marine biologist under wear in scuba gear holding a clipboard and other equipment while in the middle of a swarming school of fish


School Days Influences: Is Anyone Here a Marine Biologist?

Everyone here, actually, and they share the educational and personal journeys that led to them working in this highly competitive, vitally important scientific field

Earth's oceans cover 70% of the planet. There’s a lot of mystery contained in those oceans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), "more than eighty percent of our ocean is unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored," and "91 percent of our ocean species have yet to be classified."

The people tasked with solving Earth's ocean species mysteries are marine biologists.

That undersea profession has been around since the 1800s, when Sir Charles Wyville Thomson led expeditions along the coasts of Scotland and beyond, discovering more than 4,000 new marine species. In the 20th century, French biologist Jacques Cousteau introduced us to the wonders and mysteries of the deep through his series of popular underwater films. And American marine biologist Rachel Carson got people thinking more deeply about our waters and the life in and supported by them in her ocean-focused books The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955). Water also ran directly through her seminal Silent Spring (1962), which rewired how we think about our impact on nature and launched the modern environmental movement. (Marine biology was also lodged in our collective pop culture memory thanks to the legendary 1994 episode of Seinfeld, "The Marine Biologist," where George Costanza's impersonation of one resulted in the longest audience laugh line in the show's history.)

Today, studying to become a marine biologist can result in a career in what calls "a highly competitive field in which the supply of marine scientists far exceeds the demand,” with employers ranging from federal and state agencies, the Navy and Coast Guard, aquariums and zoos, and various academic research institutions. The number of positions is limited, though, says CareerExplorer.

It’s difficult to know how limited. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is usually a good source for statistics on people working a job in America. But the agency categorizes “marine biologists” with “zoologists” and “wildlife biologists,” so it's tough to get a specific count of who is working in the profession.

marine biologist under water studying a bulbous coral reef that looks like a pod of manatees clumped together

NOAA Coastal Ocean Science/Twitter

NOAA's coral scientists help conserve and restore shallow, mesophotic, and deep-sea corals by mapping, habitat characterization, developing predictive habitat maps, and damage assessment, among other tools.

Still, says that, while "competition is strong” in the field, “BLS projects that job demand for zoologists and wildlife biologists will grow by 5 percent between 2020 and 2030. Those with advanced math and computer skills will be at an advantage in the job market."

To make the public more familiar with the job of a marine biologist, NOAA published interviews with a series of them through its Ocean Exploration Careers section. Peter Etnoyer, a marine biologist with the NOAA Coastal Center for Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research (CCEHBR), shared that he works 40–60 hours a week “'in the field,' usually out on a boat somewhere,” and that the salary range of someone with his job ranges from  $80,000 to $100,000. In her NOAA interview, Amy Baco-Taylor, then a visiting investigator at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, noted, "It is rare that a month goes by without me being on an airplane or a ship or both" but that "the best places I have traveled, though, are down in submersibles." She placed the salary range for someone at the postdoctoral stage of their  career at $25,000 to $60,000, and shared that she works "about 50-60 [hours] generally, but during crunch times, like before a meeting or a cruise, it can be as many as 80 or more hours a week. At sea we work 7 days a week for 12–16 hours per day."

What's it like to study to be a marine biologist? The Elective spoke with a group of them to find out: Etnoyer (who worked as a production assistant and in the art and camera departments on early-1990s Hollywood films like Point Break and Deep Cover before becoming a marine biologist); Baco-Taylor, now Professor of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Florida State University; Michelle Passerotti, a fish biologist in the Apex Predators Program, and Catherine Foley, a fishery biologist, both from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which functions to "study fishery species and fisheries, monitor and model ocean ecosystems, and provide reliable advice for policymakers."

These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

two by two grid of marine biologists headshots

(clockwise from top left) Courtesy of Peter Etnoyer, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (Etnoyer), Florida State University (Baco-Taylor), Seal Watch (Foley), @shellspc/Twitter (Passerotti)

(clockwise from top left) Dr. Peter Etnoyer, Dr. Amy Baco-Taylor, Dr. Catherine Foley, and Dr. Michelle Passerotti

Where did you go to high school? What habits or hobbies did you develop during your high school years that now contribute to your marine biology work?

Peter Etnoyer: I went to high school at Manheim Township in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My habits were reading (mostly sci-fi and fantasy), swim practice, and studying for school and the SATs. My hobbies were aquaria, role-playing games, scuba diving, and skiing in the northeast and eventually out west as I got older.

Amy Baco-Taylor: I went to Villa Maria Academy in Buffalo, New York, an all-girls Catholic school. Being in a female-only environment meant I was taught by and surrounded by amazing women. There were a lot of "women can't" stereotypes I'm happy to say. The smartest people were women, the best people at math and science were women, the strongest leaders were women, almost all of the teachers were women. These experiences helped me become a stronger leader.

Michelle Passerotti: I grew up in Perry, Florida, in rural north Florida, and attended Taylor County High School, the only public high school in the county. I was active in my school, participating in two sports per year plus marching and concert bands, as well as taking honors and dual enrollment classes. I also spent many weekends on the Gulf of Mexico fishing and snorkeling with my family, during which I learned to trailer and operate our boat. Learning to prioritize tasks to navigate a busy schedule, along with the experience I gained being on the water, both helped set me up for success in my career.

Catherine Foley: I went to Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, New Hampshire. Growing up, my family led a very active lifestyle, so I’d always known that I enjoy being outdoors in nature. Then, in my junior year of high school, I attended a marine biology summer program and was hooked. The ocean is so vast and beautiful but so unknown. To someone with a curious mind, it’s addictive.

