Our scientists answer your questions about careers in marine biology and conservation.
Photo: Yen-Yi Lee / Coral Reef Image Bank
Many students come to us with questions about our staff and our work. We are a very small organization, so unfortunately, we may not have the capacity to answer all questions individually. To fill this gap, we interviewed our President and some of our staff scientists and asked them some of the most commonly asked questions about ourselves and our organization. Feel free to quote any of the answers below and the scientist who answered them in school reports. If you have a specific question that isn’t answered here, please feel free to contact us via email, and we will try our best to respond in a timely manner.
Marine Conservation Institute focuses on advocating for, tracking, and evaluating global marine protection. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are places where human activities are regulated to protect the ecosystem and the species that live there. MPAs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and a wide range of factors that influence their conservation impact, such as regulations, enforcement, funding, and management practices. Fully and highly protected areas, those which ban or strictly limit extractive activities (e.g. fishing and mining), have the greatest conservation benefits. As such, we focus our attention on work that supports and highlights these most effective protected areas and progress toward conservation goals.
We use real-time information to update and evaluate the actual level of protection on the world’s seas through our Marine Protection Atlas. We also incentivize and support strong marine protected areas that meet science-based conservation effectiveness standards through our Blue Parks program.
We also conduct research to identify and advocate for new or additional protections in special ocean places. We focus on the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on deep sea corals and how marine protection can best be put in place as they struggle to survive the rapidly changing oceans.
A Bachelor’s degree is the minimum education level among staff members at Marine Conservation Institute. For science positions, though, a Master’s degree or Doctorate is preferred. Additional experience, such as internships, can also be a great way to get more experience and hands-on education about a particular aspect of the ocean conservation world.
Most marine scientists don’t get into this field for the money. Marine biologists typically make anywhere from $30,000 per year for entry-level positions to $80,000 per year for those with doctoral degrees and experience. There are a lot of factors, such as education, responsibilities, experience, job location, type of organization, etc. that determine a salary.
On a daily basis, we are at the leading edge of ocean conservation. We have first-hand knowledge of important initiatives to help the oceans, and unfortunately, the devastation occurring to our oceans. We are fortunate enough to work with interesting and devoted associates, exchanging lots of exciting and intellectually stimulating ideas about our oceans. When certain projects work out for the betterment of marine ecosystems, and we have had some part in it, it is immensely rewarding. It’s also rewarding to know we are doing something that benefits us now and also people in the future, as well as the animals that live in the sea. We have a lot of freedom to grow intellectually and constantly find new and challenging projects to work on.
Having intimate knowledge of the problems of the oceans, some of which the public may be unaware, can at times be frustrating and depressing. Many people don’t care very much about the oceans, whereas we are very aware on a daily basis of the activities that impact the planet and oceans. It can be hard to escape those feelings.
On a more personal level, you have to maintain a high-level of motivation in this field, since you are faced with much easier career path options. You have to be motivated and passionate to pursue this career path.
Ocean conservation and sustainability will always be critical for the survival of both humans and the species that live there. In the face of unprecedented threats of human activities, conservation is important and urgent now more than ever. As a leader in evaluating and supporting effective marine protection, we will continue to make an impact for years to come. Moreover, as a non-government institution, we are uniquely suited to provide third-party feedback on laws and regulations that influence ocean protection and uses, and this expertise will always be an important part of the process of protecting our oceans.
Beth - I have two favorites: when President Obama announced the expanded protections for our Pacific islands’ waters through the Pacific Remote Islands and Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monuments, and the first strong protection of waters along the Atlantic coast with the New England Seamounts and Canyons Marine National Monument.
Sarah – I have had the greatest pleasure and honor to present Blue Park Awards to managers and community leaders who are champions of marine wildlife. They have earned the recognition, and their pride in their hard work and accomplishment is beautiful.
Beth – I work from home and telecommute, so I spend a lot of time in my home office on the computer or on the phone. I occasionally travel for conferences or other meetings to work with other marine conservation colleagues.
Sam – I work in our Seattle office. Most of the time, I sit behind a desk and make maps or create ecological models. I also spend some time writing grant proposals, papers, and blog posts.
Sarah – I work on our Blue Parks initiative. I spend a lot of time reading and synthesizing scientific research about marine protected areas, communicating with our partners (including other scientists), and working on ways to communicate the initiative to funders, governments, and the public.
Lance - As President and CEO of the Marine Conservation Institute my duties vary greatly. I serve as program manager for many of Marine Conservation Institute's projects, from assessing threats to deep-sea corals to identifying priority areas for conservation along the west coast of North America. I also supervise Marine Conservation Institute’s staff. I spend a lot of time reading, writing and corresponding with other scientists and conservationists, although I once spent a large amount of time underwater looking at marine life. My job keeps me mostly on dry land these days, but I am always looking for opportunities to go snorkeling, SCUBA diving or out to sea on research ships. Most of my work consists of analyzing conservation issues (such as destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling), working on solutions to ocean issues (such as marine protected areas) and making the science clear and understandable to managers and policy makers. I am often called on to give public lectures, science presentations or to speak with Congressmen and government officials on ocean conservation issues.
