Oceanography: How to Work Below the Surface to Unlock the Mysteries of the Deep

The Ocean. The last great frontier on our planet.

Getting to space is easier than getting to the bottom of the ocean, where the pressure of the water on top of you is the same as 50 turbo jets resting on top of one person. Studying the many wonders the ocean is Oceanography, a diverse field with many opportunities in academia and industry.


The Four Main Areas in Oceanography

  1. Biological – Biological oceanographers look at the living things in the ocean. Algae, fish, mammals, coral, phytoplankton and seaweed are all fair game. They relate information from physical and chemical oceanography to the growth and behavior of organisms in the marine ecosystem and look for patterns. More than 80% of the biodiversity on earth is in the ocean, so there is plenty to study!
  2. Physical – Physical oceanography is the study of how the ocean is influenced by the substances around it – the atmosphere, sea floor, and coastlines. They also study the weather, climate, and circulation of water via currents and tides. These oceanographers are involved in predicting global warming and climate change patterns based on the data they collect.
  3. Geological – Geological oceanographers study where and why the seafloor looks like it does and how it is changing. Why is the Mariana Trench as deep as it is? These guys know the answer – two oceanic plates collided and one was pushed under the other. Geological oceanographers use sediment core samples to examine different kinds of rocks and sediment makes up the ocean floor.
  4. Chemical – Chemical oceanographers study the changing chemical composition of seawater and how it affects marine life, the atmosphere and seafloor. If you have heard anything about the dying coral reefs, odds are you were listening to science performed by a chemical oceanographer on ocean acidification and how it causes shells and corals to die.


The Daily Reality of an Oceanographer

Job duties, tasks and locations all depend on the field of oceanography that you choose to study, and the resulting job that you get. Work can range from being based in a lab, to working “on site” by going on boats and submarines to capture data, to working remotely on a computer doing data analysis.

Oceanographers have the opportunity to do research, work in academia, or work in other industries. Important work is being done by oceanographers in the oil and gas industry, oceanography consulting firms, environmental protection groups, conservation and water management efforts, and fisheries to name a few. There is even a need for oceanographers in the military; the Naval Academy has a whole program dedicated to producing high quality oceanography graduates.


What does it take to get there?

If you want to be an oceanographer, you are going to need at least a Bachelors degree. If you want to do independent research, teach, or run your own lab you will need to look into getting a Masters or PhD. While not many schools offer degrees in oceanography specifically, class experience in hydrology, oceanography, environmental science, ecology, marine science, and geosciences are all encouraged.

Additionally, it is helpful to take courses in data modeling and visualization because so much of oceanography has to do with large data sets. Taking an intro to computer programming and mid level statistics will make your life much easier! Your future self will thank you for being able to run basic scripts in data science languages like Python or R.

It is highly recommended to get some field experience or internships while you are still in school. If you are in a landlocked area, consider seeing if you take a field course in the summer somewhere to get exposure to the field. If you can afford it, maybe even transplanting to Hawaii, Monterrey, or San Diego for a few months in the summer to get experience. It will be worth it later on when you’re applying to entry-level positions and you can definitively say you will enjoy the position because you understand what the daily reality of an oceanographer looks like.


Quick Facts: Oceanographer

Education Minimum Bachelor’s degree required. Masters or Doctoral degree needed for some positions
Other Requirements Field/lab experience encouraged to get an entry-level job
Pay Range (inclusive of all education levels) $39K -$108K

Median $60,401

Job Outlook, 2014-24 10% growth (Faster than average)


Want to learn more? Here are some pages I found helpful when researching!


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