completion of 30 hours plus a thesis and exam. With a master’s degree, you may find a position such as higher level positions in jobs offered to those with bachelor's degrees. You may work as research technician or as a manager of a fishery. You may work on the development of technology needed to study the oceans or be the mathematician who makes sense of all the data researchers collect.

Finally, the Ph.D.

A Ph.D. is required for those who wish to perform their own research.
A Ph.D. is required for those who wish to perform their own research.

To do independent research and development, pursue a Doctor of Science, or Ph.D. Specific areas of study offered are largely determined by research being conducted by faculty, so it's important to find one that best matches your interest. A Ph.D. program requires approximately 80 to 90 credits beyond undergraduate work, 15 to 20 credit hours of which are dissertation work. If you're interested in becoming a professor, begin with a job in postdoctoral research with a university or government agency. Otherwise, you may also find work in research and development for an industry, such as aquaculture, or for government agencies such as NOAA. Check out MarineBio’s list of Marine Biology Laboratories, Institutes and Graduate Programs to get a feel for the seemingly endless span of research opportunities.