Beth – I love working together with other really smart people who share my passion for the ocean and conservation. I have always been obsessed with maps and geography so it was a natural combination to bring together my love of the ocean and maps.
Sam & Sarah – We enjoy being able to learn more about our oceans, and to collect and analyze data in ways that help improve how well we understand marine ecosystems. Working in a conservation organization is especially rewarding because our research is actively being used to help protect our oceans.
Marine biology is such a broad field that this question feels impossible to answer. From the deep ocean to the shallow tide pools along the coast, there are so many different forms of life and so many types of ecosystems. Among these diverse ecosystems, a large proportion of habitats and species have only recently been or have yet to be discovered. Because of this, many scientists are intrigued by the number of discoveries that have yet to be made and want to learn more about the mysteries of our oceans.
Beth – I have always had a love for the ocean growing up on Cape Cod and sailing since I can remember. I never thought about doing anything else.
Sam – I’ve always loved the outdoors, but I grew up in a landlocked part of the country. Growing up I actually wanted to be a National Geographic photographer! I fell in love with the ocean during my time studying abroad in Australia during college and decided that being a marine biologist was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Sarah – I grew up on Maui in a culture that revered the ocean. I have always felt a connection, a sense of awe, and a sense of responsibility to the ocean. I did not know any scientists, though, and studying the ocean never occurred to me until I moved to Northern California as a high school history teacher and began volunteering at a nearby marine laboratory during my vacations. I was quickly hooked.
Lance - I grew up with the ocean as a backdrop to everything I did: swimming, surfing, and fishing. I was fascinated by all kinds of marine life. I wanted to SCUBA dive after watching the original Jacques Cousteau films. As I learned more about marine biology in college, I became increasingly concerned about the fate of the oceans and sea life, and this led me to become interested in applying research to questions of conservation.
Beth – I went to Long Island University – Southampton College for my undergraduate degree and to Duke University for my Master’s degree in Environmental Management.
Sam – I got my undergraduate degree in Biology and Environmental Studies from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and then went on to get my PhD in Biology from Temple University.
Sarah – I earned an undergraduate degree in Public Policy and a Master’s in Teaching from Brown University. I took undergraduate science courses from Santa Rosa Junior College when I decided to pursue marine science, and I earned a PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Davis.
Lance - After attending UCSC for my undergraduate degree, I obtained a master’s degree from San Francisco State University and a doctorate degree in marine ecology from the University of California-Davis.
Beth – I studied marine biology in college, worked for many years on whale watching and snorkel charter boats teaching the public about the ocean. I volunteered with researchers who needed help on their field projects on coral reefs, sea turtles and whales.
Sam – My college did not have a marine biology program or access to the ocean, so I started out by doing internships in aquatic ecology (mostly lakes). I got my first marine experience while I was studying abroad in Australia, fell in love, and went on to get a PhD studying deep-sea ecology.
Sarah – I began by identifying and counting crab, mussel, and snail larvae under a microscope. They were collected in Tuffy sponges bolted to rocks along the coast. I was a volunteer, helping marine scientists with research about when and how these larvae settle and become adults.
Lance - I volunteered as an intern, including field work, whenever I could. One of my favorite summer jobs was a volunteer position studying orcas in British Columbia. That experience helped me get my first job as a marine mammalogist with The Marine Mammal Center in California. After graduate school, I worked as a post-doctoral researcher at Bodega Marine Laboratory and with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Marine conservation biology is a labor of love, with the gratification of making a positive difference in the world one of the rewards. Most of us do this work because we love the oceans and are rewarded by doing work we enjoy. Marine scientists work in a number of disciplines, so find one that interests you (e.g. geography, mathematics, chemistry, photography, programming, fishery biology, etc.). Make sure you love the non-field work jobs because much of what all marine scientists do involves writing and doing analysis at a desk with a computer.
Get a good education and find work experiences that build a wide array of skill sets. Students interested in becoming a marine scientist need to do well in math and sciences. It is also essential to be able to write well - one of the best skills anyone can acquire. Internships, volunteering, and work experiences will help you gain additional skills and build a network of contacts that will be invaluable in the future. A diversity of world and educational experiences will make you a better scientist.
However, it does take a lot of time and effort to get into the field. If you persevere and obtain a graduate degree, you can improve your opportunities and salary. Remember, whatever you do, it is important to do the job well. You will often re-cross paths with people you've previously worked with or for, and you want to make sure you establish an excellent reputation.
Just asking that question means you’re already an excellent voice for the ocean. Our oceans are vast, but they are not infinite. There are a lot of ways humans are impacting the ocean. And there are a lot of ways you can help! Volunteering time or money to a local science lab or conservation organization is a great way to get involved. You can also protect the ocean through your daily behaviors. Eat sustainable seafood. Stop using single-use plastic, such as straws or plastic bags. Contact your elected officials about the importance of the ocean to you, and when you are old enough, vote for people that share your love of the ocean.
For more information about marine biology careers, check out these links:
So you want to be a marine biologist: Deep Sea News Edition
NOAA Fisheries: Careers in Marine Biology
Environmentalscience.org: What is a marine biologist?
New Scientist: What does a marine biologist do?
Career Explorer: What does a marine biologist do?
National Marine Aquarium: So you want to become a marine biologist?