What is an oceanographer?

An oceanographer can be a biologist, chemist, physicist, geologist, engineer, mathematician, computer scientist, meteorologist, or you! As a relatively new frontier, oceanography is a wonderfully challenging and exciting field of study providing many career opportunities. It’s an important field of study because oceans encompass 70% of the earth’s surface, and they also have an important role in understanding global weather patterns.

Chemical, geological, and physical oceanographers investigate the physical aspects of the ocean, such as salinity, currents, and the ocean floor. Biological oceanographers study marine plants and animals and their processes within the context of their ocean environments. Ocean engineers provide the technology and instrumentation that allows oceanographers to explore questions and solve problems in a variety of ways.

Oceanographers are global scientists who study a wide variety of topics. There is never a shortage of questions to answer or things to discover! For instance, as a chemical oceanographer you might study how sea water and sediments form, how pollutants and waste disposal impact the ocean, or how the ocean affects climate. As a physical oceanographer you study the ocean from a “big picture” perspective, often using satellites (remote sensing) to understand how and where water moves, and how the ocean interacts with the land and atmosphere to influence weather patterns. As a marine geologist or geophysicist, you may study the formation of beaches, map the earth’s interior, or drill into the ocean’s floor to discover the ocean’s history of sea-level rise and earthquakes. Understanding these questions helps to develop sound management policies for harvesting seafood, responding to pollution, and recovering resources for biotechnology.

The newest area of biological oceanography is marine molecular biology. Marine biology is the best known area of biological oceanography, and because of its popularity, it is currently the most competitive field of oceanography to find a job in. Oceanographic research branches into other disciplines as well. These fields include, but are not limited to, marine resource management, computer modeling of marine ecosystems, aquaculture, limnology (the study of inland water systems), and mining for natural resources including nickel, copper, manganese, petroleum, and natural gas.

Because the oceans are linked to our survival on planet Earth (comfortable climate and oxygen to breathe), oceanographers work side by side with policy makers, social scientists, educators, and businesses to develop effective ways of managing and maintaining our ocean resources. Our dependence on the global ocean will increase as we look to the ocean to sustain our expanding population’s needs such as food and water. Through continued research and new technology, we are learning how the oceans affect life and the future of our planet.

What makes a good oceanographer?

Just as the ocean environment is incredibly diverse, so too are the many people who study the global ocean. Oceanographers share an excitement, curiosity, and sense of adventure in exploring planet Earth’s largest environment. An oceanographer needs patience to collect data and conduct experiments. It is really beneficial to develop good communication skills and to work effectively as a team member. Most major questions about the global ocean are answered through the collaboration of many people with various specialties. In preparing to be an oceanographer, you should be flexible and explore all your options in this ever-growing field. Oceanographers are generally very creative and innovative people who embrace challenging problems and address complex issues impacting our society today and in the future.

What is life as an oceanographer like?

Your life as an oceanographer is really variable, and you could work in a lot of different settings. For example, you may be in a small boat along the coastline for a day, in a laboratory setting over several days, or on a research vessel near Antarctica for several months. You may be on the water, in the water, under the water, or studying the areas along the shoreline. In the laboratory oceanographers process data, perform library research, prepare graphs and tables, and write about their results. Oceanographers also present their research at scientific meetings and in scientific journals.

Entry level oceanographers with a B.S. degree work as research or laboratory assistants, performing routine data collection, computation, and analysis. Most beginning oceanographers receive on-the-job training as needed. Experienced oceanographers direct surveys and research programs or advance to administrative or supervisory positions in research labs.

Life as an oceanographer is not very routine and is definitely not a nine-to-five job. In fact, you may spend long hours on a project or be on a research cruise for months at a time. You must be flexible. Be encouraged to know that all the hard work and long hours are extremely rewarding! Being an oceanographer is a great career. It is truly exhilarating to discover things first-hand and explore questions whose answers will benefit our planet as a whole. As an oceanographer you may be an educator who has the privilege of passing along to others the experiences of your career and research.

How do I become an oceanographer?

The minimum requirement for an oceanographer is a B.S. degree in oceanography, biology, earth or physical sciences, mathematics, or engineering. Most jobs require graduate training in oceanography.

Prepare early! Take as many math, science, and computer classes in school as you can. Currently, the more math classes you take the better your job opportunities will be because you will be best prepared for a variety of jobs. Even if you do not understand why you’re taking some classes or how they relate to your interests, take them anyway and do well.

Generally, more math means a higher salary. Your goal in high school should be to have at least four math credits (including trigonometry, algebra, and calculus) and four science credits (including geology, chemistry, biology, and physics). Your college courses should include biology, meteorology, geophysics, and some specialized science classes that apply to the study of oceans. Graduate courses should include advanced oceanography as well as areas of special interest for you. While all these classes might sound intimidating, they are taken in a sequence that allows you to build on what you have already learned.

Be a volunteer and “shadow” in as many places as you can (industries, governmental agencies, aquariums, museums, colleges, libraries). Look for opportunities to gain hands-on experience. There are a lot of summer programs available in the sciences. To identify programs contact the National Marine Educators Association 408-648-4837. Be prepared for a challenge, and keep your goal in sight even when the way seems difficult. Persevere in following your dream. Be committed to hard work and dedication. Don’t give up; you will succeed, and you will be greatly rewarded!

What/where are the jobs?

Oceanographers are employed by industry, the federal government, and in academia. As with any field, the career opportunities available will depend on market demand and competition.

Currently, the greatest demand in oceanography is for chemical and physical oceanographers and ocean engineers. The future looks bright in the fields of remote sensing, mathematical modeling, computer programming, aquaculture, biotechnology, engineering, and public policy. Salaries depend largely on your training and area of specialization. Be realistic! Stay current on the job market through your college and advertisements in science periodicals, join professional organizations, and access electronic bulletins. If you are committed to exploring a career in oceanography, you should pursue it aggressively and know that the ocean sciences are available to all!