The Job and What's Involved

Oceanographers are scientists involved in studying the complex interactions between seawater, fresh water, the polar ice caps and the atmosphere. Their research has many practical uses for industry and for government policy. Oceans and seas are vitally important to life as they are a source of food, energy and minerals. They also have a major influence on the global climate.

Oceanography covers a very wide range of topics and activities, such as mineral exploitation, shipping, fisheries, coastal construction, pollution, weather prediction and climate change. Most oceanographers undertake marine studies in multidisciplinary teams and may specialise as:

Marine Geologists - who study the ocean floor to unlock the secrets of the earth's history to discover oil, gas and mineral resources, for example.

Marine Chemists - who study the chemical composition of water or sediments including research into the composition of sea water, marine organisms and sea floor sediments. They also monitor the effects of chemicals on marine food chains.

Marine Physicists - who measure the properties of currents, waves and tides, water temperature and density and how they affect the climate. They study wave heights and storm tides, and their findings may help to decide the location of an offshore oil rig. Wave energy is analysed to help prevent coastal erosion and increasingly is being used as an alternative energy source.

Marine Biologists - who study marine life. A huge number of organisms live in the seas and oceans and many have benefits for humans. They observe damage due to excessive levels of fishing and take samples from fish to record levels of radiation absorbed from nuclear waste dumped at sea. They also monitor environmental damage to coral reefs.

Oceanographers use data collected from a wide range of sources, including ship-based instruments, buoys and robotic sea vehicles, remote sensors on satellites, probes lowered into the sea, drilling into the seabed and acoustics. They use computers and mathematical techniques to analyse this data. Computer modellers use software to simulate the way the oceans change - for example, to predict the path an oil slick will follow.

When working ashore, oceanographers generally work normal office hours from Monday to Friday. They may need to work longer hours and at weekends when undertaking fieldwork, or to complete projects on schedule.

Much of their time is spent in a laboratory or office. Oceanographers may also go to sea, perhaps for six or more weeks at a time, to gather data for analysis. Coastal and inshore fieldwork is carried out on foot from the seashore, or on small boats.

Salaries for oceanographers start at around £18,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are around 3,500 people working in oceanography, as well as approximately 150 volunteers. The main employers are the marine research laboratories funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Other employers include:

  • Government agencies, such as the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, and Fisheries Research Services.
  • Universities.
  • The Armed Forces.
  • Offshore survey companies.
  • Oil and gas companies.
  • Water companies.
  • Port and harbour authorities.
  • Civil engineering firms.
  • Manufacturers of ocean instruments.
  • Meteorology offices.
  • Pressure groups and charities.
  • Conservation agencies.
  • Environmental consultants.

Competition for oceanographic vacancies can be fierce, especially for biologists. Employment is often on short-term contracts of up to three years. Gaining some work experience with a NERC laboratory can increase work or study prospects.

Involvement in a relevant society also demonstrates commitment and helps to broaden knowledge and contacts. Relevant societies include The Challenger Society for Marine Science, the Society for Underwater Technology, the Royal Meteorological Society and The Marine Biological Association.

Vacancies may be advertised in the local and national press, in specialist sector publications, on some university websites and on specialist websites, such as www.earthworks-jobs.com.

Education and Training

Oceanographers need a relevant science degree, depending on the field in which they work. Entrants can do a degree in any of the biological sciences and then specialise with a Masters course or PhD.

Marine biology - most entrants have a degree in biology, marine biology or a joint degree with oceanography. Molecular biology could enhance career prospects.

Chemical oceanography - a degree in chemistry, geochemistry or oceanography and chemistry combined are the most common routes.

Geological oceanography - many entrants have a degree in geology, geophysics, or either of these subjects combined with oceanography.

Physical oceanography - common degree subjects are physics, maths or oceanography. Subjects such as astronomy, astrophysics and meteorology are also popular.

Postgraduate study or specialist training is usually required. Almost all vacancies require at least a Masters degree and, increasingly, employers look for a PhD.

For a first degree, applicants usually need:

  • Five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications. In addition to science subjects, maths and English, other useful subjects include foreign languages, IT and geography.
  • At least three A levels/four H grades, preferably including maths and science subjects. Even if A level/H grade maths is not specified, universities and employers will be looking for competence in maths or statistics.

Entry to a postgraduate degree course is usually with a relevant first degree.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Degree courses usually include some fieldwork in addition to academic study.

Several universities offer taught Masters degrees and research doctorates. Check with the Marine Biological Association for universities offering relevant courses. It is sometimes possible to enter work with a first degree and study for postgraduate qualifications part time, with support from an employer.

Once employed, oceanographers receive on-the-job training. This is usually combined with short courses, seminars and conferences.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Oceanographers should be:

  • Skilled in science and maths.
  • Inquisitive and persistent.
  • Accurate and methodical.
  • Physically fit.
  • Good at communicating, both in person and in writing.
  • Able to present results to an audience.
  • Able to work well alone and as part of a team.
  • Willing to travel and prepared to work at sea.

Your Long Term Prospects

Due to the short-term nature of most contracts, it is often necessary to move between employers to gain promotion.

Get Further Information

British Antarctic Survey, High Cross,
Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET
Tel: 01223 221400
Website: www.antarctica.ac.uk

British Geological Survey,
Kingsley Dunham Centre, Keyworth,
Nottingham NG12 5GG
Tel: 0115 936 3100
Website: www.bgs.ac.uk

The Centre for Environment, Fisheries
and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS),
CEFAS Lowestoft Laboratory, Pakefield Road,
Suffolk NR33 0HT
Tel: 01502 562244
Website: www.cefas.co.uk

The Challenger Society for Marine Science,
C/O National Oceanography Centre,
Southampton, Waterfront Campus,
European Way,
Southampton SO14 3ZH
Tel: 0238 059 6097
Website: www.challenger-society.org.uk

Fisheries Research Services,
FRS Marine Laboratory, PO Box 101,
375 Victoria Road, Aberdeen AB11 9DB
Tel: 01224 876544
Website: www.frs-scotland.gov.uk

The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom,
The Laboratory, Citadel Hill,
Plymouth PL1 2PB
Tel: 01752 633207
Website: www.mba.ac.uk

National Oceanography Centre,
Southampton, University of Southampton Waterfront Campus,
European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
Tel: 023 8059 6666
Website: www.noc.soton.ac.uk

Natural Environment Research Council,
Polaris House, North Star Avenue,
Swindon SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411500
Website: www.nerc.ac.uk

Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML),
Prospect Place, The Hoe, Plymouth PL1 3DH
Tel: 01752 633100
Website: www.pml.ac.uk

Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory,
Joseph Proudman Building,
6 Brownlow Street, Liverpool L3 5DA
Tel: 0151 795 4800
Website: www.pol.ac.uk

Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS),
104 Oxford Road, Reading, Berkshire RG1 7LL
Tel: 0118 956 8500
Website: www.rmets.org

The Scottish Association for Marine Science,
Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory, Oban,
Argyll PA37 1QA
Tel: 01631 559000
Website: www.sams.ac.uk

Society for Underwater Technology (SUT),
80 Coleman Street, London EC2R 5BJ
Tel: 020 7382 2601
Website: www.sut.org.uk

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