A branch of science focusing on ocean life, marine biology studies the diverse species that live in the earth’s saltwater environments. Marine biologists study the behavior of marine animals, the physiological processes of different species, and the different habitats and environments found in the ocean. They also examine how human actions impact marine life. These professionals explore viable solutions to problems such as global warming and rising sea levels, oxygen depletion in the earth’s oceans, and widespread chemical and plastic pollution.
A bachelor’s in marine biology provides a framework for understanding the diverse ecological roles of sea creatures. Marine biologists often possess a strong affinity for ocean life and a commitment to preserving and improving the ocean environment. Graduates of an accredited bachelor’s in marine biology program often qualify for jobs as zoologists, conservation biologists, and marine ecologists.
What is marine biology?
Marine biologists study various organisms that live in saltwater ecosystems such as oceans, estuaries, and hydrothermal vents.
How long does it take to earn a bachelor's in marine biology?
Just like other undergraduate degrees, marine biology bachelor’s programs typically take four years to complete.
Can I study marine biology online?
The majority of schools offering a bachelor’s in marine biology require on-campus attendance. However, some schools offer specific courses online.
What marine biology graduate degrees are available?
Graduates of an accredited bachelor’s in marine biology program often explore postgraduate programs in several fields. This can include marine conservation, evolutionary ecology in aquatic environments, and marine science and climate change.
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Career and Salary Outlook for Marine Biology
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), biologists earn a median annual salary of $63,270, much higher than the median annual salary for other jobs ($39,810). The BLS projects a 4% growth rate for jobs in this sector, about as fast as the average growth rate for all occupations.
Not all marine biologists spend their professional life out on the ocean collecting specimens and examining natural ocean habitats, although many certainly perform these tasks. Marine biologists work in various settings including laboratories, aquariums, and zoos. Marine biologists with advanced degrees work as college professors, researchers for independent environmental organizations, and consultants for government agencies.
A marine biologist’s work often relates directly to their specialization area. A broad field of study, marine biology offers specializations in fields such as mammalogy, aquaculture, and marine archeology. Many marine biologists currently serve in varying capacities to address and mitigate the impact of climate change on the earth’s oceans and the creatures that live there.
Reputable postsecondary schools voluntarily submit to an accreditation process, whereby an independent accreditor evaluates a school’s academic offerings according to established standards. Nonprofit degree-focused institutions typically seek regional accreditation while for-profit vocational and sectarian schools often apply for national accreditation. Stakeholders tend to hold regional accreditation in higher esteem because regional accreditors apply a more rigorous evaluation process.
Accreditation not only signifies the quality of education offered by a school, but also the funding available to students. The U.S. Department of Education channels financial aid only through accredited institutions. Students who intend to apply for financial assistance from the government must enroll in an accredited school or program.
To date, no accrediting body exists that deals specifically with marine biology programs. Examine the school’s accreditation to determine the quality of their program.
Courses in a Marine Biology Bachelor’s Program
Course offerings for marine biology majors vary by program. While foundation courses likely cover similar topics, specializations (if any) typically include specific classes and course requirements.
Marine biology bachelor’s programs include classroom lectures, laboratory work, and field experiences. These different modes of teaching and learning prepare graduates to take on wide-ranging professional responsibilities. The five courses below represent some of the common marine biology subjects offered in schools today.
Students explore topics such as the molecular basis of behavior, signal transduction pathways, and molecular endocrinology. Enrollees examine the physiological and behavioral responses of different organisms to environmental stimuli. The course familiarizes enrollees with traditional and emerging research theories and methodologies used to study control systems and molecular signaling.
The course introduces enrollees to various policies relevant to conservation issues and the preservation of diverse species populations. Students explore topics such as habitat fragmentation, ecosystem restoration and rehabilitation, and reserve design. They examine the close interrelationship between living organisms and their physical environment to craft viable conservation policies and sound ecological alternatives.
