Government Job Profile: Oceanographer

Scientists checking the Flow Through Incubation experiment used to identify how additional sunlight through lack of sea ice cover will affect microscopic life in the Arctic Ocean.
Scientists checking the Flow Through Incubation experiment used to identify how additional sunlight through lack of sea ice cover will affect microscopic life in the Arctic Ocean. Daniel J. Cox / Getty Images

Did you know 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans? In ages past, the seemingly limitless oceans beckoned sailors to explore their surfaces and landmasses. Today, sailors are still drawn to the shimmering blue, but so are scientists, and they look far deeper than the surface.  

Oceanographers are scientists who study the oceans and their interactions with land and air. Oceanography is an interdisciplinary science with biological, chemical, physical and geological components.

Many oceanographers focus on one of the following disciplines but have working knowledge of all four:

  • Biological oceanography and marine biology. This is the study of plants and animals within the marine environment. Marine biologists look at how marine life develops and adapts, how species’ populations change over time and how species interact with one another.

  • Chemical oceanography. In this discipline, oceanographers study the composition of seawater, the chemical processes that happen in it and how it interacts with the sea floor and atmosphere. Chemical oceanographers investigate how climates change within the oceans and work with other scientists to apply the ocean resources to products humans use like medicines, cosmetics and cleaning solutions.

  • Physical oceanography. Here scientists study how oceans move and the causes and effects of those movements.

  • Geological oceanography. This discipline focuses on the ocean floor. Scientists study how tectonic plates move, what happens in ocean trenches and how the seawater and ocean floor interact with one another. Geological oceanographers often have the requisite knowledge to be considered seismologists.

    A career in oceanography offers a lifetime of discovery. The scientific breakthroughs made through underwater study can have mplications for the rest of mankind.

    What You'll Do

    No matter which oceanographic discipline you choose, you can work for a government agency. For instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the US Department of Commerce employs many oceanographers.

    Additionally, public and private universities employ oceanographers in faculty positions to train the next generation of oceanographers and in research positions to advance the field through scientific discovery.

    Oceanographers often work in labs analyzing data and drawing conclusions. To obtain this data, oceanographers do field work in and around the ocean. This can happen in a variety of ways such as collecting water samples, tagging marine animals with tracking devices and piloting unmanned submersible vehicles.

    It makes sense that most oceanography jobs are located in cities on the ocean. Scientists live right by their object of study. Data can be collected at the water’s edge and analyzed a few blocks away. And the seafood is really fresh, so there’s a bonus!

    The Education and Experience You'll Need

    While some universities offer bachelor’s degrees in oceanography, most oceanographers have advanced degrees. Usually, oceanographers have a more generic bachelor’s degree -- such as biology, chemistry, physics or geology -- and have advanced degrees specific to oceanography. Oceanographers who teach at the university level tend to have doctorate degrees.

    What You'll Earn

    The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not maintain salary information specific to oceanographers.

    However, it lumps oceanographers in with the broader category of geoscientists. According to 2012 BLS data, the average salary for geoscientists is $90,890. The top 10% of geoscientist earn salaries above $187,200, and the bottom 10% make less than $48,270. Clearly, geoscientist salaries vary greatly, but it is unclear from BLS information why that is. If you want to pursue a career in oceanography, you should research salaries in the part of the country where you’d like live.

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