What Is a Marine Zoologist?

Scuba diving is one way zoologists study marine animals.
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Scuba diving is one way zoologists study marine animals.

Your idea of a great career has fish, whales and dolphins in it, not to mention a lot of swimming. If this is the case, you may consider marine biology, or its subspecialty, marine zoology, as your career. Biology is the study of living things -- from that mold growing on the leftovers in your fridge -- right up to horses, people, redwood trees and whales. Zoology, on the other hand, is a narrower version of study focused on animals.


The field of marine biology is extremely broad, which is not too surprising when you consider how much of the planet is covered by water. Before you can specialize in marine animals, you’ll need to get a degree in a related field, such as marine biology, zoology or ecology. Your courses will cover a wide variety of subjects, including genetics, oceanography, evolution, environmental physiology and ichthyology, or the study of fish. You’ll also spend time in field studies, maybe even in a nice warm tropical area of the Bahamas.

Doctorate Degree

Although you might be able to work in marine zoology with a master’s degree, your best bet is to aim for a doctorate. Much of your work will be research-oriented and a doctorate is the best credential for independent research work. You might also want to teach at some point in your career, and again, the Ph.D. is the credential that will get you into those hallowed Ivy League halls. Although you could choose to stick with zoology all the way through your education, you could also get a bachelor’s in a related field such as ecology or general biology.

Skills and Characteristics

You’ll need some special skills and characteristics to work in marine zoology. One of the more basic skills is knowing how to swim; you might be conducting your research up close and personal by snorkeling or skin-diving, and the odds are you’ll spend some time in or around boats. Computer skills will help you use software such as geographic information systems or modeling software, not to mention writing research papers. Good interpersonal skills are also important, as you’re likely to be working on a team or even leading one. You might also be communicating your research findings to funders, policy-makers or the general public, so giving an effective speech is important.

Daily Activities

In marine zoology, the world -- so to speak -- is your oyster. You might spend most of your days in a lab or a research program at a major university studying marine mammals in captivity. You could develop better ways to manage undersea “farms” that grow various seafood for human consumption or work on the effects of pollution and other issues that affect marine animals’ health. In the course of your work, you might spend time on a trawler, collect specimens with nets, use remotely operated vehicles to study deep-water animals or live and work in an underwater habitat such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aquarius.

Job Outlook and Salary

Marine biology and zoology, along with zoology and wildlife biology in general, is not an area that can expect high job growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Demand in these professions is expected to grow at a rate of about 7 percent between 2010 and 2020, half the average rate of growth for most professions. The average annual salary for zoologists and wildlife biologists was $61,880 in 2011, according to the BLS.

2016 Salary Information for Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists

Zoologists and wildlife biologists earned a median annual salary of $60,520 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, zoologists and wildlife biologists earned a 25th percentile salary of $48,360, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $76,320, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 19,400 people were employed in the U.S. as zoologists and wildlife biologists.

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