In this course, students examine the biodiversity of marine communities on several locations like beaches, marshes, coral reefs, and tidal flats. Topics covered include biogeography, physical attributes of marine systems, and environmental adaptation. Students also study factors that affect the diversity and distribution of marine organisms such as invertebrate animals, micro- and macro-algae, and vascular plants.
The course introduces students to core molecular biology concepts such as replication, DNA structure and function, and protein synthesis. Students also examine cell structure and metabolism, as well as various molecular mechanisms. A molecular biology course typically also considers the relevance of molecular biology to diseases and the implications for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.
The course gives enrollees the chance to study the physiological characteristics of various marine and estuarine animals. Students examine how marine animals adapt to major environmental forces such as temperature, oxygen and light levels, and water salinity. The course includes lectures and laboratory work that familiarize students with different methodologies and analytical techniques. Students also learn how to report their findings in a scientifically appropriate manner.
Scholarships for Marine Biology
Colleges and universities offering some of the best marine biology bachelor’s degrees also often administer various scholarship and grant programs. In addition to schools, marine biology majors often also explore financial aid packages from federal and state governments and additional assistance from private organizations and nonprofit agencies. The three scholarships below represent a small sample of funding options for marine biology students.
Who Can Apply: The Gladys Carol Scholarship Program welcomes applications from full-time undergraduate students pursuing a STEM program (including marine biology). Eligible applicants show a minimum 3.75 cumulative GPA and an SAT score of 1290 or an ACT score of 28. Amount: $2,500 per year (renewable for up to two years)
Who Can Apply: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration welcomes applications from students pursuing an accredited academic program that supports the organization’s mission. Recipients also participate in a paid summer internship program. Amount: $9,500
Best Colleges for a Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Biology 2021
The schools listed below offer some of the most affordable marine biology bachelor’s programs today. While cost remains a major factor in deciding which college or university to attend, these schools offer other advantages as well including accreditation, specialization areas, and scholarship opportunities. Begin with this list in your search for an affordable bachelor’s in marine biology.
While Boston University does not have any graduate degrees in marine biology, the undergraduate degree is nothing short of impressive. Housed within the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University is the Boston University Marine Program – affectionately referred to as BUMP. This program focuses on research in areas like marine conservation, functional genomics, ocean exploration, and more. The degree includes multiple opportunities for undergraduate research and honors courses.
This program is highly interdisciplinary, exposing students to a variety of courses in biology, chemistry, geology, and oceanography. The first year of education involves several general education courses that are integrated into the undergraduate experience. These are flexible and can be completed via coursework outside of the major, as well as through extracurricular activities. Other required classes include:
Marine Urban Ecology
Ichthyology: Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution of Fish
Tropical Marine Invertebrates
Boston University is a popular choice for undergraduate learners for many reasons, but one of the most significant is that it offers a Marine Semester that allows students to take marine biology courses in a more hands-on setting. This semester involves extensive research in a variety of New England locations as well as in the Belize Barrier Reef. Students work with Boston University faculty and scientists from prestigious organizations like the University of Belize, the New England Aquarium, and NOAA. Because of the experiences and prestige afforded by this opportunity, graduates go on to high-profile graduate schools and careers in commercial, educational, governmental, and nonprofit settings.
The University of North Carolina is located in Chapel Hill, NC, and offers multiple degree programs that focus on marine sciences. This university, founded in 1789, has a booming population of well over 18,000 undergraduate students. Despite the schools’ large population, it provides students with attentive education that is delivered by faculty who are dedicated to student success. With a plethora of graduate and undergraduate degree programs alike, this school offers both advanced and introductory coursework in marines sciences.
