With laboratories, offices and the sea being your places of work, a job as an oceanographer will be varied and research intensive
As an oceanographer, you'll use science and mathematics to study and explain the complex interactions between seawater, fresh water, polar ice caps, the atmosphere and the biosphere.
Your aim will be to understand and predict how the oceans work, as well as working out how to make the most efficient and sustainable use of its resources.
Types of oceanographer
You can choose to specialise in one area of oceanography, such as:
- physical oceanography - studying the properties of currents, waves, tides and ocean circulation, plus the temperature, density and salt content of oceans
- chemical oceanography - determining the chemical composition of sea water and sediments and effect of pollutants
- biological oceanography - studying marine animals and plants and how organisms interact with their environment
- geological oceanography - examining the seabed, including the rocks and minerals.
Being an oceanographer could see you involved in areas such as mineral exploitation, shipping, fisheries, coastal construction, pollution, weather prediction, climate change and renewable energy.
Tasks vary depending on whether you're undertaking lab or office-based work, which involves computer modelling, or whether you're at sea on a research vessel, gathering data from subsurface instruments.
Your work will also depend on your employer and your level of training and experience, but may include:
- collecting samples and data from the sea, sea floor or atmosphere using specialised equipment and techniques
- analysing samples for natural and contaminant composition
- looking at life forms and matter, such as trace metals, present in sea water
- performing simulations of ocean phenomena using computer or mathematical models
- using statistical models of laboratory and field data to investigate hypotheses and make predictions
- analysing and interpreting data from samples, measurements and remote sensing aids
- attending conferences and going on research cruises
- submitting proposals to obtain research funding
- writing reports and papers on research activities
- lecturing to university classes and leading field trips.
- Typical starting salaries for oceanographers range from £18,000 to £25,000 depending on qualifications and experience.
- You could progress to a salary of £38,000 to £45,000 with substantial experience, depending on the organisation and type of project.
- Lecturers with the right combination of qualifications and experience can earn up to £55,000.
If you work in private industry you may be on a similar or slightly higher scale.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours vary depending on the project and organisation. Extra hours may be required to meet project deadlines, although weekend or shift work is rare on land.
Hours at sea are less regular. Time at sea can vary from days to months.
What to expect
- You will generally work in a lab or office and also spend time away at sea.
- Research work may be carried out from a ship or offshore platform and may be in a remote location. Conditions at sea may be hazardous and physically demanding, with cramped accommodation and difficult weather conditions. However, most oceanographers view time at sea as an essential and rewarding part of the work.
- You need to be comfortable using diving equipment and submersible vehicles.
- Most contracts are fixed term, even if you have strong academic qualifications and experience. In academia and industry, many oceanographers are employed on a rolling-contract basis, which is dependent on grant or contract funding availability.
- In government departments and agencies, jobs are more likely to be established, permanent posts.
- Jobs are restricted to a few specialist organisations and particular locations. An increase in national and international collaborations has in turn increased overseas employment, particularly if you're qualified at PhD level.
- Adjusting to periods away at sea and working long hours may be stressful. Some project and contract deadlines are tight. The demand for rapid solutions to practical questions may bring added pressures.
- The work may involve travel within a working day, absence from home at night or overseas travel.
Oceanographers typically have a degree in physics, chemistry, maths or biology, as well as a postgraduate qualification in oceanography. Degree courses in oceanography, ocean science and marine science, often combined with other earth sciences or computing, are also available.
Most oceanographers have a postgraduate qualification at Masters or PhD level. It's likely that you'll specialise and develop your research interests while undertaking your postgraduate qualification.
There is a range of postgraduate courses available covering physical, chemical and biological oceanography as well as areas such as computing, mathematical modelling and remote sensing. You will typically be required to have studied science or maths at A-level, or as your first degree for these qualifications.
Search for postgraduate courses in oceanography.
Entry with an HND or foundation degree is possible, but this will usually be to support and technical roles, which are rare. Study at a higher level may be expected and encouraged.
Entry is rarely possible without a degree or HND in a science-related subject. The bulk of jobs are mid-range, at postdoctoral and higher scientific officer level.
You will need to show:
- excellent communication skills, both written and verbal, for working with teams and reporting findings
- knowledge and experience of the marine environment
- team project experience as you may be planning and carrying out research assignments
- good computer literacy and some experience of computational and mathematical modelling
- good observational skills and attention to detail for analysing samples
- determination, perseverance and problem-solving skills, while working away at sea and when carrying out experiments
- a flexible approach to work
- the ability to work well in a team and alone
- openness to ideas and concepts of scientific disciplines other than your own.
Related experience in marine science or oceanography research is an advantage. You can gain this through a sandwich year during your degree, overseas study, undergraduate collaborative projects or employment.
Contacts in marine centres or laboratories are useful. You may want to consider student membership with relevant organisations such as:
Typical employers include private industry, universities, government research laboratories, the armed services, charities and pressure groups.
