Texas A&M University
|Winter 1998 / Spring 1999 - Vol. 6, No. 3|
Oceanographers at work:
by Kimberly Mace
Cruise the web for ocean careers!
Link to additional resources for oceanography and marine science careers
Oceanography is interdisciplinary, meaning that oceanographers use their knowledge about several basic science fields -- like chemistry, geology, physics, meteorology, biology, or mathematics -- to better understand the ocean.
Students attending oceanographic institutions will likely specialize in one of the four main areas of oceanography:
Physical oceanographers study oceanic circulation, its influence on biological and chemical processes, and the interaction of the ocean with the atmosphere. They also study water masses in the ocean and how energy from the sun or wind reacts with the sea, and apply principles of physics to gain knowledge about ocean circulation.
Chemical oceanographers study natural and man-made chemical compounds in the ocean's waters and seafloor, interactions of atmospheric compounds with the ocean's surface, and dissolved and suspended materials in the water column.
Geological oceanographers study the shape and material of the seafloor, the origin of seafloor sediments, causes of geological formations, and predict geological events (such as seafloor volcanoes).
Biological oceanographers study the diversity of sea life, distributions and patterns of biological populations, influence of physical parameters such as light on organism growth, nutrient availability and food webs, and other complex relationships of plant and animal species living in the oceans.
Oceanography students also supplement their learning with other basic sciences like ecology, chemistry, and geography. In addition, computer languages, mathematics, and statistics are essential to modern oceanographic research. Many oceanographers collect data then create computer models, or simulations, of ocean phenomena.
For example, physical oceanographers use computer models to investigate the relationship between sea-surface temperature and climate changes. Biological oceanographers can create simulations of ocean communities to understand the spread of pollution and its effects on sea life.
How do oceanographers study the ocean?
Oceanographers often go to sea in oceanographic research vessels, but they spend the majority of their time analyzing and interpreting collected data. From Texas A&M's research vessel Gyre, scientists can collect scientific information in a variety of ways.
Oceanographers cast nets to snare certain organisms, deploy buoys and instruments that measure ocean currents, or collect water samples and measure the water temperature down to 1,000 meters or more. To obtain seafloor samples, researchers often employ submersible devices capable of withstanding the ocean's increasing pressure at depth. In shallow water, scientists use scuba equipment to study coral reefs or collect benthic (seafloor) components. Back on shore, oceanographers analyze samples and data by laboratory instruments or by creating computer generated plots or simulations.
For whom do oceanographers work?
Many types of ocean scientists are needed to study how the oceans affect organisms, climate, cycles and composition of elements on earth.
According to the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, the estimated 10,000 oceanographers in the United States work for universities, national government agencies (like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA), state and local government agencies (like the Texas Water Development Board), and private industry.
A survey compiled by the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education and presented at the 1998 Ocean Sciences Education Retreat (OSER) workshop shows that of 473 graduating doctoral students from 24 oceanographic schools in the U.S. from 1995-1997, 59 percent entered positions in university research and/or teaching.
Twenty-seven percent entered positions in federal, state, or private industry; seven percent returned to their native land. The final seven percent were out of contact at the time of the survey, or were pursuing a different career path.
A similar survey from OSER for 490 master's students graduating in 1995-1997 indicates 16 percent entered positions in university research and/or teaching. Forty-eight percent entered positions in federal, state, or private industry; eight percent returned to their native land; and 29 percent were either out of contact at the time of the survey or were pursuing a different career path.
How does Texas A&M compare?
A Texas A&M Department of Oceanography survey of graduates from 1995-1998 indicates similar trends.
Of the 30 doctoral degree students graduating, 13 (or 43 percent) entered positions in university research and/or teaching. Two graduates entered positions at a federal agency, one began working in state agency research, and three began working for private industry. Six doctoral graduates (20 percent) returned to their native land. Five graduates were out of contact at the time of the survey.
Twelve master's students graduated from Texas A&M between 1995-1998. Three work for universities as researchers and/or teachers. Three work for federal agencies and three work for commercial firms. Two students (17 percent) returned to their country of origin, and one person was out of contact at the time of the survey.
Kimberly Mace is a graduate student in chemical oceanography from Mebane, North Carolina, near Durham. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.