While marine biologists study ocean animals, oceanographers explore ocean processes to develop solutions to problems. The field includes the subfields of biological oceanography, chemical oceanography, geological oceanography, ocean engineering and physical oceanography. A chemical oceanographer, for example, might advise policymakers on how waste disposal affects ocean waters.
Oceanographers divide their work between the field, laboratory, office or classroom. They travel the world over, including to remote locations, working on, in and under water. Their work can be both physically and socially demanding. They may spend months on a research ship in cramped quarters or a few days on a small boat along a coastline. Not surprisingly, most oceanographers in the United States are located around the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and the Great Lakes region. Because of the complexity of the earth and its oceans, oceanographers often work in multidisciplinary teams. For example, physical oceanographers, who study how, why and where water moves, might work on projects with chemical and biological oceanographers to learn how ocean processes are linked.
Oceanographers rely on technology for much of their work. Those who explore the ocean's geographical features, which includes mountains, valleys, volcanoes, islands and canyons, find underwater sites by bouncing sound waves off of rock formations. Chemical oceanographers continuously monitor water quality through instrumentation packages called "fish," which are lowered into the ocean to sample water and send information such as temperature, salinity and content directly to computers. Oceanographers get close to geological features through piloted submersible and remotely operated vehicles, which allow them to accurately map the ocean floor and provide 3-D computer models. Oceanographers also rely on satellite technology to provide data from an overall view of oceans.
Prepare for a long haul in education to become an oceanographer, particularly if you'd like to lead research teams or teach at a university. College undergraduates should develop a solid foundation in English, math and a variety of sciences, such as geology, physics, chemistry or biology or engineering. Shipboard experience, mechanical ability, the ability to speak a foreign language and scuba certification are helpful. A bachelor's degree in a science or math qualifies students for positions such as lab technicians. Those with master's degrees can perform more technical work, such as running experiments under supervision. A Ph.D. may lead to work with research teams and as a professor.
Salary and Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes oceanographers in the category of geoscientists. According to the bureau, in 2011, geoscientists overall earned median annual salaries of $97,700. The BLS expects employment of geoscientists to increase by 21 percent between 2010 and 2020, faster than the average for all occupations. It attributes the increase to the need for energy solutions, environmental protection, and responsible land and resource management, with most new jobs found in management, scientific and technical consulting services. Those with master's degrees should have the best job prospects, while there will be more competition for top research and academic positions.
- Kent State University Department of Geology: Careers in Oceanography
- University of South Florida College of Marine Science: Project Oceanography -- Careers in Oceanography
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook: Geoscientists -- Work Environment
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration : National Ocean Service: An Oceanographer Studies the Ocean
- Scholastic: Teachers -- Oceanography
- Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History: Forces of Change -- David Adamec
- Cape Fear Community College Marine Technology : FAQs
- Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography: Working in the Aquatic Sciences
- Palomar College: Careers in Oceanography
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook: Geoscientists -- How to Become a Geoscientist
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images