You've had a fascination with life in the water ever since you watched "The Little Mermaid" as a girl. But living under -- or on -- the sea doesn't have to be the stuff of childhood fantasies. With a career as a marine and ocean engineer, you can design the ships, submersibles and waterborne structures that allow people to explore the ocean floor or tap valuable resources. Engineering in general has plenty of room for more women: Just 14 percent of engineers were women as of 2012, and colleges increasingly encourage women to enter the field and pursue advanced education.
Drafting and Planning
Your first job as a marine engineer is to dream up plans for developments or equipment. Before you can design, though, you have to study. That means analyzing waves, currents and saltwater environments to determine how they’ll affect ocean-based structures and ships. You'll apply your findings to create design methods and materials that can handle the force of ocean waves and resist corrosive salt. Before your plans become reality through building or manufacturing, you'll draft drawings, schematics and system layouts. You're also on the hook for cost estimates, design and construction schedules and contract specifications.
Testing and Repair
It's your job as an ocean engineer to watch over manufacturing or building to make sure your project is up to snuff with federal rules and standards for quality. Be ready to conduct environmental and performance tests, and oversee installation and repair. If a ship, structure or machine needs fixes, it's on you to look for the flaw, and write work requests and specifications on how to complete the job.
If you love to collaborate with other people, you're in luck: Marine and ocean engineers work on teams with outside agencies and companies to guarantee that contractors make repairs or modifications safely and at the lowest possible cost. You'll also tap your communications skills to write technical reports that describe products and specifications for managers and sales personnel, who need to explain equipment to other employees or clients. Finally, the job requires staying in touch with contractors to make sure they complete the work on schedule and within budget.
The day-to-day work of a marine and ocean engineer changes by industry. As of 2010, the biggest share -- 47 percent -- worked for architectural or engineering firms, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal government employed the next largest number, at 17 percent. Ship and boat builders employed 10 percent. Some engineers work in energy, repairing or maintaining offshore wind turbines or oil rigs that they designed. Another option is coastal engineering -- designing harbors or ports and creating shore-protection systems. Underwater engineers design life support, work systems, cables and pipelines to support people who work under water. Environmental engineers create systems to use ocean resources including minerals, wave energy or tidal power.
To get started, you'll need a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited program in marine engineering, marine systems engineering or naval architecture, with coursework in calculus, physics, computer-aided design and mechanics of materials. ABET is an organization recognized by the U.S. government to provide quality assurance in certain types of technical education. You can also boost your hiring prospects with internships that provide college credit. For a federal stamp of approval, take an exam to obtain your mariner’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard. The extra work may be worth it: Higher licensing grades can bring higher pay and more responsibilities. Early in your career, expect to work under experienced engineers. With experience, you'll get to take on tougher projects and have more freedom to develop designs and make decisions. You could also move into management or sales.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: What Marine Engineers and Naval Architects Do
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Work Environment
- Florida Institute of Technology: Ocean Engineering
- Florida Atlantic University: What Is Ocean Engineering?
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Discover Ocean Engineering
- U.S. Naval Academy: Why Choose Ocean Engineering?
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: How to Become a Marine Engineer or Naval Architect
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Job Outlook
- U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee: STEM Education: Preparing for the Jobs of the Future (page 5)
- Stevens Institute of Technology: Stevens Ocean Engineering Alumna Breaks Barriers at U.S. Naval Academy