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How Do I Become a Physical Oceanographer?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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A college degree in oceanography or a related field is usually the first step for someone who wants to become a physical oceanographer. Entry level positions may be open to a person with a bachelor’s degree, but higher degrees are recommended for people interested in being lead researchers and teachers. In addition to college education, it is helpful to have practical experience as well as membership in an organization dedicated to physical oceanography. These show that a candidate for employment is committed to keeping up with the discipline and maintaining connections with other oceanographers.

This aspect of oceanography focuses on the physics of the global oceans, including the way temperature, density, and salinity impact water movements. A physical oceanographer can study circulation, tides, tsunamis, and other events. Tools used on the job may include satellite observation, field data collected from research boats, and computer programming to develop and test scenarios. People in the physical oceanography field may have degrees in physical oceanography, marine science, or physics.

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A student who plans to become a physical oceanographer can take a mix of oceanography, physics, and programming classes to prepare. It helps to attend a college or university with a field oceanography program that provides opportunities to participate in research. This can include open ocean work as well as coastal oceanography. Internship opportunities may be available during the summers with institutions focused on oceanography, allowing students to develop skills, experience, and connections. Experience in internship settings can also help students decide which aspects of physical oceanography they want to focus on.

With a bachelor’s degree, a graduate can apply to become a physical oceanographer, typically as an assistant or technician. It may be possible to slowly work into higher positions, but the low level of the degree can be limiting. People interested in life-long careers in this field may want to consider going for a master’s or doctorate degree in physics or physical oceanography. This provides opportunities to connect research and establish credentials like journal publications that will help in the quest to become a physical oceanographer.

It is possible to become a physical oceanographer in a more senior role with an advanced degree, research, and field experience. Professors typically need advanced degrees, as do lead researchers. Some students with doctorate degrees may find that their doctorate and postdoctorate work naturally leads them into offers of employment or associations with specific research labs. Others may take a strong academic reputation with them for employment in an entirely new environment.

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