Oceanographers obtain information about the ocean through observations, surveys, and experiments. They study the biological, physical, and chemical composition of the ocean and the geological structure of the seabed. They also analyze phenomena involving the water itself, the atmosphere above it, the land beneath it, and the coastal borders. They study acoustical properties of water so that a comprehensive and unified picture of the ocean’s behavior may be developed. A limnologist is a specialist who studies freshwater life.
Oceanographer Career History
The oceans hold approximately 97 percent of the water on Earth and cover more than two-thirds of its surface. Oceans hold food, chemicals, and minerals, yet oceanography is a fairly new science. In fact, according to the Oceanography Society, it was only during the 20th century that we got the first global glimpse of how the oceans work. With such inventions as deep-sea diving gear, scuba, and the bathysphere (a steel diving sphere for deep-sea observation), scientists are undertaking more detailed studies of underwater life. Oceanography includes studying air and sea interaction in weather forecasting, solving sea mining problems, predicting and preventing pollution, studying sea life, and improving methods of deriving foods from the ocean.
It is difficult to project what oceanographers of the future may be doing. They may be living and working on the ocean floor. The U.S. Navy Medical Research Laboratory has conducted experiments with people living under 200 feet of water.
Oceanographer Job Description
Oceanographers collect and study data about the motions of ocean water (waves, currents, and tides), marine life (sea plants and animals), ore and petroleum deposits (minerals and oils contained in the nodules and oozes of the ocean floor), and the contour of the ocean floor (ocean mountains, valleys, and depths). Many of their findings are compiled for maps, charts, graphs, and special reports and manuals.
Oceanographers may spend some of their time on the water each year gathering data and making observations. People who infrequently go to sea do additional oceanographic work on dry land. Experiments using models or captive organisms may be conducted in the seaside laboratory.
Oceanographers use equipment designed and manufactured in special shops. This equipment includes devices to measure depths by sound impulses, special thermometers to measure water temperatures, special cameras for underwater photography, and diving gear and machines like the bathyscaphe (a submersible ship for deep-sea exploration). In addition to such commonly used equipment, many new devices have been developed for specific types of underwater work. The oceanographer of the future may be using such tools as a hydraulic miner (a dredge to extract nodules from the ocean floor), an electronic beater (a machine used to drive fish), dye curtains, fish pumps, and instrument buoys. New technologies being developed today include satellite sensors and acoustic current-measuring devices.
The oceanographer is usually part of a highly skilled team, with each member specializing in one of the four main branches of the profession. In actual work, however, there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the four branches. Biological oceanographers or marine biologists study all aspects of the ocean’s plant and animal life. They are interested in how the life develops, interacts, and adapts to its environment. Physical oceanographers study such physical aspects of the ocean as temperature and density, waves and currents, and the relationship between the ocean and the atmosphere. Chemical oceanographers and marine geochemists investigate the chemical composition of the water and ocean floor. They may study seawater components, pollutants, and trace chemicals, which are small amounts of dissolved substances that give an area of water a specific quality. Geological oceanographers study the topographic features and physical composition of the ocean bottom. Their work greatly contributes to our knowledge and understanding of Earth’s history.
Oceanography jobs can be found all over the United States, and not just where the water meets the shore. Although the majority of jobs are on the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts, many other jobs are available to the marine scientist. Universities, colleges, and federal and state agencies are the largest employers of oceanographers. Mary Batteen is the chairperson of the oceanography department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, a professor in the department, and a working oceanographer. She has many job responsibilities. “As the chairperson,” she says, ” I interact regularly with a variety of people: my office staff, faculty, technical staff (usually oceanographers with M.S. degrees), other chairs, the dean, the provost, and many students. I am responsible for making sure that the oceanography department runs smoothly. As a faculty member, I regularly interact with students when I teach, advise theses, or carry out joint research with them. My major research interest is understanding the coastal circulation off west coasts like California, Portugal, Morocco, Chile, and Western Australia. Typical research questions I pursue are: Why, at the same latitude, is the water warm off Western Australia and cool off the other west coasts? Why do some coastal currents flow opposite to the prevailing winds? What roles do wind forcing, capes (bays), and bottom topography play in causing eddies to develop off west coasts? To address these questions, I use a combination of numerical models and available ocean observations.”
