How to become an Oceanographer

Oceanography, or the study of the seas, is a crucial part of understanding and respecting our world. The planet we inhabit consists mainly of water; oceans cover seventy percent of the Earth’s surface and remain an open frontier for the sciences, encompassing many undiscovered organisms and natural phenomena. Oceanographers are involved in an exciting, continually developing field of science, devoted to researching the life, structures, and cycles of the deep seas. According to Arthur Mariano, an oceanographer and professor at the University of Miami, “I really enjoy my work. I could be doing a lot of other jobs with my math background, but being a physical oceanographer is a very rewarding job. Oceanographers get to travel all over the world to scientific meetings and oceanographic cruises, and meet great people. I interact with very, smart students and colleagues. I’m working on hard, real-world problems whose solutions, one day, may help society with better weather forecasts and better methods for search and rescue.” Becoming an oceanographer requires a strong focus in math and science, both at the undergraduate and advanced education levels, but is often a very rewarding career.

Types of Oceanographers

The job description of an oceanographer is diverse. Work assignments vary from locations at sea, near the coast, in the laboratory, or a mixture of all three. The oceanographer may need to work under the water or on a research cruise for several months. Most oceanographers are supported by large research or governmental agencies, although some private oceanography companies do exist. Oceanographers fall into four main branches of oceanography: biological, geological, chemical, and physical oceanography.

Biological Oceanographers/Marine Biologists

Biological oceanographers study the variety of life in the ocean, monitoring population trends, food webs, as well as oceanic processes and environmental factors affecting marine organisms. A biological oceanographer examines the ocean as a system, taking a multidisciplinary approach and assessing ocean life as a complicated, interactive system. Marine biologists are primarily concerned in researching individual organisms and discovering different facets of an organism’s biology. A biological oceanographer requires a thorough understanding of biochemistry, ocean physics, chemistry, and geology for researching the complex oceanic ecosystem.

Geological Oceanographers

Geological oceanographers explore the deepest parts of the ocean, studying the rocks and structures that make up the ocean floor. Seismicity, or the distribution of earth quakes on the subsurface ocean floor, is studied by the geological oceanographer, as well as erosion, sedimentation, and various other structures fashioned on the ocean’s crust. The process of “deep volcanism,” caused by friction between plates and rifts in the ocean, forms grand volcanic structures from secreted molten lava that are investigated by the geological oceanographer. Accomplished course work in mathematics, physical sciences, chemistry, and geology are necessary in geological oceanography.

Chemical and Physical Oceanographers

Chemical and physical oceanographers are concerned with the fluid movement and processes of the ocean. Chemical oceanographers are primarily concerned with the occurence and transport of chemicals within the ocean and the subsequent effect on marine life. Topics such as oceanic pollution control, fish product quality control, and climate change are part of the chemical oceanographer’s job studies. Physical oceanographers record various oceanic properties, such as temperature, salinity, tides, currents, light and sound transmissions, atmospheric-oceanic climate relations, and coastal boundary interplays. El Nino and other current climate changes are currently being investigated by physical oceanographers and their work assists in accurate global weather forecasting. A firm knowledge of geophysics, fluid dynamics, classical physics, chemistry and applied mathematics are needed for these fields of oceanography.

Educational Requirements for becoming an Oceanographer

An undergraduate degree is the minimum amount of education needed to be an entry-level oceanographer. Strong science, math, and computer skills should be acquired and certain colleges have a bachelor’s degree specifically suited for oceanography. A student can also major in a related scientific field such as biology, chemistry, physics, geology or engineering. Graduate studies in advanced oceanography are required for most supervisory and research positions. A doctorate will be needed for university teaching. Some notable oceanographic institutions in the U.S. include: Scripps Institution of Oceanography (San Diego, CA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (Woods Hole, MA), and the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (Miami, FL).

Oceanography can be a fulfilling, active career, contributing to vital outcomes for both the oceans and planet’s health.  Students who are passionate about the impact of oceans on our climate, food production, deep sea mining, and marine ecosystems would make a great fit for this growing field of science. With a thorough education in advanced mathematics and sciences, specializing in oceanography can be academically challenging, yet the benefits to becoming an oceanographer are worth the time of preparation in the classroom.