How do I Earn a Marine Biology PhD?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

A marine biology PhD is the terminal or final degree for those interested in studying or teaching the biological aspects of marine life. Getting into a doctoral program can be competitive, and universities seek students who have pursued certain studies and experience at the undergraduate and possibly master’s level. After successful admission to a program, a minimum of four years is required to earn the degree, and it may take up to six or seven years of work for some students to be awarded a marine biology PhD.

In most cases, the minimum requirements to gain admission to any marine biology PhD program are a bachelor’s degree, strong performance on standardized tests like the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a grade point average of 3.0 or much higher, letters of recommendation from professors or related employers, and a well-written personal statement. These are classed as minimum requirements because admission standards are typically more specific and stringent. Students will need to look to each school’s individual admission standards, and they’re likely to find some variance.

For example, there may be differences in degree type or majors allowed. Some schools lean more heavily on admitting students who have already completed a master’s degree in marine biology. Other colleges accept students with an undergraduate degree. The degree may not need to be in marine biology but can be in general biology or other related subjects. Most colleges expect students to have at least taken some marine biology classes.

It’s highly recommended that students improve their applications by participating in marine biology work or internships during the summer months. Fieldwork provides better references. It also helps students speak clearly in a personal statement to the types of research interests they’d pursue in a doctoral program.

The actual work of completing the marine biology PhD is extensive. Students take two to three years of classes and many schools give a comprehensive examination at the end of year one or two, at which point a student is advanced to candidacy. Completion of the exam may also be a way of earning a master’s degree if a student doesn’t already have one. At the end of courses and exams, doctoral candidates begin work on a dissertation. Most dissertations in the sciences involve significant research, and in marine biology, some students will need to travel to complete their research.

Faculty must approve a dissertation topic. A committee reviews the completed dissertation and the student must defend it in a public forum. Should the committee be satisfied with the project, they award the marine biology PhD. Students don’t gain a doctorate without this step, and many of them must meet other departmental requirements. They may need to teach or perform research assistantships, in addition to completing all classes and writing an approved dissertation, and this work can stretch out for many years.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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