Other employers of oceanographers include international organizations, private companies, consulting firms, nonprofit laboratories, and local governments. Sometimes oceanographers are self-employed as consultants with their own businesses.
Oceanographer Career Requirements
Because a college degree is required for beginning positions in oceanography, you should take four years of college preparatory courses while in high school. Science courses, including geology, biology, and chemistry, and math classes, such as algebra, trigonometry, and statistics, are especially important to take. Because your work will involve a great deal of research and documentation, take English classes to improve your research and communication skills. In addition, take computer science classes because you will be using computers throughout your professional life.
In college, a broad program covering the basic sciences with a major in physics, chemistry, biology, or geology is desirable. In addition, you should include courses in field research or laboratory work in oceanography where available. Graduate work in oceanography is required for most positions in research and teaching. More than 100 institutions offer programs in marine studies, and more than 35 universities have graduate programs leading to a doctoral degree in oceanography.
As a college student preparing for graduate work in oceanography, you should take mathematics through differential and integral calculus and at least one year each of chemistry and physics, biology or geology, and a modern foreign language.
Many oceanography students participate in internships or work as teaching assistants while in college to gain hands on experience in the field. Mary Batteen was a graduate teaching assistant while pursuing her M.S. degree in oceanography. “Besides learning to teach,” she says, ” I learned on-the-job skills while out on oceanography cruises. While pursuing my Ph.D., I was a graduate research assistant. I learned many computer skills while analyzing oceanographic data and running numerical models.”
Personal traits helpful to a career in oceanography are a strong interest in science, particularly the physical and earth sciences; an interest in situations involving activities of an abstract and creative nature (observing nature, performing experiments, creating objects); an interest in outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, or animal care; an interest in scholarly activities (reading, researching, writing); and other interests that cut across the traditional academic boundaries of biology, chemistry, and physics.
You should have above-average aptitudes in verbal, numerical, and spatial abilities. Prospective oceanographers should also be able to discriminate detail among objects in terms of their shape, size, color, or markings.
Exploring Oceanographer Career
Obviously, if you live near coastal regions, you will have an easier time becoming familiar with oceans and ocean life than if you are land-bound. However, some institutions offer work or leisure-time experiences that provide participants with opportunities to explore particular aspects of oceanography. Possible opportunities include work in marine or conservation fisheries or on board seagoing vessels or field experiences in studying rocks, minerals, or aquatic life. If you live or travel near one of the oceanography research centers, such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, or the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, you should plan to spend some time learning about their activities and studying their exhibits.
Volunteer work for students is often available with research teams, nonprofit organizations, and public centers such as aquariums. If you do not live near water, try to find summer internships, camps, or programs that involve travel to a coastal area. You can help pave your way into the field by learning all you can about the geology, atmosphere, and plant and animal life of the area where you live, regardless of whether water is present.
Nearly 50 percent of those working in oceanography and marine-related fields work for federal or state governments. Federal employers of oceanographers, ocean engineers, marine technicians, and those interested in marine policy include the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Biological Survey, among others. State governments often employ oceanographers in environmental agencies or state-funded research projects.
Forty percent of oceanographers are employed by colleges or universities, where they teach, conduct research, write, and consult. The remaining 10 percent of oceanographers work for private industries such as oil companies and nonprofit organizations, including environmental societies. An increasing number of oceanographers are being employed each year by industrial firms, particularly those involved in oceanographic instrument and equipment manufacturing, shipbuilding, and chemistry.
Most college placement offices are staffed to help you find positions in business and industry after you graduate. Often positions can be found through friends, relatives, or college professors or through the college’s career service’s office by application and interview. College and university assistantships, instructorships, and professorships are usually obtained by recommendation of your major professor or department chairperson. In addition, internships with the government or private industry during college can often lead to permanent employment after graduation. The American Institute of Biological Sciences maintains an employment service and lists both employers and job seekers.
