Marine Biologist Salary: Becoming a Marine Biologist

Name: Dr. James B. Wood
Job Title: Marine Biologist
Where: Bermuda
Employer: BIOS (Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences)
Years of Experience: 7 (post PhD)
Education: PhD
Salary: A Marine Biologist Median Salary is $51,957

Marine Biologist Salary: Becoming a Marine Biologist

For readers who want more info about the average marine biologist salary or careers in marine biology, you have come to the right interview. We recently spoke to Dr. James B. Wood, a marine biologist stationed in Bermuda, who discussed his steps in becoming a marine biologist.

James explained the qualifications for becoming a marine biologist, the average marine biologist salary in the academic world, and different options for students who are excited about careers in marine biology. He also gave a very realistic outlook for careers in marine biology and revealed some of the factors that can impact a marine biologist salary. James explained that careers in marine biology can be both challenging and exciting, but limited funding for research means greater competition for marine biologists, as well as less job security.

Marine biology may be a labor of love, but if you’re excited and determined about becoming a marine biologist, James says to go for it. Keep reading to find out how this successful scientist has shaped his own career in marine biology.

Marine Biologist

(Photo Credit: Marine Biologist at Work, by NOAA’s National Ocean Service)

Marine Biologist Job Description:

One of the great things about my job is that, often, I don’t have a daily routine. Sometimes I sleep in; sometimes we are out until 2 a.m. in the rain, tagging squid because that is what it takes to get the job done. Overall, I work a lot. A 60-hour workweek is typical. During part of the year, I teach from 9 to 5 every Monday and Wednesday. I prep and grade for much of the rest of the week.

I also spend a lot of time online, writing grant proposals, filling out forms, etc. In the summer and fall, I have interns and we are in the field several times a week working with octopuses and/or squid. When we are doing field work, our schedule is at the mercy of the weather and when (and if) we find the animals that we are looking for.

Can you tell us about your steps toward becoming a marine biologist?

How to Increase Your Salary as a Marine Biologist.
Education is the key to increasing your salary as a Marine Biologist. There are degrees and certifications that will increase your salary and make you a more valuable employee. In this economic downturn, education is a key strategy for a successful career as a Marine Biologist.

Marine Biology isn’t the easiest career choice. I graduated with highest honors and a 3.97 GPA from the University of Florida. While at UF, I spent two summers as an intern, one at the University of Hawaii and one at the Smithsonian Station in Link Port, Florida. I also started publishing an aquarium magazine. I went to graduate school, in order to work with deep-sea octopuses, at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

While a graduate student in 1995, I taught myself how to make web pages and started The Cephalopod Page, which has been online ever since. In 1998, we created one of the first online biological databases, CephBase.

I also volunteered to escape Canada for two weeks and help a colleague with her research on a reef squid in Bonaire – this work was eventually featured in the nature special Tentacles. I worked in Texas essentially as a post-doc for three years before I was able to escape and have been a junior faculty member at BIOS since Sept. 2003. My full CV is online here.

Can you recall any memorable moments from your career in marine biology?

Well, I grew up in south Florida and I thought north Florida was too cold! That was until Dalhousie (in Canada) offered me their best scholarship, always returned my calls and even flew me up for a visit. On top of that, they had captured some deep-sea octopuses and had them waiting for me before I even started – how could I refuse that? What an opportunity!

I understood that it would be cold during the winter (in Canada), but not so much that life as I knew it would cease to exist! So there I am, in the middle of winter, with the only baby captive hatched deep-sea octopuses and no food for them! This was fixed by late-night plankton tows off a bridge; that was the only time I could actually catch amphipods (small shrimp like animals) and I couldn’t afford a boat.

No human had ever observed the species of deep-sea octopus (that I worked on) mate. This is biologically important as the males have a very large mating structure that no one had observed in use. And no human had ever observed them hatch out of their eggs – after a 450 day wait while the mom starves herself and broods her eggs. I was the first person on the planet to see both, this was my PhD work.

What advice would you give to those interested in becoming a marine biologist? What is the outlook for careers in marine biology?

If you look at my CV online, you might see a very successful young scientist. I’ve been on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. I’m publishing papers in my field as well as popular papers; I’m involved in a number of successful web pages and outreach projects. I’ve made a life-changing difference for many students and have an excellent teaching record.

All of these things are what one would consider “success.”

What if I told you that at the same time, I’m struggling, I often don’t have a paycheck and I have absolutely no job security? What if I told you that this was fairly normal for someone my age at a soft money institution? What if I told you that a close friend of mine, who is very talented and also has a PhD, is living at home and working part-time?

What if I told you that there is little money for basic science and there are many more qualified people than there are jobs? Or if I said that right now is a particularly bad time as the U.S. has chosen to invest in Iraq, instead of education, healthcare, and basic science?

With a shiny new PhD, young scientists are well-trained to conduct original research, interact with the public and teach, but very poorly trained for the economic reality they are about to face.

My advice for anyone that wants to be a marine biologist is to take a serious look at the number of jobs and the number of people trying to get those jobs; take a very close look at the economics of academic research positions. What happens to competition and prices when the supply of qualified people outstrips demand? Then realistically look at yourself and evaluate how much this potential career choice means to you. If you are still determined, go for it.

What is the average marine biologist salary?

The attractive and widely available posted salaries for faculty members don’t tell the whole story. I work at a soft money institution and my salary is completely dependent on grants and teaching. The U.S. has chosen to invest in Iraq instead of education, healthcare, and research. It is an especially difficult time to be a biologist.

My marine biologist salary is dependent on writing successful grant proposals. It takes me about two months to write a proposal. Let’s say the work one proposes to do will take five months. So for seven months of work, one would get paid for five months – but that is only if 100 percent of proposals are funded. On average, maybe only one in ten grants are funded! So writing ten grant proposals takes 20 months, the one that gets funded requires five months of work for which you actually get paid.

So for 25 months of work, on average, one can expect to get paid for five months. One’s official rate of pay might be 100k a year, which sounds attractive, but a fifth of that is not.

Education is much better and covers the bulk of my marine biologist salary. But if a class is canceled due to low enrollment, and this does happen, sometime suddenly, I’m out of a paycheck for that period as well. There is no job security at a soft money research institution. There is no tenure here as well.

To become a faculty member at a research institution, you need to earn a PhD. This takes about five years of additional education after an undergraduate degree, four years. During this time you will earn an annual salary of $16,000. Then, if you are lucky, there is a post-doc period where scientists earn an annual salary of perhaps $30,000. Each step is a weeding out process and many people don’t make it – too many people are told “education is the way to go,” but there are too few jobs.

Faculty annual salaries are much higher, in the $45,000 to $125,000 range. But this is very misleading because if you don’t have a grant or a class you simply don’t get paid. Most faculty members I know work 60-plus hours a week and struggle to maintain a family and other aspects of normal life.

The good aspects of marine biology are the research and the teaching. If you truly love marine biology and want a career where you can be sure that you have a strong positive impact on people and that you personally will leave the world a better place than when you found it, marine biology is an option for you.

How does your salary compare to the average marine biologist salary? Find out with PayScale’s Salary Calculator.