Oceanographers study seas and oceans, and the way they interact with the land and the atmosphere. They collect data at sea and carry out laboratory research, developing their knowledge of the oceans' physical, chemical and biological processes. Oceanographers apply their knowledge to help us make responsible use of the sea's resources, and to monitor and reduce the risk of environmental damage.
Also known as
- Marine Scientist
- Sea Scientist
As an Oceanographer, you will carry out most of your research in a laboratory, both on and offshore. You'll collect data from research vessels, buoys and floats equipped with instruments, and robotic vessels. You can also make use of satellite images, acoustic technology and seismic surveys.
Apart from laboratory work, you'll spend some of your time at sea in fieldwork, aboard research vessels and offshore platforms. You might venture out on a ship to measure an ocean's temperature or salinity (salt content). This could involve spending six to seven weeks at sea, for example.
In the laboratory, you will use sophisticated technology to analyse samples. Then you can carry out mathematical and physical calculations, and use specialist software to model and forecast factors such as ocean temperatures, fish-migration patterns and the movement of oil slicks.
There are four main specialist areas within oceanography:
- physical oceanography
- chemical oceanography
- marine biology
- geological oceanography.
Most Oceanographers specialise in one of these areas. However, it is likely that you will use skills and knowledge from more than one area in your work.
As a Physical Oceanographer, you will study conditions such as marine temperatures, density, tides, currents and waves.
Your knowledge is useful to the oil and gas exploration industry. For example, you could study wave heights and storm tides, using your findings to help companies to decide where to build offshore oil rigs.
You can also help to locate oil, gas and mineral resources, on or under the sea floor, by using geophysical techniques such as seismic surveying.
Your knowledge of wave energy can help to minimise coastal erosion; you'll also investigate waves and tides as an alternative source of energy to fossil fuels.
An important area of research is into climate change. The ocean has a great impact on the global climate because the sea stores heat. Understanding the ocean enables Oceanographers, working with Meteorologists, to give advice about climate change, global warming and sea level rises.
Marine chemistry and geochemistry involve research into the composition of sea water, marine organisms and sea floor sediments. As a Chemical Oceanographer, you will study the interaction between chemicals in sea water and the environment. For example, you could study the behaviour of chemical pollutants and their effects on marine food chains, helping to monitor and prevent damage to ecosystems. Tracing the movement of chemicals also helps us to understand how ocean currents move sea water.
As a Marine Biology Oceanographer, you will study all forms of life in the sea, from plankton to the largest fish and marine mammals. You'll be interested in how marine organisms develop and interact with each other and their environment. A long-term study could be into animal behaviour, or oceanographic processes and their effects on habitats and species.
Some Marine Biologists apply their knowledge to solving problems, especially in conservation and protecting endangered species. For example, you could study fish breeding and migration habits to ensure that we do not 'over-fish' particular species.
Geological Oceanographers study rocks, minerals and geological processes at the bottom of the sea. You will help us to understand the Earth's origins and evolution, including past climates. You will be involved in discovering new oil, gas and mineral supplies, and you could give advice on an area's suitability for cable laying, pipelines, tunnels or deep sea burial of waste.
Digital modelling is important in oceanography. It allows Oceanographers to create simulations of ocean systems.
Being able to read, write and speak Welsh may be an advantage when you’re looking for work in Wales.
Personal Qualities and Skills
To be an Oceanographer, you'll need:
- An enquiring mind and strong observational skills.
- An accurate and methodical approach to research.
- Patience to repeat experiments several times.
- Maths and statistics skills to analyse and explain experiments.
- The ability to use a wide variety of equipment and technology.
- Computer skills to analyse results and model ocean processes.
- Willingness to work on your own, in research and fieldwork projects.
- Strong teamwork skills to work alongside other scientists and technicians.
- The ability to explain your findings clearly and concisely, including in written reports.
- Willingness to travel, and spend time at sea.
An interest in environmental issues is increasingly important.
Pay and Opportunities
The pay rates given below are approximate.
- Starting: £29,500 - £33,000
- With experience: £36,000 - £43,000
- Senior Oceanographers earn £44,500
Hours of work
Oceanographers usually work a basic 39-hour week. However, they might need to have early starts, late finishes and weekend work.
Where could I work?
Employers include universities and government units such as the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS), where most research work is carried out.
There can be opportunities for graduates in water companies, fisheries laboratories, the Royal Navy and the Met Office.
