Oceanographers are earth scientists who study the seas and oceans.
Oceanographers draw upon the knowledge of many disciplines, especially biology, physics, geology and chemistry, to uncover the properties of the seas and oceans. They also study the interactions between the sea, coastal areas, the land and the atmosphere.
They deal with a wide variety of issues such as the discovery of new marine life forms, the conservation of the marine environment, eroding coastlines and climate change. They can be consulted about coastal construction, pollution caused by offshore drilling and the development of new drugs from marine resources. They also conduct studies to discover reserves of natural resources (metals, oil, gas, etc) that can be exploited for commercial purposes.
Oceanographers use a wide range of techniques and instruments to collect data, including remotely operated vehicles, buoys, probes and sensors.
Oceanographers may specialise in one of four areas:
- Marine geology: they study the structure and make-up of the ocean floor. Marine geologists analyse the effects of global warming on the oceans and coasts. They help uncover the stages of the Earth’s evolution (for example past climate changes) by studying the ocean’s history. They can also search for mineral wealth on the seabed.
- Marine chemistry: they study the chemical composition of seawater, discover pollutants and analyse pollution levels in the seas.
- Marine physics: they study physical attributes of the seas, such as the properties of currents and tides, water temperature and salinity.
- Marine biology: they study plants and animals that live in the seas and coastlines and how they interact with each other and their environment. New species are constantly discovered by marine biologists as a large part of the ocean is still unexplored.
Some oceanographers take up teaching and research positions at universities.
Oceanographers start their career with a salary ranging between £17,000 and £29,000 per year, according to their level of qualification (MA/MSc or PhD). With experience, this can rise to around £38,000 to £44,000 per year.
In the academic field, lecturers start at around £27,000 and can get up to £55,000 per year at senior level.
Oceanographers who work as experienced consultants have the highest salaries, starting from £35,000 and rising to £70,000 per year at senior level.
- Plan and undertake field trips at sea
- Collect samples of natural resources from the sea and shorelines
- Observe and record marine fauna and flora
- Interpret the formation of natural resources
- Work with a range of specialist equipment
- Use statistical and mathematical models to analyse data
- Perform simulations of ocean phenomena with numerical or computer modelling
- Forecast marine ecosystems
- Produce reports on findings
- Apply for research funding
- Attend professional conferences
- Teach and give lectures
- Lead field trips for students
You need to hold at least a postgraduate degree in science to become an oceanographer. You can apply to do an MA or MSc in oceanography with an undergraduate degree in oceanography, ocean science and marine science, but also with a more general degree in science, geology, physics, mathematics or biology.
Undergraduate courses in oceanography usually last 3 or 4 years and are available at the following universities:
- Bangor University
- University of Southampton
- University of East Anglia
- University of Ulster
- University of Leeds
- University of Aberdeen
- Open University
- Plymouth University
- University of Liverpool
- University of Brighton
- Newcastle University
- Southampton Solent University
Oceanography is primarily a research-based career, so it is highly advisable to have a relevant PhD.
You can find more information on the website of the Marine Technology Education Consortium (MTEC), which is a group of universities providing specialised courses for graduates in the field of marine science. It works in partnership with the University of Glasgow, Heriot-Watt University, Newcastle University, the University of Strathclyde, the University of Southampton and University College London (UCL).
- Excellent grasp of geology, biology, chemistry, mathematics and marine sciences
- Strong IT skills
- Excellent observation and recording skills
- Problem-solving and analytical skills
- Attention to detail
- Ability to use diving equipment and submersible vehicles
- Good physical fitness
- Ability to work well as part of a team
- Excellent spoken and written communication skills
- Ideally, understanding of one or more foreign languages
This is the job for you if you love the sea and have an adventurous spirit. You will have opportunities to travel around the world.
You will sometimes work regular office hours, for example when you are analysing data in the lab, but you will also be away from home for long periods of time, when you carry out research from a ship or an offshore platform.
You may spend periods of between one and six months at sea. Life at sea can be uncomfortable so you must be physically fit, happy to work in poor weather conditions and live in cramped conditions.
You may need to work extra hours to meet project deadlines, but it is rare to undertake weekend shifts.
It can be difficult to get long-term employment, as most oceanographers are employed on fixed-term contracts.
Networking is a key part of your job as competition for posts is fierce. You can increase your career prospects by becoming a member of organisations that provide Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and networking opportunities, such as the Society for Underwater Technology (SUT) and the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology (IMarEST). You can also attend the biennial Oceanology International (OI) conference.
Career advancement will also be made easier with the publication of research papers and the assimilation of new knowledge and skills outside your own specialism.
The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are the main sources of funding for research institutions that employ marine scientists. For example, the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS), the Marine Biological Association and Plymouth Marine Laboratory get most of their funding via NERC and Defra. The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton is also funded by NERC.
Other organisations include the Marine Management Organisation, Communications and Management for Sustainability (CMS), The Crown Estate, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Met Office and Marine Scotland.
In the private sector, oceanographers can be employed by oil and gas industries involved in offshore extraction and construction.
With experience, you can take on more responsibilities and become a project manager or a private consultant.
In the academic field, you may undertake further research at postdoctoral level.
Astrid Fischer, 37, is a marine scientist based in Plymouth. She works for the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science.
What is your job title?
I am a plankton analyst.
How long have you been in this particular job?
I have been doing it since July 2009.
What did you do before this job?
I have been in various jobs, including marine radiochemistry, setting up a marine climate change impacts partnership, working for the partnership for the observation of the global oceans and consultant to WWF on the impacts of the oceans on climate change.
How did you end up doing your current job?
I already worked for this company on various temporary contracts and this was the only job available at the time, and in a recession you take what you can get.
What area(s) of marine science do you specialise in?
I specialise in marine radiochemistry, marine climate change, plankton taxonomy and molecular analysis.
What do you do in a typical working day?
I analyse plankton filtering silks for various plankton species. I also assist with genetic analysis of plankton samples.
What are the working conditions when you are at sea?
The working conditions at sea are normally good. They have to be as you are locked in a confined space. Researchers tend to help each other out and the atmosphere is one of productivity and hope of new discoveries. Food is normally good on cruises too, which helps.
Do you get to travel a lot for your work, and if yes, which parts of the world have you been to?
I don’t travel for my current job, but I have been to the Southern Ocean before, sailing from Bremerhaven to Cape Town first. For my current job, I have only been out to the Plymouth Sound to sample for plankton locally.
What do you like about the job?
I like the variety of it, you never know what plankton will be on your silk, and there are some really pretty and some really funny-looking organisms out there.
What do you dislike about the job?
When there is a bloom of plankton and you have to identify and count more than 800 organisms!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Most (marine) research is funded, so knowing how to write funding proposals is an essential skill you will have to learn.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role?
I am not sure at this point in time, but I might specialise in molecular analysis.
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour - this is very helpful for job seekers?
Currently I earn approximately £16,000 per year, but I have been on much higher wages for some of my other roles.