Oceanographer Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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An oceanographer's median annual salary is $89,910, but is it worth the training requirements? Get the truth about the job duties and career outlook to decide if being an oceanographer is the right career for you.
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Pros and Cons of an Oceanographer Career

Oceanography focuses on marine life, water habitats and ocean biology. Consult the following pros and cons tables for more information and help with making this career decision.

Pros of Becoming an Oceanographer
Faster than average job growth (16% from 2012-2022)*
Higher than average earning potential (mean annual income as of May 2014 was $105,390)*
Minimum required education is a bachelor's degree*
Allows you explore in natural habitats*

Cons of Becoming an Oceanographer
May require long and irregular work hours*
May require regular traveling*
Job may be physically demanding (fieldwork may require hiking, camping and working outdoors)*
May need a license, depending on where you work and your duties*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Oceanographers are classified as geoscientists. In this career, you'll spend much of your time conducting research, which is often done on location. You may analyze substances, animals and other items collected in the field to determine problems, find solutions to problems or make predictions. You may also , conduct lab experiments or other activities in a laboratory to aid in your research. The focus of your work will be mainly on water movements (including waves, tides and currents), marine organisms and the role oceans play in climate change and other phenomena that can affect life on earth.

Working on location in the field may mean spending long periods of time on boats in the ocean or in remote coastal areas. You'll need to be physically and mentally prepared for the pressures of living on a boat or a remote island without the normal comforts of home.

Career Specialties

While oceanography is a specialty within the geosciences, there are also sub-specialties within oceanography, which allow you to focus your research on specific areas within the field. For example, biological oceanography focuses on life in the ocean, and chemical oceanography focuses on the chemical composition of ocean waters. Other options are geological oceanography, which is the study of the ocean floor, and physical oceanography, which is the study of the physical conditions of oceans, such as waves and currents.

Job Prospects and Salary

The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates a 16% job growth for geoscientists from 2012-2022 (www.bls.gov). The BLS noted that jobs would be best for those with a master's degree and for work in consulting. However, many of the job opportunities were expected to come from the oil and gas industry, which is not applicable to oceanographers. The BLS reported in May 2014 that those in the 10th-75th percentile range earned $46,400-$129,270.

What Are the Requirements?

To become an oceanographer, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree in oceanography or a related field, such as geoscience or biology. The BLS notes that some states require geoscientists who offer their services to the public to be licensed. Typically, states license geoscientists like geologists and geophysicists; however, an oceanographer may also perform work as a geologist, in which case that license may be needed. According to the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists (AEG), 31 states require geologists to be licensed.

Employers may have other requirements, such as being a U.S. citizen or having previous experience in the field of oceanography. Some employers may require you to hold a master's degree. The skills that are helpful to have in this field include:

  • Observant nature
  • People skills
  • Physical stamina
  • Writing skills
  • Inquisitive mind

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers with job postings in April 2012 were mainly from government agencies, large research facilities or university research departments. These postings noted that education and training in oceanography were the main requirements for positions in oceanography. Here are some sample postings:

  • The U.S. Navy was seeking an oceanographer with skills in mathematics and physics to fill a position working on a project conducting studies.
  • A university in Hawaii was looking for someone to work on a project involving coral reefs, and a second position was for an oceanographer to work on projects involving marine coastal sustainability.
  • A materials, chemistry and environmental support services firm in California was seeking someone with experience in sonar technologies and GPS survey techniques.

How Can I Stand Out?

The emphasis on expertise in the field of oceanography means the best way to get ahead as an oceanographer and to stand out from the competition is to gain experience and seek advanced degrees. You may find opportunities to gain experience through volunteering or working as an assistant on ocean research projects. You also might consider earning a master's degree in oceanography, since some employers may require or give preference to applicants who hold a graduate degree.

Alternative Career Paths

Perhaps the idea of having to travel so often and live in less-than-ideal environments is not sitting well with you. Maybe you still long to work in science, or you still want to study water, but the job of an oceanographer is not for you. Alternative career options include atmospheric scientist and hydrologist.

Atmospheric Scientist

As an atmospheric scientist, you study the earth's weather, climates and other atmospheric properties. You may work in meteorology and predict the weather or perform larger research on weather conditions. You need a bachelor's degree in atmospheric science or meteorology to work in this field.

Hydrologist

In as career as a hydrologist, you work with water and study the water cycle. You may tackle research that allows you to figure out how to stop problems with water shortages or other projects related to water supply. To work in this field, you need a master's degree in natural science.

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