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Oceanography Careers

Sub-Fields of Oceanography

Oceanography embraces many different study areas pertaining to the sea, including subjects such as ocean boundaries and bottom topography, the physics and chemistry of sea water, the types of currents, and the many phases of biology. These sub-fields are generally referred to as Physical, Chemical, Biological and Geological Oceanography.

Physical Oceanography

Physical oceanography requires a knowledge of both marine and atmospheric sciences. Physical oceanographers examine ocean properties like temperature, salinity/density of sea water, wave motions, tides, and currents. They conduct research on how the ocean and the atmosphere work together to influence weather and climate. Physical oceanographers also study how light and sounds are transmitted through sea water.

Physical Oceanography

Deploying the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth recorder) - The CTD is an electronic instrument commonly used by oceanographers that continuously records salinity (by measuring conductivity), temperature, and depth (by measuring pressure) as the instrument is lowered on a hydro wire from the ship.

Chemical Oceanography

Chemical oceanography deals with the chemical composition of sea water, and its interaction with the atmosphere and seafloor. Chemical oceanographers analyze the effects of contaminants and their distribution patterns. They study chemical processes such as the Earth's carbon cycle, and investigate chemical tracers to better understand how sea water flows around the globe, and how the ocean affects our climate.

Chemical Oceanography

Dr. Peter Ross taking blood and tissue samples from a Harbour Seal in British Columbia, looking for contaminants.

Geological Oceanography

Geological oceanography covers the study of the ocean floor and its geologic structures, like sea mounts , ridges, and trenches, to discover how ocean basins and other ocean structures are formed. Geological oceanographers try to understand the processes that created these ocean basins, and how the ocean floor and the waters above it interact.

Geological Oceanography

The launch of the manned submersible Aquarius to study the ocean floor.

Biological Oceanography

Biological oceanography is the study of living things in the ocean, and the interactions of all of them with each other and also with their surrounding physical and chemical environments. Biological oceanographers are interested in how marine organisms develop, relate to one another, adapt to their environment, and interact with it.

An important point to consider when choosing a career in oceanography is that marine biology is often the most popular sub-field of oceanography, and therefore it is currently the most competitive. Careers in biological oceanography are few and far between.

Biological Oceanography

Killer whale survey to study the communication of killer whales, the identification and description of group-specific vocal dialects, and interpretations of these dialects to yield insights into the historical social evolution of the populations.

Considerations in Choosing a Career in Oceanography

Oceanography incorporates features of many sciences, for this reason, oceanographers have varied backgrounds and do many kinds of work. Oceanographers may work on ships or in laboratories on land. Some work for private companies. Most work for research institutes or government agencies, or hold teaching and research jobs in colleges and universities. A career in Oceanography almost always includes research. Research can be taken as the quest to gain knowledge by asking questions and recording the answers in some permanent form.

Basic research is the search for knowledge without any direct thought of what use is it? The results of basic research are traditionally made available, free of charge to all, through publication in scientific journals. Basic research positions are scarce, because basic research is relatively poorly funded. To succeed in this field of activity, the highest academic degrees and training (doctoral and post-doctoral studies) are usually required.

Applied Research is the search for specific answers to questions which are of direct interest or benefit to industry, government or business. Applied research is generally well-funded and, as a consequence, more positions are available with qualifications ranging from the very highest for senior positions to those that require more modest scientific and technical skills.

Nature of the Work

Being an oceanographer means being interested in the sea, and it means going to sea, sometimes for long periods of time. Oceanographers must also work ashore, analyzing data and publishing work so others can benefit. In addition, oceanographers do extensive work in the laboratory, including mathematical modeling of ocean processes, instrument design, testing, calibration, species identification, contaminant analysis and extractions.

A career in oceanography requires good health and physical stamina to cope with the rigors of field work at sea. For those whose careers may require shipboard research, one must accept long stretches of time aboard ship and perhaps having to cope with seasickness.

Rough Seas

Getting the Job

Many oceanographers get their first jobs as a result of contacts made during their schooling. The school placement office or professors at colleges and universities may be able to help prospective candidates find a job. It is also possible to apply directly to schools and research institutes where work is desirable.

Educational Requirements

Oceanography is typically a graduate pursuit, you should first obtain an undergraduate degree in a science such as biology preferably from an institution that offers graduate-level Oceanography programs. If your undergraduate school doesn't offer upper-level Oceanography programs you could take summer or weekend marine-related courses or even an internship with nearby schools or marine labs. A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for beginning positions. Students can earn a degree in oceanography or take courses in oceanography and major in a related field such as biology, physics, chemistry, or engineering. Graduate training is usually required for advancement. A doctoral degree is required for college teaching and for many research positions.

High School

The first step for a student considering a career in oceanography is to choose relevant science courses, from the physical, chemical, biological or earth sciences. Mathematics and training on and the use of computers must be regarded as an essential element of any high school science program. Students should also begin their development of basic skills in written and spoken English and/or French.

University Undergraduate Studies
On entry into university, students are well-advised to continue their studies in the physical, chemical, biological, earth sciences and mathematics. Language training should be continued in order to communicate scientific knowledge. An understanding of a foreign language is a definite asset.

Universities offering postgraduate training in oceanography are looking for candidates with majors or honours in any science field. If it is possible to participate in marine-oriented field courses it would be beneficial. Universities associated with either the Huntsman or Bamfield Marine Laboratories offer this experience even if they offer no other marine science courses.

University Graduate Studies

A master's program can usually be completed in one to two years after the bachelor's degree. The requirement for admission to this program is a strong undergraduate degree in the sciences. Courses at the graduate level will be considerably more advanced than at the undergraduate level; some but not all will be slanted towards the specialties and research interests of the professors on staff. However, in most universities students will be encouraged to explore different options and broaden their training.


Many Canadian universities offer undergraduate courses in oceanography but only those offering substantive courses at the postgraduate level are listed below:

University of Alberta

University of British Columbia

Dalhousie University

University of Guelph

McGill University

Memorial University of Newfoundland

Université du Québec à Rimouski

University of Victoria

Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre

Huntsman Marine Laboratory

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