Where did you attend college/university, and what sorts of skills did you develop during your time there that you now utilize as a marine biologist?

Etnoyer: I attended Duke University, and quickly gave up the idea of medicine or marine biology, which was already long gone. I was burned out on science but was inspired by the arts. I dropped science as a major by sophomore year and joined the English department, one of the finest in the country at the time. The skills I developed in college were primarily as a writer, journalist, editor, and videographer.

Baco-Taylor: I went to the Florida Institute of Technology as undergraduate. I'd say the best skills I learned there were field skills—most of my classes involved field trips. I also participated in undergraduate research that led to field work opportunities. Having so much hands-on experience and familiarity with marine organisms gave me an advantage when I started graduate school. Participating in research as an undergraduate also made me more competitive for graduate school.

Passerotti: I attended Florida State University, where I majored in Biology and participated in the certificate program in marine resource ecology. Through that program, I completed an internship with the NOAA Fisheries Lab in Panama City, Florida, where I tagged sharks and completed a shark diet study during a summer semester. This internship really set the stage for the rest of my career, giving me clear direction for my career path (fisheries management) and many hands-on skills, like fish identification and handling, data collection and synthesis, and experience in scientific writing. The internship complemented the academic skills I gained during the rest of my coursework and really prepared me to handle entry-level science work and graduate school.

Foley: I completed my undergraduate degree at Wellesley. A few years after graduating, I decided to go back for a master’s degree at the University of Rhode Island, then a doctorate at Stony Brook University. I think the most important skill I developed in undergrad was identifying how I learn best. Having a good understanding of the best way to learn new things will serve you for the rest of your life and open up endless opportunities because you can always learn something new. Now, as a marine biologist, my entire job is focused on learning something new about the world’s oceans.

smiling woman in cold weather gear smiling as she holds a small scientific instrument while standing above a herd of penguins


Dr. Catherine Foley posted this image on Twitter, saying "I'm an ecologist, using emerging tech—like drones and satellites–to study marine conservation in #Antarctica and the tropics. #ThisIsWhatAScientistLooksLike"

Looking back, was there something unique about your particular college/university’s campus environment, geography, or regional culture that impacted the development of your marine biology skills?

Etnoyer: No. College was a major distraction from any of those skills, except for an ecology course senior year and a film editing course junior year. I still draw on that experience. It was a decade later, after I had graduated college, moved to Hollywood, had a career in film, and “plateaued” in that business that I went back to grad school for marine sciences, again at Duke, got a job and then a PhD.

Baco-Taylor: I think the amount of field experience and hands-on experience I got in undergraduate was unique compared to a lot of marine biology programs at the time. My college also has a great location very close to where the tropical marine environment meets the temperate marine environment, which allowed me to learn about both tropical and temperate coastal marine ecosystems firsthand.

Passerotti: Florida State’s proximity to the ocean definitely contributed to the great academic program they have built for marine science. My favorite class was experimental ecology, which included weekly field trips to St. Joe Bay to conduct in-water experimental studies for the semester. I also loved that, despite Florida State being a large university, most of my major classes were small and the professors were really approachable. There was a great community culture in the biology, chemistry and physics departments, and it facilitated learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Foley: Wellesley provides an incredibly unique college experience. Most notably, it is a women’s college. That isn’t something I was looking for when applying to schools—in fact, when I found that out, I was less than excited to submit an application. But visiting the campus was striking. Wellesley was a community of strong, independent, brilliant women, passionate about changing the world. Classrooms were not dominated by male voices, access to resources and opportunities were abundant, and they were designed for increasing the volume underrepresented voices. I entered Wellesley as a shy and quiet first-year student and left as an outspoken, confident adult.

How long after college graduation did you begin your marine biology career? Did you develop any habits or skills in that interim period that you utilize today?

Etnoyer: It was 12 years after college graduation that I started my career in marine science, as a graduate student in a master’s program. My “intervening career” gave me technical skills and people management skills that were absent in other grad students. The lesson is that folks can and will have more than one career. Know where it is that you excel, and use that to get where you want to be.

Baco-Taylor: I went straight to graduate school at the University of Hawaii to work on a PhD in oceanography after I finished my marine biology degree. I am now a college professor, and having a PhD is required for this position. I also continued to get a lot of field experience in graduate school and began leading my own research and sea-going field programs in graduate school. These skills were critical to develop, to be able to run my own research lab.

Passerotti: I was fortunate to be hired back at the NOAA Fisheries Panama City Lab right after graduation, where I worked as a technician for a year before going to Louisiana State University for my master’s program. But I didn’t get my PhD until almost 20 years later after having children and moving a lot as a military spouse. So there have been lots of “interim periods” along my path! Those have been some of the most valuable experiences, forcing me to become more well-rounded and find common threads in positions I didn’t necessarily envision for myself. During those periods, I developed skills in program administration, data analytics, and supervising employees, which definitely helped set me up for success in my current role.

Foley: Throughout college I had several internships in marine biology, but after I graduated the career path to become a marine biologist wasn’t clear. There are often few paying entry-level positions in marine science, so getting your foot in the door can be challenging. I decided to use my degree in a different way and began working in the pharmaceutical industry. After a few years, I realized that, for me, working in corporate America wasn’t fulfilling and I ultimately wanted a job where I could feel like every day I was making a positive impact. I quit my job and went back to school for graduate degrees in marine ecology. While I didn’t enjoy my time working in industry, I value that experience because it really highlighted what I wanted in a career and allowed me to focus on a career path that would be better suited to me.