Oceanographers use science and mathematics to study and explain the complex interactions between seawater, fresh water, polar ice caps, the atmosphere and the biosphere
As an oceanographer, your role is to understand and predict how the world's oceans and seas work, as well as to work out how to make the most efficient and sustainable use of their 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 the types and numbers of marine animals and plants that live in the oceans and how these organisms interact, adapt and react with their environment
- geological oceanography - examining the seabed, including the rocks and minerals, in order to understand the relationship between the ocean and seafloor.
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.
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 the type of employer you work for and your level of training and experience.
However, as an oceanographer you'll typically need to:
- plan and carry out research expeditions
- collect samples and data from the sea floor using specialised equipment and techniques
- analyse samples for natural and contaminant composition
- look at life forms and matter, such as trace metals, present in sea water
- perform simulations of ocean phenomena using computer or mathematical models
- use statistical models of laboratory and field data to investigate hypotheses and make predictions
- analyse and interpret data from samples, measurements and remote sensing aids
- attend conferences and go on research cruises
- submit proposals to obtain research funding
- write reports and papers on research activities and findings
- lecture to university classes and lead field trips.
- Typical starting salaries for oceanographers range from £18,000 to £25,000 depending on your qualifications and experience.
- You could progress to a salary 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 around £60,000.
Research and lecturing posts at universities often follow academic and related staff scales. For salary details, see the University and College Union (UCU).
Salaries in private industry may be on a similar or slightly higher scale.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
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 from days to months.
What to expect
- You may spend a lot of time working in a lab or office using computer modelling systems. However, you'll also spend time away at sea on a research vessel or offshore platform, sampling and gathering data from instruments far below the surface. You need to be comfortable using diving equipment and submersible vehicles to deploy and recover instruments.
- Conditions at sea may be hazardous and physically demanding, with cramped accommodation and difficult weather conditions. Adjusting to periods away at sea and working long hours may be challenging. However, most oceanographers view time at sea as an essential and rewarding part of the work.
- You'll often work on projects with professionals from related disciplines and also with marine meteorologists.
- 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. Jobs are more likely to be permanent with government departments and agencies.
- Jobs are restricted to specialist organisations and particular locations. There are opportunities to work overseas, particularly if you're qualified at PhD level, as well as at sea on board research vessels.
You'll usually need a degree in a subject such as oceanography, ocean science, geology, biology, chemistry, environmental science, marine sciences, geography, maths or physics. It's also possible to take a degree in ocean science, oceanography or marine science combined with other earth sciences.
Most oceanographers also have a relevant postgraduate qualification at Masters or PhD level. You're likely to 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 need to have:
- excellent communication skills, both written and verbal, for working with teams and reporting findings
- knowledge and experience of the marine environment
- good computer literacy and some experience of computational and mathematical modelling
- data analysis skils
- 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 both in a team and alone
- team project experience as you may be planning and carrying out research assignments
- openness to ideas and concepts of scientific disciplines other than your own.
Related experience in marine science or oceanography research is an advantage. You can gain this through a sandwich year during your undergraduate degree, overseas study, undergraduate collaborative projects or employment, for example in a marine laboratory.
Voluntary experience is also useful for developing practical fieldwork and research skills. Contact non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that run conservation research expeditions.
Contacts in marine centres or laboratories are useful. You may also want to consider student membership with relevant organisations such as the:
- Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST)
- Society for Underwater Technology (SUT)
Many oceanographers also take a research-based Masters or PhD. Postdoctoral research experience is particularly useful in helping you to develop your areas of interest.
Typical employers include private industry, research institutes, 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, Scottish government: marine and fisheries and the Met Office.
You could also find work with:
- NGOs such as the 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:
- Earthworks Jobs
- Jobs.ac.uk - for academic jobs
- National Oceanography Centre (NOC)
- Nature Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs
You may see jobs advertised on notice boards at conferences or come across vacancies by networking.
Having an ocean science focused Twitter account can also be useful. Many researchers in ocean sciences have one and it can be a good way of finding out about who is doing what kind of research. Jobs and PhD opportunities are also advertised on Twitter and on LinkedIn.
Training is often done on the job, learning from more senior 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, your professional development is likely to take the form of undertaking 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:
Professional organisations such as IMarEST and SUT also provide opportunities for development and networking.
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.
Experienced oceanographers can apply for chartered status via a relevant professional body such as IMarEST, which offers Chartered Scientist, Chartered Marine Scientist (Oceanography) and Chartered Marine Technologist status.
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 senior scientist and then on 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're 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.