Oceanographer  What They Do

Just the Facts

Geoscientists Career Video

Insider Info

dotThere are at least five different types of oceanographers: physical, geological, biological and chemical oceanographers as well as oceanographic engineers.

  • Physical oceanographers study and map the tides, waves, currents, temperatures, ice formations and sound waves of the ocean. Their research helps meteorologists determine long-term weather changes.
  • Geological oceanographers study the topographic features and physical make-up of the ocean floor. They map underwater mountain ranges and study the origin and shape of the ocean floor's sediments and pollutants. They often work on exploration projects for oil, gas and minerals.
  • Biological oceanographers study the distribution, abundance and health of plants and animals in the oceans. They study the life cycles, ecology and migrations of marine life.
  • Chemical oceanographers study the chemical characteristics of ocean water and the sea floor, and the chemical interactions with the marine atmosphere. They study the dissolved elements and nutrients of the oceans.
  • Oceanographic engineers design and build tools and instruments for ocean research. They direct the installation of offshore structures and work on undersea projects such as the laying of cable.

dotOceanographers often work in remote locations. Research can take them to the Arctic Sea, the tropical bays of Belize or to the mid-Atlantic. They can be away from home for long periods of time.

dotDue to the fieldwork in this job, oceanographers need to be physically fit.

"Working at sea requires a person to be without handicaps," says oceanographer Ed Dever in San Diego. "Even some conditions that are fairly benign on land -- diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma -- require special attention at sea."

Although work at sea would be difficult for many physically challenged people, some oceanographers work exclusively in an office on computer models or with archived data.

dotOceanographers with doctoral degrees often work as university or college professors. Or they may work at research institutes.

These days, oceanographers are also finding work outside the traditional places like universities or research institutions.

"These careers include teaching positions at smaller colleges, positions with government agencies, science journalism and working with non-governmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club," says Dever.

dotHours of work will vary. Out at sea, oceanographers work as members of scientific teams. They work rotating shifts, seven days a week. Many research projects require oceanographers to spend weeks -- or even months -- at sea on research vessels.

When they get home, oceanographers who lead research projects or hold teaching positions usually work at least 40 hours a week.

At a Glance

Study the physical nature of the ocean

  • Spend weeks at sea with other researchers from around the world
  • Oceanographers often work in remote locations
  • A degree in oceanography is the minimum requirement for this field