This program requires students to work closely with departmental advisors as they develop their course of study. Students will be granted exclusive access to departmental resources and facilities as they create their own specializations related to their majors. While each student’s plan of study will vary depending on the pathway selected, most students will pursue classes in topics such as:
The Marine Environment
Estuarine and Coastal Marine Science
First-Year Seminar: Connections to the Sea: The Challenges Faced by Using and Living Near Coastal Environments
Geology of Beaches and Coasts
Major World Rivers and Global Change: From Mountains to the Sea
The University of North Carolina is unique in that it provides students with a number of generous financial aid opportunities. Students receive access to exclusive directed research, working closely with faculty members for course credit as part of research honors projects. This school was the country’s first public university and remains one of the best universities in the world. With a diverse student population – there are students from every state and over 100 countries enrolled – the University of North Carolina is regarded as one of the best National Universities by U.S. News & World Report.
Eckerd College is located in St. Petersburg, FL. This location is idyllic for its clear weather and beautiful scenery, but it is also ideal for students who are interested in pursuing degrees in marine biology. With close proximity to the coast, Eckerd offers four specialization areas in the field of marine biology: Marine Geophysics, Marine Geology, Marine Biology, and Marine Chemistry. A small, close-knit university, this school combines extensive opportunities in research with professional preparedness, intensive laboratory experiences, and affordable financing options.
This program is incredibly hands-on, allowing students to step outside the classroom to learn more about diverse marine biological systems in the Gulf of Mexico. The Galbraith Marine Science Lab allows students to engage in hands-on field research in specific areas, such as dolphins or wetland restoration. All faculty conduct their own independent research, and since Eckerd does not have graduate programs in marine biology, undergraduates are always considered first. Popular classes include:
Marine and Freshwater Botany
Tropical Marine Ecology
Eckerd is a popular choice among learners because it has a strategic location near the Gulf of Mexico. This allows students to participate in extensive research opportunities, as well as to participate in comprehensive, hands-on coursework in marine science. Furthermore, the school offers a variety of grants and study abroad programs (as well as financing for study abroad) for students who are interested in expanding their studies off campus.
With over 337 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to choose from, it might seem difficult to find the right program for your career goals when you are studying at the University of California-Los Angeles. However, the marine biology degree is a clear standout, providing students with all the skills they need to succeed in the workforce upon graduation. This degree is designed for students wishing to specialize in the area of marine biology, while also allowing for customization in topics such as the physiology of marine organisms, subtidal and intertidal ecology, and oceanography.
Before students may pursue the specialized coursework laid out as part of the exciting, hands-on curriculum, they must first take a series of core life sciences courses. The university accepts transfer students, awarding credit for most experiences. For the major, students will take a range of laboratory-, classroom-, and field-based classes, including, but not limited to:
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences
Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences
Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology
Computational and Systems Biology
This program is unique in that it offers a marine biology quarter. This quarter is designed to help students create and then execute their own research projects. These aren’t limited to on-campus study- many learners travel abroad for these projects, engaging in cutting-edge research in areas like Australia. The school has a range of interesting related programs, such as minors in Conservation Biology and Evolutionary Medicine accompanied by graduate programs in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
Oregon State University is located in Corvallis, OR. The marine biology program, offered via the Hatfield Marine Science Center, is designed for students who might not necessarily have a background in marine biology or ecology. Students who have biology or non-biology majors may participate in this degree program, which has three separate start terms throughout the year. This program is offered as a concentration within the biology major, which allows students to emphasize research and epiretinal courses in the field of marine biology, placing this discipline at the core of their studies.
This program is unique in that the Hatfield Marine center divides the curriculum into three blocks. In the spring, students take coursework in marine biology. In the summer, they will pursue marine and environmental studies, and in the fall students take classes in coastal ecology and resource management. Students may pursue a variety of elective and required courses, such as:
Biology and Conservation of Marine Mammals
With an ideal location, just ninety minutes from Portland and an hour from the Pacific Coast, Oregon State provides marine biology students with some of the best and most extensive hands-on experiences. As a large public research university, the school has the resources to support in-depth studies of marine sciences. The school is committed to public service and affordability, with nearly fifty percent of all graduates leaving school with no debt. As a result, this school is ranked as a Best Value School by U.S. News & World Report.
