With laboratories, offices and the sea being your places of work, a job as an oceanographer will be varied and research intensive

As an oceanographer, you'll use science and mathematics to study and explain the complex interactions between seawater, fresh water, polar ice caps, the atmosphere and the biosphere.

Your aim will be to understand and predict how the oceans work, as well as working out how to make the most efficient and sustainable use of its resources.

Types of oceanographer

You can choose to specialise in one area of oceanography, such as:

  • physical oceanography - studying the properties of currents, waves, tides and ocean circulation, plus the temperature, density and salt content of oceans;
  • chemical oceanography - determining the chemical composition of sea water and sediments and effect of pollutants;
  • biological oceanography - studying marine animals and plants and how organisms interact with their environment;
  • geological oceanography - examining the seabed, including the rocks and minerals.

Being an oceanographer could see you involved in areas such as mineral exploitation, shipping, fisheries, coastal construction, pollution, weather prediction, climate change and renewable energy.

Responsibilities

Tasks vary depending on whether you're undertaking lab or office-based work, which involves computer modelling, or whether you're at sea on a research vessel, gathering data from subsurface instruments.

Your work will also depend on your employer and your level of training and experience, but may include:

  • collecting samples and data from the sea, sea floor or atmosphere using specialised equipment and techniques;
  • analysing samples for natural and contaminant composition;
  • looking at life forms and matter, such as trace metals, present in sea water;
  • performing simulations of ocean phenomena using computer or mathematical models;
  • using statistical models of laboratory and field data to investigate hypotheses and make predictions;
  • analysing and interpreting data from samples, measurements and remote sensing aids;
  • attending conferences and going on research cruises;
  • submitting proposals to obtain research funding;
  • writing reports and papers on research activities;
  • lecturing to university classes and leading field trips.

Salary

  • Typical starting salaries for oceanographers range from £18,000 to £25,000 depending on qualifications and experience.
  • You could progress to salaries of £38,000 to £45,000 with substantial experience, depending on the organisation and type of project.
  • Lecturers with the right combination of qualifications and experience can earn up to £55,000.

If you work in private industry you may be on a similar or slightly higher scale.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours vary depending on the project and organisation. Extra hours may be required to meet project deadlines, although weekend or shift work is rare on land.

Hours at sea are less regular. Time at sea can vary between several days to months.

What to expect

  • You will generally work in a lab or office and also spend time away at sea.
  • Research work may be carried out from a ship or offshore platform and may be in a remote location. Conditions at sea may be hazardous and physically demanding, with cramped accommodation and difficult weather conditions. However, most oceanographers view time at sea as an essential and rewarding part of the work.
  • You need to be comfortable using diving equipment and submersible vehicles.
  • Most contracts are fixed term, even if you have strong academic qualifications and experience. In academia and industry, many oceanographers are employed on a rolling-contract basis, which is dependent on grant or contract funding availability.
  • In government departments and agencies, jobs are more likely to be established, permanent posts.
  • Jobs are restricted to a few specialist organisations and particular locations. An increase in national and international collaborations has increased overseas employment, particularly if you're qualified at PhD level.
  • Adjusting to periods away at sea and working long hours may be stressful. Some project and contract deadlines are tight. The demand for rapid solutions to practical questions may bring added pressures.
  • The work may involve travel within a working day, absence from home at night or overseas travel.

Qualifications

It's typical to have a degree in physics, chemistry, maths or biology as well as a postgraduate qualification in oceanography. Degree courses in oceanography, ocean science and marine science, often combined with other earth sciences or computing, are also available.

Most oceanographers have a postgraduate qualification at Masters or PhD level. It's likely that you'll specialise and develop your research interests while undertaking your postgraduate qualification.

There is a range of postgraduate courses available covering physical, chemical and biological oceanography as well as areas such as computing, mathematical modelling and remote sensing. You will typically be required to have studied science or maths at A-level, or as your first degree for these qualifications. Search for postgraduate courses in oceanography.

Entry with an HND or foundation degree is possible, but this will usually be to posts such as support and technical roles, which are rare. Study at a higher level may be expected and encouraged.

Entry is rarely possible without a degree or HND in a science-related subject. The bulk of jobs are in the mid-range at postdoctoral and higher-scientific officer level.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • excellent communication skills, both written and verbal for working with teams and reporting findings;
  • knowledge and experience of the marine environment;
  • team project experience as you may be planning and carrying out research assignments;
  • good computer literacy and some experience of computational and mathematical modelling;
  • good observational skills and attention to detail for analysing samples;
  • determination, perseverance and problem-solving skills, while working away at sea and when carrying out experiments;
  • a flexible approach to work;
  • the ability to work well in a team and alone;
  • openness to ideas and concepts of scientific disciplines other than your own.

Work experience

Related experience in marine science or oceanography research is an advantage. This can be through a sandwich year during your degree, overseas study, undergraduate collaborative projects or employment.

Contacts in marine centres or laboratories are useful. You may want to consider student membership with relevant organisations such as:

Employers

Typical employers include private industry, universities, government research laboratories, the armed services, charities and pressure groups.

Many research positions are funded through the two main government funding bodies for oceanographers in the UK, which are the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Other major employers include a small number of university research departments, as well as government departments and agencies such as the Environment Agency, Marine Scotland and the Met Office.

You could also find work with:

  • non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF);
  • environmental organisations such as Natural England;
  • industries concerned with inshore and offshore work such as oil, gas, water and marine instrumentation;
  • energy supply companies and water companies;
  • ocean instrumentation manufacturers;
  • environmental consultancies.

There are also opportunities to work abroad in countries across Europe and further afield including Saudi Arabia, China and America.

Look for job vacancies at:

You may see jobs advertised on notice boards at conferences or come across vacancies by networking.

Professional development

Employers will usually provide initial training relevant to the post in areas such as report writing, writing and presenting papers and presentation skills. You're also likely to develop while in the role by working with other oceanographers, including those from different specialist areas, as well as with scientists from other disciplines such as physicists, environmentalists and engineers.

If you choose an academic career, you may be expected to undertake original research, secondments, collaborative work, self-managed learning and professional seminars. Many employers encourage study towards a PhD if you don't already have one. There may be opportunities to study abroad.

There are several research organisations, some of which have particular specialisms, which may provide training, including:

There are also professional organisations that provide an opportunity for development and networking, such as the:

  • IMarEST;
  • SUT.

You may be able to undertake short study periods at an overseas marine institute or work on short projects at sea. However, it's likely you'll have to fund this yourself - either at your own expense or by securing a grant.

Career prospects

Your career development is largely self-directed and may involve you having to move to other jobs around the UK and abroad. You could progress to lead a team where you'll take on more responsibility for contract and project management. Seniority depends on the publication of research papers and having a range of experience.

If working in academia, you may combine departmental responsibilities with your own research. In a small profession like this, you need to network and build a reputation. You also need to acquire new skills and assimilate new knowledge quickly. It may be necessary to get involved in fields other than your own specialism, especially as many contracts and projects are fixed term. The key is your ability to adjust to changes of emphasis in scientific focus and funding.

If you are based in private industry and consultancy, your career prospects will often be dependent on wider economic and political factors in the energy sector, particularly oil.

Further studies at Masters or Doctorate level are often vital for career progression. Within government organisations, you need to get involved with decision-making committees and internal working groups in order to progress.

As an experienced oceanographer, you can apply for chartered status via a relevant professional body such as the IMarEST, which offers Chartered Scientist, Chartered Marine Scientist and Chartered Marine Technologist status.