Starting oceanography positions usually involve working as a laboratory or research assistant, with on-the-job training in applying oceanographic principles to the problems at hand. Some beginning oceanographers with Ph.D.s may qualify for college teaching or research positions. Experienced personnel, particularly those with advanced graduate work or doctorates, can become supervisors or administrators. Such positions involve considerable responsibility in planning and policymaking or policy interpretation. Those who achieve top-level oceanographer positions may plan and supervise research projects involving a number of workers, or they may be in charge of an oceanographic laboratory or aquarium.
While marine scientists are richly rewarded in nonmaterial ways for their diverse and exciting work with the sea, they almost never become wealthy by American standards. Salaries depend on education, experience, and chosen discipline. Supply and demand issues along with where you work also come into play. Some examples of jobs in the marine sciences that presently pay more than the average include physical oceanography, marine technology and engineering, and computer modeling.
According to a 2003 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in geology and geological sciences were offered an average starting salary of $32,828. Graduates with a master’s degree started at an average of $47,981 and those with a doctoral degree started at $61,050.
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, in 2005, salaries for geoscientists (which includes geologists, geophysicists, and oceanographers) ranged from less than $39,420 to more than $132,290, with a median of $71,640. The average salary for experienced oceanographers working for the federal government was $87,007 in 2004.
In addition to their regular salaries, oceanographers may supplement their incomes with fees earned from consulting, lecturing, and publishing their findings. As highly trained scientists, oceanographers usually enjoy good benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans offered by their employers.
Oceanographers in shore stations, laboratories, and research centers work five-day, 40-hour weeks. Occasionally, they serve a longer shift, particularly when a research experiment demands around-the-clock surveillance. Such assignments may also involve unusual working hours, depending on the nature of the research or the purpose of the trip. Trips at sea mean time away from home for periods extending from a few days to several months. Sea expeditions may be physically demanding and present an entirely different way of life: living on board a ship. Weather conditions may impose some hazards during these assignments. Choosing to engage in underwater research may mean a more adventuresome and hazardous way of life than in other occupations. It is wise to discover early whether or not life at sea appeals to you so that you may pursue appropriate jobs within the oceanography field.
Many jobs in oceanography, however, exist in laboratories, offices, and aquariums, with little time spent underwater or at sea. Many oceanographers are needed to analyze samples brought to land from sea; to plan, develop, and organize seafaring trips from land; and to teach. Oceanographers who work in colleges or universities get the added benefit of the academic calendar, which provides time off for travel or research.
Oceanographer Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor expects employment for oceanographers to experience little change or grow more slowly than the average through 2014. Although the field of marine science is growing, researchers specializing in the popular field of biological oceanography, or marine biology, will face competition for available positions and research funding over the next few years. However, funding for graduate students and professional positions is expected to increase during the coming decade in the areas of global climate change, environmental research and management, fisheries science, and marine biomedical and pharmaceutical research programs. Although job availability is difficult to predict for several years out, anyone doing good, strong academic work with a well-known professor in the field has good employment chances.
In the late 1990s, the largest demand in oceanography and marine-related fields was for physical and chemical oceanographers and ocean engineers, according to The Oceanographic Society. Demand and supply, however, are difficult to predict and can change according to the world market situation; for example, the state of the offshore oil market can affect demand for geological and geophysical oceanographers.
The growth of technology will continue to create and expand job opportunities for those interested in the marine sciences. As ways of collecting and analyzing data become more advanced, many more research positions are opening up for microbiologists, geneticists, and biochemists, fields that were limited by the capabilities of past technology but are now rapidly expanding. All these fields can have ties to the marine biological sciences. In general, oceanographers that also have training in other sciences or in engineering will probably have better opportunities for employment than those with training limited to oceanography.
The Oceanography Society says the growing interest in understanding and protecting the environment will also create new jobs. Careers related to fisheries resources, including basic research in biology and chemistry, as well as mariculture and sea ranching, will also increase. Because the oceans hold vast resources of commercially valuable minerals, employment opportunities will come from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and others interested in mining these substances for potential “miracle drugs” and other commercial uses. Continued deep-sea exploration made possible by underwater robotics and autonomous seacraft may also create more market opportunities for underwater research, with perhaps more international than U.S.-based employment potential.
For More Information:
- American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO)
- Department of Oceanography
- Marine Technology Society (MTS)
- The Oceanography Society
- IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society