The University of Maine is a public university that was founded in 1865. A rural campus with fewer than 10,000 undergraduate students, this campus is about an hour from the Atlantic coast. The University of Maine employs over 30 different faculty members with specialties in marine sciences and is home to the largest concentrations of experts in the entire state. Considered one of the top programs in the United States, the marine biology program at the University of Maine is available in both undergraduate and graduate fields of study.
The location of the University of Maine is perfect for students who want to study marine ecology. Learners will have direct contact with intertidal and subtidal marine organisms, and will be able to visit hatcheries, aquaculture sites, and commercial fishing ports as part of their studies. The major requires between 82 and 85 credit hours of study, with core courses in areas such as:
Experimental Design and Analysis for Biologists
Algal and marine Plant Ecology
In addition to the core coursework detailed above, all students are also required to complete a capstone requirement prior to graduation. This can take many forms, including a seminar in marine ecology, a seminar in marine biology, or a senior thesis. This school has plenty to offer students outside of academic quality, too. The university is home to over 200 different student organizations, including 25 fraternities and sororities. Regarded as one of the Top Public Schools by U.S. News & World Report, this university was an obvious choice as one of the best schools for marine biology in the country.
A public university founded in 1866, the University of New Hampshire operates multiple campuses throughout the state. The School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering is the university’s first interdisciplinary school and offers marine science classes that are one of a kind. This program is designed to provide students who are interested in marine and freshwater biology the skills and education necessary to pursue a wide variety of careers and graduate study. Students can specialize in an area of interest such as aquaculture or animal behavior.
As the interdisciplinary nature of this program suggests, the students at the University of New Hampshire will engage in classes from many different departments while enrolled in marine science studies. Candidates are given ample opportunities to be involved in scientific policy development and will learn more about strategies regarding the best management of marine resources. With a variety of research facilities and laboratories available, students receive an exemplary education that prioritizes hands-on learning as they take classes such as:
Marine Estuarine and Freshwater Biology: Freshman seminar
Introduction to Marine Biology
Aquatic Animal Diversity
Introduction to Aquatic Botany
The Location of the University of New Hampshire is ideal. Candidates have unique opportunities for hands-on study with regular trips to the lakes of New Hampshire, the White Mountain National Forest, and two coastal marine laboratories in the curriculum. The university is also close to estuarine and freshwater facilities. Because all courses have a strong research emphasis, candidates graduate with an innate knowledge of how to conduct hands-on research and development in the area of marine biology.
Located in Stony Brook, NY, Stony Brook University is a public institution that was founded in 1957. Despite its relatively young age, this university has risen to prominence in all areas, but particularly in its offerings of science-based programs. Stony Brook University employs the power of hands-on learning in all of its programs, but there are few programs that bring this theory to life quite like the marine biology program. The degree is administered by the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, which is one of the top oceanographic institutions in the nation. As a result, students conduct regular research and public services.
This interdisciplinary program requires students to integrate their understanding of all basic sciences including chemistry, physics, and biology. Research and internships are encouraged aspects of the curriculum, with multiple opportunities for experiential learning available. Faculty members are at the forefront of developing research and solutions for regional environmental problems, as well as those related to the global ocean and atmosphere. Students will work closely with dedicated faculty in cutting-edge research facilities as they take classes such as:
Marine Microbiology and Microbial Ecology
Long Island Marine Habitats
Environmental Instrumental Analysis
Waves, Tides, and Beaches
Stony Brook is one of the few schools on this list that provides students with on-the-job training outside of the classroom. The Semester by the Sea program is a required part of each students’ learning that requires them to spend a semester studying and living at the Stony Brook Southampton campus in Shinnecock Bay. Here students strengthen their field skills by studying on the water most days of the week. Students engage in research opportunities, learning how to use advanced equipment like handheld CTDs and water samplers.
