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Careers in Marine Biology

What Marine Biologists Do

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Before considering marine biology as a possible career, it is necessary for you to have a good understanding about what marine biologists do for a living. It is necessary, for example, to correct some frequent misconceptions that can arise from what is seen on TV and in the popular press, what many of us have come to call the “Cousteau Syndrome;” namely, that most marine biologists work with marine mammals, sharks, or spend most of their professional hours swimming around coral reefs.

A significant proportion of marine biologists work at governmental marine laboratories, either state or federal. At these laboratories, scientists are usually doing research on commercially important species of finfish and shellfish (growth, reproduction, distribution, stock assessment, diseases, etc.), as well as on important marine communities, such as salt marshes, natural and artificial reefs, mangrove swamps, and commercial fishing grounds.

In addition to governmental employment as researchers or managers, many marine biologists also work in academia, industry (a few, especially in the petroleum, chemical, and pharmaceutical areas), aquaculture (rearing fish, shrimp, clams, etc.), environmental consulting firms (which do such things as preparing environmental impact statements for industrial or governmental clients), and miscellaneous other areas.

Quite clearly, the field is very broad -- and it is becoming broader. For example, toxicology, cell biology, genetics, and various aspects of the physiology of marine organisms are rapidly expanding areas in the discipline.

Marine Biology as a Career

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The job market in marine biology is very competitive. Because the majority of marine biological researchers are employed by a governmental agency or are supported by governmental grants, the number of jobs in the field is correlated with the amount of money that federal, state, and local governments choose to put into marine research.

Historically, most marine biological research has been field-oriented and ecological in nature and has focused on the marine environment and how that environment affects growth, distribution, reproduction, and health of marine species. Over the past few decades we have seen changes in the amount of emphasis the government chooses to place on this type of research.

During the 1960s and early 1970s field-oriented ecological research was judged to be important, the government supported it, and the job market in the field was strong. During the 1980s greater emphasis was placed on supporting research that could demonstrate an immediate and tangible economic or medical benefit. Funding for marine biology declined during those years and this was reflected in the job market.

More recently there has been an increased awareness among citizens, as well as among governmental and corporate decision-makers, that environmental studies will result in recognizable benefits to the public and that they deserve to be supported.

Examples of problems that prompted this awareness are unfortunately familiar: serious reductions in stocks of harvested species, major oil spills, human-originated debris washing up on beaches, and major environmental problems arising in heavily impacted estuaries like Chesapeake Bay. Conflicting needs and limited resources quite clearly necessitate a more educated management of the environment. At present, the job market is still tight, but the prospects for well-trained professionals in Marine Biology are on the rise.

Marine Biology at the College of Charleston

To be professionally successful in marine biology, it is advisable to attend graduate school after you complete your undergraduate education. Perhaps unexpectedly, a majority of marine biologists had no training in marine biology as undergraduates; they did not obtain their Bachelor’s degrees in Marine Biology, Marine Science, or Oceanography. Typically, a marine biologist received a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. A concentration in marine biology usually began in graduate school.

You want to ensure that your undergraduate education is broad enough to allow you flexibility in deciding the professional direction that you may choose to take, such a direction being determined by your interests (sometimes changing), opportunities, changes in the science of marine biology itself, and even, perhaps, the job market.

At the College of Charleston we ensure that you gain the necessary breadth of knowledge in basic biology while also taking courses in the marine area. The Biology Department grants three B.S. degrees: Biology, Marine Biology, and Molecular Biology (we also offer a B.A. in Biology). Marine Biology majors are required to take the following biological courses: Oceanography, Biology of Fishes, Invertebrate Zoology, and General Ecology. Additionally, a Marine Biology major will take such courses as Botany, Physiology, Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Genetics, or Evolution.

A Marine Biology graduate, therefore, is a competent biologist with the academic breadth which that term implies as well as a student who has taken specific courses in marine biology. Graduates have found our approach to be beneficial because marine biology is multifaceted, drawing from and depending upon expertise at all levels of biological organization.

The Department of Biology has over thirty faculty members, of whom approximately ten do some research on marine organisms. All but one have doctoral degrees and have collective expertise in virtually all areas of modern biology. In addition to teaching and advising students, the faculty is involved in research, including such areas as plant and animal molecular biology, moth biology, insect-plant interactions, fossil documentation of vertebrate warm-bloodedness, fish and invertebrate ecology, salamander competition and predation, molluscan genetics, satellite imaging of coastal areas, coral reef ecology, animal physiology, animal developmental biology, red algae taxonomy, oceanic nutrient level-phytoplankton interactions, effects of habitat fragmentation on plant ecology and evolution, marine sediment-animal-bacterial interactions, and evolutionary relationships and biogeography of fishes and invertebrates.

The diversity of these research interests translates into a diversity of information available to College of Charleston students, from molecular biology to the functioning of such ecosystems as salt marshes and coral reefs.

Each Marine Biology major completes a minimum of 34 semester hours in biology in addition to courses in chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics, and the liberal arts. The first biology course (required of all majors) is a two-semester foundations course which serves to introduce students to the underlying principles of biology. Following the introductory course, individual programs of study are planned by students and their advisors. Some students also have the opportunity to do a research project for academic credit before graduating.

In addition to taking courses at the College’s main campus in the historical section of downtown Charleston, students take a few courses at the College’s Grice Marine Laboratory, located approximately 15 minutes from the main campus at a complex of state and federal marine labs at Fort Johnson, an old pre-Revolutionary War site near the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Also present at Fort Johnson is the Marine Resources Library, a cooperative library of the College of Charleston and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources that is used by both students and marine scientists.