Careers in Oceanography

Graphic showing divers and other oceanographic careers

The Oceanographer of Tomorrow

The future of oceanography will require that our nation's brightest minds apply themselves to issues of global concern, the environment, climate change, biodiversity, and sustainable resources. Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego leads the world in basic ocean and earth science research and in the education of the next generation of oceanographers. As a research and teaching institution, Scripps is engaged in oceanography on a worldwide basis. The multidisciplinary nature of global oceanography makes it one of the most exciting science careers imaginable. In addition, the ocean provides aspects of intrigue and mystery in almost every scientific field.

Scripps Oceanography is dedicated to the study of the oceans, atmosphere, and Earth. The institution's goal is to train professional oceanographers to be teachers, independent researchers, or both. (See What You Can Do With a Degree from Scripps.)

But opportunities are not limited to these two directions. Ships require crews; libraries must be staffed; and electronic, biological, and chemical technicians are needed. Positions for specialists are available, and opportunities occasionally exist for those already out of school to move up through on-the-job training.

Opportunities for scientists at all levels may be found in governmental laboratories and in the academic or industrial communities. (Students with bachelor's degrees also can apply for our Master of Advanced Studies degree in Climate Science and Policy.)

Although the demand for new positions in oceanography is small, scientists are needed to replace the present teachers and researchers in ocean and earth science who are retiring or leaving the field. Traditional employment in academia or government service is supplemented by industrial employment.

The average yearly salary for an oceanographer with a bachelor's degree (in 2009) was $33,254. Postdoctoral researchers average salary ranged from $37,400 to $49,452.

Academic salaries for assistant professors ranged from $53,200 to $80,300 while tenured professors can make between $100,000 to $150,000.

The average yearly government salary (in 2009) for oceanographers was $105,671.


Marine Biologists may examine the cycling of nutrients through the marine food chain, from algae to tuna. They may investigate the physiological adaptations of marine organisms. They may determine how sharks behave, how fishes communicate, and how marine ecosystems are changing due to human influence.

Marine Geologists explore the ocean floor — its mountains, canyons, and valleys. Study of seafloor sediment cores can reveal the history of oceanic circulation and climates over the past 150 million years. The study of the rocky crust beneath the sediments sheds light on the origin of volcanoes, as well as the processes of seafloor spreading and continental drift.

Geophysicists ask such questions as why the earth's magnetic field has reversed itself at least three times in the last million years. These scientists are beginning to understand what causes earthquakes and can now measure them with great accuracy. They also search places where heat escapes from the crust of the earth for clues to fundamental processes deep in the planet's interior.

Marine Chemists study how the oceans were formed eons ago, and what determines their composition today. They identify ocean resources that may be beneficial, such as natural products with medicinal properties, and investigate means to protect the oceans from the effects of pollution.

Physical Oceanographers study the circulation of seawater and the exchange of energy and matter across the surface of the ocean. They examine the transport of sand on and off beaches and the processes of coastal erosion. Physical oceanographers also measure deep currents such as those flowing from Antarctic waters into the Pacific Ocean.

Atmospheric Scientists and Climate Researchers investigate how the relationship among the ocean, atmosphere, and land affects the world's climate systems. They seek to forecast climate trends through the use of increasingly sophisticated computer models. They also study the buildup of pollutants and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and how they affect clouds, precipitation, and the potential for climate change.

Biological Oceanographers are concerned with the complex interactions of groups of marine organisms with one another and their environment. They seek to understand how factors such as warm and cold currents affect the availability of food fishes.

Marine Physicists develop the means to interact with the oceans. They design and build many specialized research tools, including remotely operated vehicles, sophisticated seafloor instruments, and innovative remove-sensing systems such as acoustic-imaging devices for exploring the oceans. They also develop mechanisms for controlling sand on beaches.