How to become an Oceanographer

As a child I remember one of my favourite films whilst growing up was “The Abyss”. Admittedly the premise of the film is an albeit fantastical idea but it sparked my interest in the oceans and what new discoveries might lay at their deepest reaches.

My interest was further fueled by Robert Ballard’s adventures in search of the Bismarck and Hood and television programs such as SeaQuest DSV. Again the latter was a somewhat magical concept but I reveled in the idea that we have yet to scratch the surface or rather beneath it; (excuse the pun), and as such the possibilities for exploration and subsequent technologies which could be developed were as I recall astounding to me. Whilst I did not go on to become an oceanographer I retained an interest in the field and on reflection, if I were to have my time again would put an oceanographic career in my top five.

In short an oceanographer utilises his or her scientific and mathematical knowledge to explore and unravel the myriad and at times complex interactions between salt/sea water, fresh water, the atmosphere, tectonic plates, the polar ice caps and the biosphere.
There are 4 fields of Oceanography and most scientists will study and specialise in one or many of the following:-

– Marine geology; studying the ocean floor;
– Marine Chemistry; analysing chemical compositions of sediments and water;
– Marine Physics; measuring the properties of currants, waves and tides;
– Marine biology; investigating marine life and how organisms interact with the environment.

In the UK competition for entry at degree level is fierce with universities picking a small number of the best candidates each year. A degree course in Oceanography will encompass mathematical, physical, applied sciences, life sciences, and some urban and land studies following the impact the oceans have on the continents and land mass.

In view of the stiff competition for these degree courses you may wish to consider studying one or more of the following subjects at A-Level to give you the best possible chance of success when applying:-

– Biology;
– Chemical and physical science;
– Computer science/engineering;
– Ecology;
– Environmental science;
– Geophysics
– Marine science/oceanography;
– Mathematics.

The normal approach taken is a scientific and computing course with biology and mathematics at the forefront of this. Whilst many believe that a strong grounding in geography is the best or preferred route you would be wrong in such an assertion as you would likely only be considered with a physical and scientific element to any geographical studies you may have taken.

If we take Southampton University as an example; whose research centre is one of the top five oceanographic institutions in the world; it expects applicants for its undergraduate course to have at least two science qualifications; passes A-C at A-Level or a strong mathematical background with similar grades.

Once you have been accepted at degree level expect a three year degree course covering a number of compulsory modules such as:-

– The Living Earth;
– Physical Oceanography;
– Ocean Biochemistry;
– Quantitative Earth and Ocean Science;
– Field and Laboratory Skills;
– Practical Techniques & Key Skills for Oceanography;
– Estuaries, Sedimentary Systems and Processes/Dynamics;
– Applied Oceanography & Fieldwork;
– An Independent Research Project;

And optional modules or your choosing; such as:-

– Marine Ecology;
– Phytoplankton and Primary Production;
– Physical Oceanography;
– Marine Vertebrates;
– Ecological Processes;
– Geochemistry;
– Sea-floor Exploration and Surveying;
– Sediments: Modern and Ancient;
– Large Scale Ocean Processes;
– Biochemical Cycles;
– Environmental Physiology of Marine Organisms;
– Palaeoclimate Change;
– Inshore Fisheries;
– Marine Biology;
– Shelf seas and Edge Dynamics.

In brief your first year will be spent learning about the Living Earth/Biosphere which places oceanography in a global context. You will additionally cover a number of other modules in the first year which are more ocean specific. Be warned; mathematics is a core element of the first year.

During the second year you will continue with a core of modules extending your knowledge in key oceanographic and geographic subjects. Your second year introduces you to a level of specialisation in a particular direction of your choosing.
During your third and final year; whilst building upon your knowledge in oceanography and physical geography subjects, a large section of your final year is devoted to an independent research project in which you follow a line of research and study a topic which interests you. It is here that you cut your cloth so to speak.

Oceanography is primarily a research-orientated career and therefore as well as a good degree, a Masters or MSc and often a PhD is preferred. If you are thinking of working in the private sector then this is quite frankly a given. Additionally a diving and sub aqua/diving licence are both useful. See the PADI Diving Society for details.

Given that the oceans form 70% of the surface area of the earth and with more and more discoveries being made within the ocean depths I envisage oceanography will be at the forefront of science based exploration for many years to come. With natural resources potentially dwindling, the poles receding and with water said to become a major contributor to global conflict in the years to come the oceans look set to be on everyone’s horizons.

For more information why not visit the website of the Society for Underwater Technology (SUT) which has details of relevant courses and possible funding available. Consider also the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and The National Oceanographic Centre based in Southampton, UK for further reading.