Many research positions are funded through the two main government funding bodies for oceanographers in the UK, which are the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Other major employers include a small number of university research departments, as well as government departments and agencies such as the Environment Agency, Marine Scotland and the Met Office.
You could also find work with:
- non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
- environmental organisations such as Natural England
- industries concerned with inshore and offshore work such as oil, gas, water and marine instrumentation
- energy supply companies and water companies
- ocean instrumentation manufacturers
- environmental consultancies.
There are also opportunities to work abroad in countries across Europe and further afield including Saudi Arabia, China and America.
Look for job vacancies at:
You may see jobs advertised on notice boards at conferences or come across vacancies by networking.
Employers will usually provide initial training relevant to the post in areas such as report writing, writing and presenting papers and presentation skills. You're also likely to develop while in the role by working with other oceanographers, including those from different specialist areas, as well as with scientists from other disciplines such as physicists, environmentalists and engineers.
If you choose an academic career, you may be expected to undertake original research, secondments, collaborative work, self-managed learning and professional seminars. Many employers encourage study towards a PhD if you don't already have one. There may be opportunities to study abroad.
There are several research organisations, some of which have particular specialisms, which may provide training, including:
There are also professional organisations that provide an opportunity for development and networking, such as IMarEST and SUT.
You may be able to undertake short study periods at an overseas marine institute or work on short projects at sea. However, it's likely you'll have to fund this yourself - either at your own expense or by securing a grant.
Your career development is largely self-directed and may involve you having to move to other jobs around the UK and abroad. You could progress to lead a team where you'll take on more responsibility for contract and project management. Seniority depends on the publication of research papers and having a range of experience.
If working in academia, you may combine departmental responsibilities with your own research. In a small profession like this, you need to network and build a reputation. You also need to acquire new skills and assimilate new knowledge quickly. It may be necessary to get involved in fields other than your own specialism, especially as many contracts and projects are fixed term. The key is your ability to adjust to changes of emphasis in scientific focus and funding.
If you're based in private industry and consultancy, your career prospects will often be dependent on wider economic and political factors in the energy sector, particularly oil.
Further studies at Masters or Doctorate level are often vital for career progression. Within government organisations, you need to get involved with decision-making committees and internal working groups in order to progress.
As an experienced oceanographer, you can apply for chartered status via a relevant professional body such as the IMarEST, which offers Chartered Scientist, Chartered Marine Scientist and Chartered Marine Technologist status.
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They give a glimpse into your personality in a way that a list of accomplishments can't.
Cover letters can be intimidating though, and it can be tricky to know where to start.
We turned to career expert and founder of career consulting firm Résumé Strategists, Alyssa Gelbard, to find out how to write an amazing cover letter that will impress hiring managers.
Here are the seven most essential things to incorporate:
1. Include the job details.
This may seem trivial, but the little details are important.
"Always mention the specific job title for which you're applying, as the person to whom you are reaching out could be conducting several concurrent searches," says Gelbard. Also be sure to include where you saw the job opening (e.g. LinkedIn or the company website).
2. Show your value.
Cover letters are a great opportunity to expand on the accomplishments listed in your résumé. Don't be afraid to brag a little bit, suggests Gelbard.
"Include why you would be an asset to the company, the unique things you have to offer, and how they would benefit from having you on their team," she says. "You should also highlight relevant experience and expertise, and important things that would be of interest to hiring managers, like if you worked for their largest competitor for 10 years."
3. Infuse some personality.
Use the cover letter to put a face and personality behind the facts that your résumé presents. However, be wary of getting too personal or unprofessional.
"It's okay to show a little personality in your cover letter, but you want to strike the right balance between being overly formal and too informal," Gelbard explains. "It's best to err on the more formal side, but you don't need to sound boring or robotic. Let your passion and enthusiasm come through, as long as it doesn't sound fluffy."
4. Use specific words and phrases from the job description.
Make things easier on yourself by using what is right in front of you. "When a company posts a job description, they're saying, 'here's what we need,' so you want to use that same language to be relevant when you're explaining why you're an ideal candidate for the position," says Gelbard.
Plus, using key words from the job description will help you if the company uses an automated application screening system.
5. Include a referral.
Give yourself an immediate leg up over other candidates by leveraging your network and establishing a connection with the hiring manager from the get-go.
"If you're reaching out to a person at the recommendation of someone else, always lead with that," suggests Gelbard. "This gets noticed quickly by whomever is reading your letter and will help you stand out."
6. Label your attachments.
This sounds insignificant, but once again, the small stuff matters.
"Be cognizant of your document name," Gelbard warns. "You may have gone through many drafts of a cover letter and ultimately finalize draft version six, for example, but make sure you don't include that in the document title. Keep it short and easily referenced."
Also, if you're emailing your cover letter as an attachment (rather than in the body of an email), always send it as a PDF, she says.
7. Only include relevant information.
"Keep it short," Gelbard suggests. "You don't need to restate your whole résumé in a cover letter. A cover letter should be no more than a few paragraphs."