Located in Eugene, OR, the University of Oregon is a public university that opened its doors in 1876. This large university has a massive enrollment of nearly 20,000 students – but that doesn’t stop its faculty from providing a small-campus support system to its students. The university offers over 310 different academic programs and requires all students to complete a rigorous liberal arts and sciences core – regardless of major. The marine biology major is just one of many hands-on courses offered at this idyllic university.
This degree is one of a handful of its kind offered on the Pacific Coast. Students who enroll in this program receive solid training in modern biology, as well as in hands-on field learning in renowned marine laboratories. Courses are offered during three terms throughout the year and include popular topics such as:
Marine Biology: Marine Conservation Biology
Marine Biology: Molecular Marine Biology
This program is unique in that it provides learners with multiple opportunities for internships, study abroad, scholarships, and research experiences. The university helps to place students with Internships and Research Experience for Undergraduates programs, which are available during the completion of an undergraduate degree and help students gain career-relevant experiences. The degree also has a tropical marine biology course in Panama, as well as multiple other international study options for students in this major.
The Long Beach campus is just one of many locations operated by California State University. This public university was founded in 1949 and has a large undergraduate enrollment of over 31,000 students. This campus overlooks the Pacific Ocean and provides students with the perfect blend of quality academics with an idyllic outdoor life. The Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology is just one program offered at the university – motivated students may choose to pursue a graduate degree in marine biology here as well.
This degree requires the completion of small upper-division lectures and laboratory classes. These are taught by faculty members who possess terminal degrees in marine biology and allow students to take frequent field trips to nearby estuaries, intertidal habitats, and bays. Students can carry out original scientific research, which prepares them well for marine-biology related jobs in resource management agencies and for graduate study. Required classes include:
Fisheries Ecology and Conservation
Geographic Information Systems
Tropical Marine Ecology
California State University-Long Beach offers students multiple opportunities to engage in hands-on research opportunities. The school is home to a shark lab, home to real live sharks, as well as a marine laboratory and the Long Beach Marine Institute. Students have the option of participating in the Catalina Semester, a full semester of research at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Santa Catalina Island. This experience allows learners to develop critical time management skills by balancing research and academic aspects, while also giving them an idea of what a career in scientific research is actually like.
The University of Tampa was founded in 1931 and is a private university located in Tampa, FL. The Marine Science Biology program is one of the most popular degrees within the Department of Biology, providing students with easy access to Tampa Bay for research and recreational opportunities. This program is considered one of the defining degrees at the university and is frequently pursued as a standalone major as well as a double major for biology majors.
This program is geared toward experiential learning, providing students with exclusive access to laboratory experiences, weekend trips to remote locations, and international travel courses. The degree is somewhat prescribed and does not have specific areas of study or constraints. Nevertheless, students may still choose from a wide variety of courses to round out their degrees or to tailor them to specific interests. Required courses for the major include:
Introduction to Marine Science
This prominent degree is supported by a range of facilities and equipment, allowing students to engage in faculty-led research. For example, the Marine Science Field Station includes both a wet- and dry-lab and provides learners with access to Tampa Bay. Candidates may rent canoes, kayaks, research vessels, and trailers to help them conduct their research. All courses in this program are taught by educated, invested faculty members, nearly half of whom conduct their primary research in areas like marine organisms and the marine ecosystem.
Located in Biddeford, ME, the University of New England offers a marine science program that grants students a well-rounded education in both research and academics. The program focuses on the practical uses of marine science, giving students access to cutting-edge research laboratories and facilities. In addition to the typical marine biology major, students can also choose to major or minor in topics like Marine Affairs, Aquaculture, Marine Sciences, Applied Mathematics, or Marine Entrepreneurship.
