What is an Oceanography Degree?

The oceans cover almost 70% of the Earth. Oceanographers study the oceans and their complex relationships with the planet. They are concerned with marine organisms, the ocean’s chemical composition, the structure of the ocean floor, the movements of the ocean, design of technology for ocean exploration, and policy that protects the oceans.

At the foundation of degree programs in oceanography are courses in the physical and biological sciences. Fundamental knowledge in these areas prepares students to focus their graduate level studies in a particular area of interest.

Once in the work world, oceanography grads explore questions like: How does the ocean work? How does it affect global climate? How does it impact communities? What are the challenges of safe shipping? How do we ensure a sustainable food supply from the sea? What are the effects of sewage on aquatic ecosystems? How does the ocean affect human health and recreation? These wide-ranging questions speak to the scope of oceanography. It is almost as vast as the oceans themselves.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Oceanography – Four Year Duration
Most working oceanographers have a graduate degree. The bachelor’s degree, therefore, prepares students for further study in the field. At the undergrad level, the oceanography curriculum is composed of foundational courses in various disciplines, including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, environmental science, marine biology, and marine geology. In addition to classroom lectures, students participate in laboratory experiments and field studies.

Many schools that offer a Bachelor’s Degree in Oceanography are located in coastal areas, to better accommodate the field studies component. Some schools offer combined majors in oceanography and biology, microbiology, chemistry, physics, or another science subject.

Here is a sample bachelor’s oceanography curriculum:

  • Structure and Bonding in Chemistry – bonding theories and structural chemistry
  • Thermodynamics, Kinetics, and Organic Chemistry – the principles of chemical reactivity: thermodynamics, kinetics, organic chemistry, stereochemistry
  • The Fluid Earth – introduction to processes in ocean and atmosphere: heat, current, winds, clouds, marine life, resources; effects of climate change and pollution
  • Biology of the Cell – the principles of cellular and molecular biology using bacterial and eukaryotic (of or relating to a cell containing a nucleus and other structures, each with its own function) examples
  • Laboratory Investigations in Life Science – guided experimental investigations of biological questions
  • Eukaryotic Microbiology – introduction to the origin and diversity of protists (protozoa and algae) at both the cellular and genomic levels
  • Computer Methods in Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science – mathematical computer-based problem solving in the physical, chemical, and biological sciences; problems examined taken from studies of the earth, oceans, and atmosphere
  • Organic Chemistry for the Biological Science – reactions and properties of carbonyl compounds, carbohydrates, amino acids, and nucleic acids
  • Fundamentals of Biostatistics – statistical procedures for biological research; estimation, hypothesis testing, analysis of variance and regression; use of computers for statistical analysis
  • Fundamentals of Evolutionary Biology – natural selection; population genetics, quantitative genetics and systematics; classical and molecular approaches to the study of evolution
  • Plant Physiology – mechanisms and regulation of processes involved in the assimilation, transport, and utilization of water, mineral nutrients, and carbon by plants
  • Introductory Oceanography: Circulation and Plankton – physical and chemical processes and their controls on the distribution of plankton in the ocean
  • Introductory Oceanography: Climate and Ecosystems – physical, chemical, and biological processes in the ocean and their interaction with climate and marine food-webs
  • Aquatic Ecology – theoretical and applied limnology (the study of inland aquatic ecosystems); ecology of inland water organisms in relation to physical, chemical, and biological factors
  • Biological Oceanography – abundance, distribution, and production of phytoplankton, zooplankton, microbes, and fish; ecosystem dynamics and food-webs
  • Introduction to Fisheries Science – introduction to the ecology and management of freshwater and marine fisheries: population dynamics, species interactions, communities, environmental issues, stock assessment, economics, and sociology of fisheries
  • Methods in Oceanography – methods of data collection, study, and analysis in solving oceanographic problems

Master’s Degree in Oceanography – Two to Three Year Duration
At the master’s level students take some required courses but can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. The master’s program’s culminating requirement is typically a thesis based on original research. Some schools may offer a non-thesis/project option.

Doctoral Degree in Oceanography – Five to Six Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of oceanography. The Doctoral Degree in Oceanography is targeted at students who aspire to a career as a university professor or researcher.

The courses taken by individual master’s degree and Ph.D. candidates will vary, depending on the focus of their thesis or dissertation. Below are some examples of specialization tracks that may be available to graduate students in oceanography. Specific concentration options will vary from school to school. Graduate level internships often take place on research vessels.

Fisheries Science Track

Subject Areas:

  • Science and management of marine fisheries in developed and developing nations
  • Marine policy and spatial planning

Sample Courses:

  • Biological Oceanography
  • Fisheries Stock Assessment
  • Fish Population Dynamics
  • Geological Oceanography
  • Foundations of Earth Systems Dynamics
  • Management of Marine Protected Areas
  • Fisheries Oceanography
  • Ecological Statistics
  • Numerical Models and Data Analysis
  • Internship

Coastal Systems Track

Subject Areas:

  • Mapping
  • Marine spatial planning
  • Oil spill impacts and remediation
  • Coastal eutrophication (enrichment of water by nutrient salts that causes structural changes to the ecosystem)
  • Planning for impacts of seal-level rise
  • Coastal ocean energy development
  • Port management

Sample Courses:

