Oceanographers are geoscientists who study the circulation and movement of ocean waters, analyze their chemical and physical properties, and investigate their effects on climate, weather and coastal areas. This field deals with a wide range of concerns and many oceanographers choose to focus on one of four main areas: biological, chemical, geological or physical oceanography.
Oceanographers are primarily researchers, spending their time gathering data and conducting experiments in the field, running complex computer models in the laboratory or preparing reports in the office. They present their findings to clients and colleagues and frequently conduct peer reviews of research performed by other scientists. Oceanographers often supervise a team of technicians who assist in conducting field and lab experiments. Biological oceanographers survey the animals and plants that make up the marine environment. Chemical oceanographers examine the composition of seawater. Geological oceanographers search the ocean floor, while physical oceanographers investigate ocean currents and waves.
Education and Training
The research-oriented nature of oceanography means that education is a key requirement for any job. A number of universities offer programs related directly to one of the four major oceanographic specialties. Though a bachelor's degree is sufficient for an entry-level position, higher positions will require a master's or doctorate. Computer expertise is highly valued in this field since many studies rely on sophisticated computer modeling and data analysis. Employers look for oceanographers with proven critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to carefully analyze data and make sound conclusions. Highly effective speaking and writing skills are important for oceanographers who write reports and present their findings at conferences. Brain power is not all that is required to become a successful oceanographer. Since a great deal of time is spent in the field, working in remote locations, physical stamina is a great asset.
Individuals considering oceanography as a career choice should investigate opportunities afforded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA offers special programs for undergraduates, graduates and faculty research. Students can obtain scholarships, internships and fellowships, thereby gaining valuable experience for entry-level jobs. Valuable work experience can also be acquired through NOAA Student/Faculty Research Program, open to both graduates and undergraduates. The Presidential Management Fellows Program provides advanced-degree graduates with a path towards a permanent position in the federal service. Marine laboratories and institutions are another source of employment for budding oceanographers. Some are run by universities while others, such as Mount Desert Island Biological Lab, are nonprofit organizations. The U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research also offers a number of careers in oceanography and marine-related fields
Earnings and Outlook
Oceanographers earn a comfortable living with the majority earning between $59,510 and $118,510 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 data. The median annual wage for the same period is $84,470, which is slightly higher than the year prior. The job outlook for geoscientists is surprisingly positive, the BLS expects jobs to grow by 21 percent between 2010 and 2020. However, competition for academic and research jobs will be stiff. State and federal government, traditionally large employers in this field, face significant budget constraints and will likely limit the number of new hires.
2016 Salary Information for Geoscientists
Geoscientists earned a median annual salary of $89,780 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, geoscientists earned a 25th percentile salary of $62,830, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $127,620, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 32,000 people were employed in the U.S. as geoscientists.