Nestled between the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and Saco Bay, this program is carried out in close proximity to some of the nations’ most gorgeous waterways. This degree gives students comprehensive training, not just in marine science, but also in conservation. Students learn the core techniques and strategies involved in conserving the environment and may choose between two different concentrations in marine biology, oceanography, or marine science 4+1 bachelor’s and master’s combined track. Required classes for the core major include:
Fundamentals of Biochemistry
With small class sizes and a profound commitment to experiential learning, this school is one of the best for students seeking a small-campus vibe paired with the academic quality of a larger research institution. The school offers dozens of student fellowships, research grants, and other projects in their specialization of choice. The school also partners with prestigious marine-based organizations to provide students with further education. For example, the school allows students to take their marine education to the waters with the United States Naval Academy, or to learn more about entrepreneurialism and marine policy with the Maine North Atlantic Development Office.
Duke University was founded in 1838 and has repeatedly been recognized as one of the best schools in the United States. This university is a private college and offers an exemplary undergraduate degree in biology with a specialization in marine biology. While master’s and doctorate degrees in marine biology and marine conservation biology are also available at Duke, the undergraduate degree remains one of the most popular.
At Duke, marine biology is not viewed as a separate discipline of biology but as the application of many different areas of biology to the study of organisms that live in a marine ecosystem. This degree provides students with multiple opportunities for advisement and hands-on learning as they develop their plans of study. Required courses, as well as popular electives, include studies in topics such as:
Gateway to Biology: Molecular Biology
Conservation Biology and Policy
Comparative Physiology of Marine Animals
Coastal Watershed Science and Policy
Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles
With over 45 different research centers and laboratories, Duke is one of the best schools for students seeking a hands-on education. These training facilities help learners develop a real-world understanding of how marine biology intersects with the rest of the environment and how their careers can help to make a global difference. Because each student is required to complete multiple lab experience requirements and a capstone course, candidates graduate from Duke not just with theoretical knowledge of marine biology, but with a deep understanding of how to apply learned techniques as well.
A young university founded only in 1994, California State University-Monterey Bay is located near one of the most diverse bays in the country. This bay is home to Monterey Canyon, one of the largest underwater canyons in the world, and as a result, serves as an ecosystem for thousands of different marine species. The California State Institute of Applied Marine Ecology offers a dynamic program in marine science that helps students understand how humans can interact safely and sustainably with fragile marine ecology.
The Bachelor of Science in Marine Science at California State University-Monterey Bay helps learners develop skills in applying technology to the study of marine ecosystems. Coursework includes a number of laboratory and field experiences that grant students the skills necessary to monitor common problems in marine science. Required and elective courses include:
Small Boat Field Techniques
Marine Experimental Physiology
Marine Fish Ecology
Science Policy and Management in the Marine Environment
California State has plenty to offer students outside of the classroom, too. In addition to offering students the use of five different research laboratories, like the Marine Landscape Ecology lab and the Environmental Physiology Lab, the school offers exclusive research opportunities and training in how to conduct quality research. The school also houses multiple extracurricular organizations, such as the Maine Science Club, which provide students with access.
Located in Seattle, WA, the University of Washington is a public university that was founded in 1861. A large university of over 31,000 undergraduates, this school is famous for its research and educational programs related to aquatic and marine science. Over 50 faculty members are currently conducting research and teaching in a wide range of marine biology topics. The program helps candidates develop job-ready skills that are applicable to any setting, such as those in teamwork and writing. All classes incorporate field trips, laboratories, and key analytical skills that prepare them for any career.
This degree requires students to closely examine the life processes of creatures who inhabit saltwater environments. Students can take advantage of unique laboratories as they look at various aspects of marine biodiversity. Students will take core subjects in the divisions of Marine Physiology, Marine Ecology, Marine Evolutionary Biology, and Conservation and Management. Required courses include:
Marine Evolutionary Biology
Conservation and Management of Aquatic Resources
Marine Biogeochemical Cycles
Introduction to Oceanography
The University of Washington-Seattle has the perfect location for students who are interested in studying marine biology. Located centrally on the Puget Sound, the university owns a marine sciences field station, Friday Harbor Laboratories. This field station is located just a few miles from campus on San Juan Island and allows students to pursue research opportunities right from day one of their education. In addition to the prominent marine biology major, the school also offers programs in oceanography as well as aquatic and fishery sciences.
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