Careers in Oceanography

Many people associate careers in oceanography as consisting of swimming with marine animals at a marine life park or snorkeling in crystal-clear tropical waters studying coral reefs. In reality, these kinds of jobs are extremely rare and there is intense competition for the few jobs that do exist. Most oceanographers work in fields that use science to solve a particular problem in the ocean. Some examples include:

  • What kinds of pharmaceuticals can be found naturally in marine organisms?
  • What economic deposits are there on the sea floor?
  • How does a particular pollutant affect organisms in the marine environment?
  • What is the role of longshore transport in the distribution of sand on the beach?
  • What is the role of the ocean in limiting climate change?


Preparation for a Career in Oceanography

Preparing yourself for a career in oceanography is probably one of the most interesting and rewarding (yet difficult) paths to travel. The study of oceanography is typically divided into different academic disciplines (or sub-fields) of study. The four main disciplines of oceanography are:

  • Geological oceanography is the study of the structure of the sea floor and how the sea floor has changed through time; the creation of sea floor features; and the history of sediments deposited on it.
  • Chemical oceanography is the study of the chemical composition and properties of seawater; how to extract certain chemicals from seawater; and the effects of pollutants.
  • Physical oceanography is the study of waves, tides, and currents; the ocean-atmosphere relationship that influences weather and climate; and the transmission of light and sound in the oceans.
  • Biological oceanography is the study of the various oceanic life forms and their relationships to one another, adaptations to the marine environment, and developing ecologically sound methods of harvesting seafood.

Other disciplines include ocean engineering, marine archaeology, and marine policy. Since the study of oceanography often examines in detail all the different disciplines of oceanography, it is often described as being an interdisciplinary science, or one covering all the disciplines of science as they apply to the oceans. Thus, some of the most exciting work and best employment opportunities combine two or more of these disciplines.


Individuals in oceanography and marine-related fields need a good background in at least one area of basic science (for example, geology, physics, chemistry, or biology) or engineering. In almost all cases, mathematics is required as well. Marine archaeology requires a background in archaeology or anthropology; marine policy studies require a background in at least one of the social sciences (such as law, economics, or political science).

The ability to speak and write clearly—as well as critical thinking skills—are prerequisites for any career. Fluency in computers—preferably PC systems, not Macintosh—is rapidly becoming a necessity. Because many job opportunities in oceanography require trips on research vessels, any shipboard experience is also desirable. Mechanical ability (the ability to fix equipment while on board a vessel without having to return to port) is a plus. Depending on the type of work that is required, other traits that may be desirable include: the ability to speak one or more foreign languages; certification as a scuba diver; the ability to work for long periods of time in cramped conditions; physical stamina; physical strength; and, of course, a high tolerance to motion sickness.

Since oceanography is such a new science (with much room left for new discoveries) most people enter the field with an advanced degree (master’s or doctorate). One exception to this is to work as a marine technician, which usually requires a bachelor’s degree or applicable experience. It does take a large commitment to achieve an advanced degree, but, in the end, the journey itself is what makes all the hard work worthwhile.

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