How to Become an Oceanographer
- "Oceanographer" is typically used as an umbrella term for all ocean researchers.
- Getting a job as an oceanographer is challenging and usually requires advanced study.
- Oceanographers need to be comfortable working for long periods on the ocean.
Oceans cover 71% of the Earth's surface and hold 97% of the water on our planet, according to the Oceanic Institute. These bodies of water are incredibly vast. However, since we're all land-dwellers, we don't know as much about them as we do terrestrial systems. That's something that oceanographers — scientists who study the ocean — are tasked with changing.
As an oceanographer, you'll focus on a specific area, such as marine biology, meteorology, or geology. You may work on projects like studying the impacts of overfishing, investigating undersea plate tectonics, and untangling the problem of climate change. A career in oceanography can be very rewarding and fun, but it can also be challenging.
What Does an Oceanographer Do?
Although there are some people who officially hold the job title of "oceanographer," this is more of an umbrella term used to describe anyone who studies the ocean.
In particular, oceanographers tend to fall into four main areas, depending on their focus:
Studies living organisms within the ocean.
Studies physical processes, such as weather, waves, and erosion.
Studies ocean chemistry, such as ocean acidification.
Studies the sea floor, such as volcanoes, undersea vents, and trenches.
As an oceanographer, you'll have to be comfortable doing field research. This might mean sailing on a ship for long periods of time and living in cramped quarters, such as in submersibles or galleys. You might be exposed to difficult weather like polar environments, hurricanes, or typhoons.
However, your day-to-day work may seem less exciting when you're back on land. You'll likely spend much of your time in an office with a computer or in a lab conducting tests. Daily tasks may include reading scientific journal articles, applying for grants, and documenting your findings. You'll also have to network with other researchers and present your work at meetings and conferences.
Oceanographers work on specific research projects and are often employed by universities, federal research agencies, or private consulting firms. No matter your oceanography career focus, you'll need to do the following:
- Be interested in math and science
- Be detail-oriented and highly focused
- Present your research at meetings and conferences
- Be comfortable working on ships and in small spaces
- Be comfortable working in a lab setting back on land
- Read and write scientific, peer-reviewed journal articles
- Network with other researchers and mentor new students
Your responsibilities will also differ depending on your exact role and how much education you have. If you have an advanced degree, you might be expected to work more independently on your own project, as compared to someone with only an undergraduate degree.
For example, if you're interested in studying the effects of ocean acidification on shellfish, you might be able to carry out research underneath someone else's guidance as a technician if you've only completed your bachelor's degree. This means you might drive out to beaches, take samples, do lab work, and collect data for someone else.
Alternatively, if you have an advanced degree, such as a Ph.D., you might be the person who finds funding for a project, hires technicians, writes sampling protocols, analyzes data, and writes up and presents the findings.
Oceanography Job Demand and Salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track employment data for oceanographers as a whole; however, it does report numbers for many jobs that fall under the oceanographer umbrella. Your odds of success at finding a job, as well your earning potential, depend on the type of oceanographer you become.
The table below includes information about common jobs in this field.
|Job Type||Median Annual Salary||Number of Jobs Held||Projected Job Growth (2018-28)|
|Biochemist and Biophysicists||$94,490||30,400||6%|
|Environmental Science and Protection Technicians||$46,540||34,800||9%|
|Environmental Scientists and Specialists||$71,360||85,000||8%|
|Atmospheric Scientists and Meteorologists||$95,380||10,000||8%|
|Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists||$63,270||19,300||5%|
Becoming an Oceanographer
As scientists, oceanographers must undergo a lot of training. It's not really a job you can get without a college degree.
To set yourself apart on the job market, it can be helpful to accrue relevant experience, which you can get in many different ways. It's always best to get a paid position if you can, especially during the summer. If that's not possible, however, you can look for an internship or volunteer position.
Many people engage in some sort of unpaid work to gain experience. If you find yourself in this position, you'll need to be able to sustain yourself financially. This can be done by taking out student loans, relying on support from family members, earning scholarships and grants, and/or working a temporary job.
You may also want to consider things like learning how to scuba dive, drive a boat, swim, and rescue others from the water. These skills can help give you an edge over other candidates.
Earning an Oceanography Degree
Some colleges and universities do offer a degree in oceanography, such as Hawai'i Pacific University and the Florida Institute of Technology. However, many students prepare for a career in oceanography by studying a related field, such as any of the following:
Regardless of your major, you'll need a solid grounding in mathematics and statistics. You'll also need to take classes in other oceanography areas outside of your chosen track. For example, a marine biologist still needs to understand chemistry, while a geologist needs to understand basic concepts of biology.
Most oceanography careers require at least a bachelor's degree. This level of education allows you to apply for many technician positions. However, your odds of success — along with your job title, responsibilities, and pay — tend to go up if you have a graduate-level degree.
To be competitive for some technician positions, you may need a master's degree. Additionally, many oceanographers go on to earn a doctorate and may even spend time in postdoctoral positions with different research groups.
The Value of an Oceanography Career
Climate change and overpopulation are causing big problems for the natural world. Oceans are becoming increasingly acidic, and weather patterns are shifting unpredictably. These effects are having a negative impact on biological life, especially in the oceans.
If humans want to be good stewards of our planet, it's our responsibility to find ways to reverse course and repair this environmental damage before it's too late. To do this, we need scientists — including oceanographers — to lead the way and develop a plan of action.
A career in oceanography has its distinct challenges and may come with more responsibilities than many other professions. However, if you're interested in making new discoveries and positively impacting our planet, this role might be right up your alley.