Firms of consultants and companies in the oil and mineral exploration industries also employ oceanographers. Other employers include those involved in fishing, shipping, and marine engineering.
Opportunities for Oceanographers occur in coastal areas, towns and cities.
You could become a self-employed consultant, for example, carrying out marine surveys for oil companies.
Where are vacancies advertised?
Vacancies are advertised on www.jobs.ac.uk, www.earthworks-jobs.com, in science magazines such as New Scientist (which also posts vacancies on its website), the NERC website, on specialist academic and environmental job boards and in national newspapers.
GreenJobs is a job board aimed at people interested in green careers:
Entry Routes and Training
To become an Oceanographer, you'll need at least a relevant BSc degree. Career opportunities can be similar for people with a first (undergraduate) degree or a postgraduate degree. However, having an MSc or PhD can allow you to take on more responsibility and achieve higher salaries, earlier in your career. You'll usually need a PhD to enter a research post in a university or research institute.
A small number of specialist single subject degrees are available, for example, in oceanography, ocean science and marine science. You can also study oceanography at first degree level in combination with subjects such as marine biology, geology and meteorology.
Other relevant first degrees include biology, chemistry, physics, geology and maths.
A great way to get into this career is through an internship. Take a look at our information article '
Some universities offer degree courses with a foundation year. This is an extra year for students who don't have the specified science A levels for entry.
Training is usually on the job. You might also have short course training and go to conferences and seminars.
Previous experience working in a nautical environment would be really useful for this career.
Many entrants go into temporary one-year contracts, which are often renewed for several years and may become permanent. Oceanographers might have to move between jobs to progress to senior levels.
Experienced Oceanographers can go into scientific journalism and publishing, teaching and lecturing. Some people become self-employed consultants, for example, carrying out marine surveys for oil companies.
For entry to a degree course in oceanography, the usual minimum requirement is:
- 2/3 A levels, including at least one science subject/Maths. Environmental Studies, Geology and Geography can be acceptable subjects.
- GCSEs at grade C/4 and above in your A level subjects.
- A further 2/3 GCSEs at grade C/4 and above. Some universities ask for English Language and/or Maths.
Alternatives to separate science GCSEs (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) are:
- Science and Additional Science, or
- Science and Additional Applied Science.
Alternatives to A levels include:
- BTEC Level 3 qualifications
- the International Baccalaureate Diploma.
However, course requirements vary, so please check college/university websites very carefully.
Some universities accept the Welsh Baccalaureate as equivalent to 1 A-level.
It is illegal for any organisation to set age limits for entry to employment, education or training, unless they can show there is a real need to have these limits.
If you don't have the qualifications needed to enter a degree course, you might be able to start one after completing an Access course, for example, Access to Science. You don't usually need any qualifications to enter an Access course, although you should check this with the course provider.
A foundation year before the start of a science degree is available at some universities and higher education colleges for students who don't have the science A levels usually needed for entry to the course.
Funding for postgraduate study and research is available, through universities, from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
Publisher: Reed Business Information Ltd
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Address: Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411500
Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM)
Address: 15 John Street, London WC1N 2EB
Tel: 020 7831 3110
Maritime UK Careers
Tel: 020 7417 2837
Tel: 0207 997 7624
Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST)
Address: Aldgate House, 33 Aldgate High Street, London EC3N 1EN
Tel: 020 7382 2600
Publisher: Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST)
Society for Underwater Technology (SUT)
Address: 1 Fetter Lane, London EC4A 1BR
Tel: 020 3440 5535
Society for Underwater Technology (SUT) Aberdeen Branch
Address: Enterprise Centre, Exploration Drive, Bridge of Don, Aberdeen AB23 8GX
Tel: 01224 823637
The Hydrographic Society (THS UK)
Address: PO Box 103, Plymouth PL4 7YP
Marine Conservation Society (MCS)
Address: Unit 3, Wolf Business Park, Alton Road, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR9 5NB
Tel: 01989 566017
Marine Biological Association (MBA)
Address: The Laboratory, Citadel Hill, Plymouth, Devon PL1 2PB
Tel: 01752 633207
Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)
Address: Scottish Marine Institute, Oban, Argyll PA37 1QA
Tel: 01631 559000
Meteorology, oceanography and climatology jobs published by Reading University
National Oceanography Centre (NOC)
Address: University of Southampton Waterfront Campus, European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
Tel: 023 8059 6666