Marine Conservationist swimming

How to Start your Career in Marine Biology

Breaking into the field of Marine Biology as a recent grad can be daunting and you’ll likely encounter many rejections. “Sorry you don’t have enough experience” is an over-used phrase that will hold you back on getting your lucky first job. But how do you break the cycle of need experience to get a job, but need a job to get experience? Guess what ladies and gents? VOLUNTEERING is the middle man in this equation!  

Yes I totally understand that you did just study 3 or 4 years and have an exxy debt hanging over your head. You’re now jumping out of your pants because you’re so eager to get into the work force, change the world and make some dough (Aussie slang for money). Well hold your horses! Unless you want to work in a general science role away from marine biology, then you’ve got to do some building up, name-dropping, free labour kind-of groundwork.  

But who said volunteering isn’t fun? (said the crazy lady at church). Take it from me, it’s a really great opportunity to help your community, make connections with like-minded people and to earn some hands-on skills you don’t get from text books.  

Volunteering on marine biology projects have been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. 

I’ve formed incredible connections with fellow marine biologist from across the globe who’s friendships I still hold close to my heart to this day. As well as the unfiltered exposure to marine conservation and global issues in parts of the world otherwise unreachable to the average traveler. Living, breathing and doing it everyday leads to a unique understanding of a species or ecosystem and a deep comprehension of a community. Unlike just traveling when you solely scratch at the surface of a destination, as a volunteer you really experience a country.  

A quick list of the benefits of volunteering in marine biology: 

  • Improves your professional skills that you learnt in Uni and develops new ones, 
  • Develops cross-cultural communication skills and empathy for others, 
  • Introduces us to a more globalised approach to conservation initiates, 
  • Develops your problem solving skills because you’ll be put in situations that you’ve never been exposed to before, 
  • While being outside your comfort zone, you’ll be provided with inspiration and ideas from others who think outside the box, 
  • It can shift our perspective on our own lives and help us to see the broader picture economically, socially and environmentally, 
  • It satisfies the part inside our soul that wants to give back and help each other,  
  • And of course the ol’ enhance the CV. It shows employers you are flexible and adaptable, which are both qualities easily learnt with volunteering abroad!

This is my step-by-step guide on how to work in marine biology 

1. The ground work starts from day 1 of your undergraduate degree. Start networking, start saying yes to attending events, help with managing small projects, use your initiative!   

2. Start local. Get involved with your local Coastcare Landcare or Friends of the Environment group. If there isn’t one, then create one! You may be surprised with the incredible support offered to students who actually want to help their community. My friends and I started up Friends of the Merri Marine Sanctuary (FoMMS) back in 2011 and we had our hands held by a support team of NGO’s, Parks Vic and local council.  

3. Sign up for relevant short-courses. Most jobs will require you to have your Emergency First Response (First Aid) certification. Other ideas are boat licence, snorkel guiding course, bronze medallion and Certificate III in Tourism.

Jobs with the council and Parks & Wildlife services will often require you to hold a chainsaw licence, an Agriculture Chemical User Permit (ACUP) and your manual drivers licence! These are just ideas, it does depends on which industry you are interested in.  

4. Get a relevant summer job. Hook a seasonal job during your Uni break and it’ll give you a great foot in the door for future job prospects. Ideas for seasonal jobs include working in eco-tourism as a nature guide, Summer Rangers with Parks & Wildlife, or overseas volunteer internships.  

5. Sign yourself up to mailing lists, job posting sites and discussion groups. 

6. Once you graduate, try your chances with the limited graduate position. Try SEEK in Australia. These 6 – 12 month contracts will really set you up. It will arm you with skills and experience, and really give you a head start on your career direction.  

7. Go on a “yes” adventure. If you are looking for something a little more adventurousand are willing to move away; it may increase your chances of scoring a job. My approach is I apply for lots of positions & internships that are of interest to me, whichever I am successful with, I move to that country. Yes that does sound crazy, but taking risks in this industry is highly valuable. These “yes” adventures have been some of the most incredible learning experiences I have ever had. Each opportunity has lead me onto the next. I’ve found taking this approach has opened many doors that felt initially closed to me.  

8. Prepare a lucky-chance email. Search for organisations you are interested in working with; maybe ones you’ve seen on Instagram or Facebook. Or maybe you have a destination in mind, a species of interest or an issue that rings close to your heart. Prepare a lucky-chance email with your CV & cover letter (always tailor it specifically for each application) and send it out to organisations of interest. They may ignore your application totally, or on the other hand perhaps they are in desperate need for someone to start immediately. You really never know until you try! 

free ebook

9. Look for internships. Some of these offer a small stipend for your work or travel costs, but sometimes not. They are pretty much just volunteer work for a longer duration. Internships are a great way to get practical experience, make contacts & learn new skills. I did a marine biologist internship in the Maldives at a luxury resort and was offered a “job-job” at the end! 6 months of a small income opened many opportunities.  

10. Willingly accept seasonal work. Most employees with experience don’t want a 3 month contract that will put their lives in limbo once again. However these contracts are perfect when you’re starting out. You can temporarily move anywhere with the drop of a hat, leaving open some pretty cool opportunities. But do this before life gets hold of you and you have commitments and a permanent living situation!  

11. Keep applying for jobs. Just like everything else, the more you practice, the better you’ll get. Interviews suck, but you’re 10th interview will be much better than your first! 

12. Stay in touch with your university. Employers will often contact them looking for reliable students. Sometimes they’ll even have openings too. 

13. Repeat steps 1-12 until successful. 

14. Go back and study Honours, Masters or PhD. Having extra years of study helps you to decide areas of interest and of course puts you a foot in front of those with just an undergraduate degree.  

Marine Biology is a highly competitive field with endless learning opportunities. It’s also a career that will take you into the unknown. There is still so little known about our oceans and so much more to explore. Our oceans need us marine biologists passionate about conservation more than ever! 

It’s vital we work together to keep the ocean love rolling around the world.  

Even with climate change creeping up on us, our plastic obsession continuing to grow and leading towards our next mass extinction; there is still so much more worth fighting for!  

Don’t get disheartened by the knock-backs, put your conservation hat back on and gear up for the next round! The journey towards your dream job may actually be the dream all along…

Further Reading: Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists

Careers Advice, Volunteer & Internships, Top Tips, Marine Conservation Jobs