Quarterdeck, Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 1998
The inside scoop
Advice and hints about becoming an oceanographer
by Mike Peccini
If you're a high school student or undergraduate, you may have discovered that the road to oceanography is not well defined. With a shortage of available information about entering the field, it may be difficult to figure out what academic and extracurricular experiences will help you get into graduate school to study oceanography.
Like most problems, this one is best solved with the benefit of a little hindsight. I asked Texas A&M University graduate students and faculty to offer advice about what it takes to succeed in oceanography.
Their main counsel is that the right high school and undergraduate experiences can be an enormous help to anyone with an interest in entering the field.
Ou Wang scoops a treat during a break from working aboard the R/V Gyre.
A nitrogen-filled bubble protects Jeff Morin's sediment core samples from contamination.
"Summer field experience is important. If a student wants to attend grad school, it is better to participate in or even volunteer for a field program than to work at a summer job that pays little more than car expenses."
Geological oceanography professor
Graduate students and faculty were quick to point out the value of getting involved in research. This can mean finding a job in a lab, working with a favorite professor, or signing up for a summer field study class.
Because the actual process of science is different than learning about it second-hand in classroom, the opportunity to participate can be quite inspirational. As one grad student put it, "The hands-on approach is by far the best introduction into science available. If I would recommend any one thing, I'd say: 'Get out into it.'"
"I would listen to the people who tell me to take more math. I would pay more attention, and keep up with it, not let my knowledge of the subject lapse."
Biological oceanography graduate student
You'd be hard pressed to find a group of more repentant slackers than in a grad school science program. A funny thing happens when you get caught up in research that you enjoy: You decide that you actually want to understand calculus, and chemistry, and all those other classes that your professors tried to pass off as useful and important.
It's an amazing transformation, one that might seem unlikely to happen to you, but the consensus is that there will probably come a time when you'll wish you had a second chance to sit through some of those classes that you could barely tolerate the first time around. It's enough to make anyone think twice about becoming an oceanographer, but try not to be put off; it's really an endorsement of the appeal of the science. Calculus, statistics, and differential equations are useful tools for oceanographers. It's a tough story to swallow until you've seen it with your own eyes, but hang in there and try to be convincing when you tell yourself that it's for a reason.
"Test scores are important because they form a first impression and define the first hurdle for getting into the program."
Physical oceanography professor
Yes, for better or worse, someone is going to look at all that paperwork that you are asked to include with your application. Obviously good scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and a strong grade point average can be a big help, but these scores are usually taken in the context of the whole application. The types of classes on your transcript are an important consideration and every professor seems to have a favorite, but in general, having braved some of the harder science classes is sure to earn you a few points.
Letters of recommendation are also carefully considered. A good letter from someone that has worked closely with you in a laboratory or research situation is far more valuable than even the most glowing endorsement from the owner of a fast food burger franchise.
"Coming into oceanography with a good knowledge of computers will be a real benefit to your work."
First year master's degree student
As if longing for a second chance at calculus weren't strange enough, more than a few graduate students have expressed regrets that they were never computer geeks. During the process of organizing, analyzing, and presenting data you can find yourself using a variety of different programs and operating systems. Computers are just too important a tool to avoid, and the process of incorporating them into your work can be a frustrating experience if you haven't paid your dues behind a keyboard.
The oceanography faculty also seem to share an appreciation of such technology-savvy individuals. In fact, some professors would be willing to overlook a C on your transcript if they think you'll be able to work well with their particular hodgepodge of hardware and software. It's really not a matter of trading in your social life for a PC, but rather of looking for opportunities to get behind a keyboard and try something new.
Erica Vidal peers into her microscope
"I look at grades in composition and rhetoric. A vital talent is writing. "
Biological oceanography professor
As a graduate student, your research will not only provide you with a learning experience, but also an opportunity to begin establishing yourself within the scientific community. Students and faculty agree that the ability to communicate is a very important element in this process, and they place writing and public speaking high on the list of recommended skills.
Darryl Martino shows a sediment core to inquisitive children
"The key," states one first year student, "is to learn to write in a subject that you enjoy. It doesn't necessarily have to be science; it can be history, English, philosophy or whatever you like-so long as you get the experience."
Mechanical and electronics experience also can be very beneficial. The need to remotely extract unique samples from inaccessible areas of the ocean often gives rise to some pretty elaborate contraptions. A little practical know-how is always useful in giving these devices the constant attention that they need. It can also make the difference between sending an instrument to the seafloor on a short, successful sampling mission, and sending it to the seafloor permanently.
"Find what inspires you, and run with it."
- Oceanography student
These skills and experiences will provide a solid foundation for a future oceanographer, or any scientist.
But the essential element to the process is discovering
a passion for oceanography. If you find an ocean science topic that motivates
and inspires you, and you have the determination to complete a thesis or
dissertation, everything else is easy.
Get more information:
Ocean-related undergraduate programs at Texas A&M University-Galveston are offered through the departments of Marine Biology and Marine Fisheries, Marine Engineering Technology, Marine Sciences/Oceanography, Marine Transportation, Maritime Administration, and Maritime Systems Engineering.View the Texas A&M University-Galveston web site at http://www.tamug.tamu.edu. For a student information package about the Galveston campus, call 1-800-850-6376 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Information about the master's and Ph.D. programs in
oceanography at Texas A&M University-College Station is posted on the
web at http://ocean.tamu.edu/Nav/edu-programs.html.
Send comments about Quarterdeck to email@example.com.
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Last updated August 1, 1998