Oceanographer: job description

Last updated: 21 Jun 2023, 15:39

Oceanographers employ mathematical, engineering and scientific theories to investigate the relationships between fresh water, seawater, the biosphere, atmosphere and polar ice caps.

Sunlight filtering through clear ocean water over a coral reef with small fish swimming above.

Most oceanographers are employed on fixed-term research contracts that are funded by grants.

What does an oceanographer do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Oceanographers can specialise in biological, physical, geological or chemical oceanography. They can study marine life, the ocean floor, chemicals in sea water, water temperature and density, tides and currents.

Typical responsibilities include:

  • planning, organising and leading field research trips
  • collecting field samples and data, probably at sea, using equipment such as remote sensors, marine robots and towed or self-powered underwater vehicles.
  • giving lectures and making presentations
  • using numerical/computer modelling to simulate ocean phenomena
  • testing samples in laboratory conditions
  • recording, analysing and interpreting data obtained from samples and remote sensing equipment
  • using numerical/statistical modelling to make predictions about trends
  • keeping up to date with scientific and research developments
  • attending relevant oceanography conferences, training courses and field trips
  • writing funding bids and research proposals
  • writing research papers, reports and reviews
  • analysing water samples for mineral content and life forms
  • using sophisticated equipment and specialist techniques to analyse samples

Oceanography can involve travel and periods of time away from home to conduct research.

Typical employers of oceanographers

  • Government departments and agencies such as the Environmental Agency
  • The Royal Navy
  • Environmental agencies
  • University research departments
  • Consultancies
  • Pressure groups

Most oceanographers are employed by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and its related bodies such as:

  • National Oceanography Centre
  • British Antarctic Survey

Opportunities are advertised online, in national newspapers, in relevant publications such as New Scientist , Earthworks , Journal of Geophysical Research and Nature and their respective websites. Directories such as The Society for Underwater Technology’s (SUT’s) corporate member list may also prove helpful.

  • The recruitment process is likely to involve a technical interview. Read our article on technical interviews to find out what these involve and how you can tackle them.

Qualifications and training required

To become an oceanographer, you will usually need a degree in a relevant subject such as oceanography, marine sciences, geology, ecology, biology, chemical or physical sciences, computer science, software engineering, geophysics or technology, mathematics, environmental science or geography.

A relevant postgraduate qualification (a PhD or research-based MSc) is essential for many positions. SUT offers sponsorship awards to undergraduates and postgraduates pursuing a relevant degree. Read our article on scientific postgraduate study to explore your different options.

Postdoctoral research, practical research or marine laboratory work experience can be helpful. Computer and mathematical modelling experience is also advantageous, as are practical skills such as boat handling, scuba or sub aqua diving and first aid.

You may be able to enter the profession with a higher national diploma (HND) or foundation degree. However, suitable posts will usually be support or technical positions, which are hard to come by.

Key skills for oceanographers

  • Patience
  • Determination
  • Creativity
  • Flexibility
  • Decisiveness
  • A logical and independent mind
  • Meticulous attention to detail
  • Excellent IT skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Teamworking skills
  • Communication skills

Given the international community involved in many oceanography projects, possessing additional European languages could be useful. A willingness to work away from home, and at sea, can also be important. Working conditions can sometimes be dangerous and physically demanding.

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