  • Physical Oceanography
  • Biological Oceanography
  • Foundations of Earth Systems Dynamics
  • Geological Oceanography
  • Chemical Oceanography
  • Numerical Models and Data Analysis
  • Analysis in the Ocean Sciences
  • Applied Coastal Ecology
  • Salt Marsh Ecology
  • Introduction to Marine Pollution
  • Ocean Waves and Storm Surge Modeling
  • Restoration Ecology
  • Marine Environmental Organic Chemistry
  • Engineering Wave Mechanics and Nearshore Processes
  • Coastal Zone Law
  • Marine Pollution Policy
  • Internship

Ocean Data and Technology

Subject Areas:

  • Marine robotics
  • Seafloor mapping
  • Ocean engineering
  • Sensor utilization
  • Data collection and processing
  • Network and system security
  • Maritime and coastal policy

Sample Courses:

  • Physical Oceanography
  • Chemical Oceanography
  • Geological Oceanography
  • Foundations of Earth Systems Dynamics
  • Numerical Models and Data Analysis
  • Analysis in the Ocean Sciences
  • Coastal Geological Hazards
  • Modern Oceanographic Imaging and Mapping Techniques
  • Coastal Zone Law
  • Programming for Scientists
  • Design of Remotely Operated Vehicles
  • Port Operations and Policy
  • Satellite Oceanography
  • Digital Signal Processing
  • Environmental Data Acquisition and Analysis
  • Introduction to Network and Systems Security
  • Internship

Degrees Similar to Oceanography

Environmental Science
The basis of this discipline is that all natural things interact. Individuals who earn a degree in environmental science develop plans to prevent, control, or find solutions to environmental issues, such as pollution.

Geology, also known as geoscience and Earth science, is the study of the Earth. Students of the discipline learn about the processes that act upon the Earth, such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; the materials of which the Earth is made, such as water, oil, metals, and rocks; and the history, evolution, and past climates of the Earth.

Hydrology is about the active nature of water, the movement of precipitation. Hydrologists study surface waters like rivers, lakes, and streams and examine how rainfall and snowfall cause erosion, generate caves, and permeate soil and rock to become groundwater or flow to oceans and seas. Students of hydrology study these and other aspects of the field. They learn about water management methods, land use, environmental issues, and how to collect water data, interpret statistics, conduct computer modeling, and use geographic information systems (GIS) and the global positioning system (GPS).

Marine Biology
Students who earn a degree in marine biology study marine organisms and their behaviors and interactions with the environment.

Meteorology degree programs teach students how to predict weather conditions. The typical curriculum examines atmospheric movement, climate trends, and ozone levels. With an understanding of these concepts, students learn about various meteorological phenomena. They learn how to use statistical analysis to forecast weather events from sun, clouds, and rain to heat waves, droughts, thunderstorms, tropical storms, tornados, and hurricanes.

Skills You’ll Learn

Oceanography students develop diverse skills that can be applied in other fields as well:

  • Ability to work both independently and as part of a team
  • Advanced math and science skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Computer literacy / computer modeling
  • Dedication to ongoing learning
  • Field skills / comfortable working outdoors
  • Flexible approach to work
  • GIS (geographic information systems) and GPS (global positioning system) software
  • Global perspective
  • Knowledge of geography
  • Observation, critical thinking, and problem-solving
  • Oral and written communication
  • Perseverance
  • Project management
  • Research, data collection, analysis, interpretation, and reporting
  • Understanding of maps and graphs
  • Using statistical applications

What Can You Do with an Oceanography Degree?

Biological oceanography. Chemical oceanography. Geological oceanography. Physical oceanography. Ocean engineering. Marine policy. Ocean science journalism. These areas of oceanographic study present several career options, many of which are focused on conducting fieldwork and research:

Biological Oceanographers study the interactions between different types of marine organisms and the interactions between marine organisms and the environment. They may work for the fishing industry developing ecological ways of harvesting seafood or as environmental consultants studying the biological responses to pollution.

Chemical oceanographers are concerned with the chemical composition of ocean water. Their work includes monitoring the interaction of sea water with the atmosphere and seafloor. They study the effects of pollutants, examine chemical processes such as the Earth’s carbon cycle, help find naturally occurring resources on the seafloor, and look at how water moves to different parts of the world and how the ocean affects climate.

Geological oceanographers study the ocean’s floor and its geologic structures. Their concerns include undersea volcanic activity and how it relates to the movement of tectonic plates or the deep oceanic trenches. Some geological oceanographers focus on the erosion and pollution of coastlines and how to minimize it.

Physical oceanographers are concerned with the movements of the ocean. They study waves, tides, and current, as well as ocean properties like temperature and sea water density that affect these movements. Physical oceanography contributes to understanding weather and climate change and how light and sound are transmitted through sea water.

Ocean or marine engineers design and build instruments used to explore the ocean. Their primary focus in this work is to ensure that these instruments can withstand currents, waves, tides, and storms. Specialty areas of ocean engineering include electrical, mechanical, civil, and chemical engineering, as well as naval architecture, acoustics, and robotics.

Marine policymakers combine expertise in oceanography with knowledge of other sciences or law and/or business to create policies to regulate the use of ocean and coastal resources.

Ocean science journalists apply their knowledge of oceanographic and aquatic subjects in writing for newspapers and magazines and working in broadcast media and for government agencies.

Typical employers of oceanographers include:

  • Aquariums
  • Consulting firms
  • Environmental organizations
  • Government agencies
  • Non-profit and nongovernmental organizations
  • Port authorities
  • Resource and energy developers
  • Research laboratories
  • Shipping firms
  • The fishing industry
  • Uniformed marine services
  • Universities


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