Oceanography is a scientific discipline concerned with all aspects of the world's oceans and seas, including their physical and chemical properties, origin and geology, and life forms. Oceanographers try to understand and predict how oceans work and help us to use and conserve their resources. As the oceans and the atmosphere are linked, marine meteorology is a related area of expertise. 

Marine meteorology is a subfield of meteorology that deals with overarching weather and climate systems, while more specifically honing into the associated oceanographic conditions in marine environments and the interactions between the ocean and atmosphere. It is a unique meteorological discipline in that it is also scientifically geared towards the production and understanding of weather information in support of marine activities such as offshore wind and tidal installations, shipping and fishing.  

What do oceanographers do?

A lot of an oceanographer’s work is laboratory or desk-based and involves the use of computer modelling. Although much data comes from automated sampling equipment and satellites, time is still spent in the field, such as gathering data from instruments deep below the surface. Most oceanographers spend some time at sea on research vessels, possibly going down to the seabed, using diving equipment or submersibles. Oceanography has practical applications in areas such as fisheries, mineral extraction and shipping management. Oceanographers often work with marine meteorologists to research the effects of oceans on the climate and the long-term effects of climate change. 

Oceanographers can specialise in the following areas: 

  • Physical oceanographers – monitor the temperature, density and salt content of the oceans, as well as tides, currents, waves and ocean circulation, amongst many other physical ocean properties 

  • Chemical oceanographers – focus on the chemical composition and properties of seawater and marine sediments, as well as the chemical interaction between the oceans and the atmosphere. This can be used to understand how currents move seawater and how it affects climate 

  • Geological oceanographers – explore the ocean floor and the processes that determine its composition, structure and formation. Through sampling, they can examine millions of years of plate tectonics, climate and ocean circulation history, which help us to understand the interactions between the ocean and seafloor 

  • Biological oceanographers – study the many life forms that live in the sea. They are generally interested in the number of marine organisms and how they interact with each other and adapt and react to their surrounding environment 

Given that many of these areas of study intertwine, a range of professionals may contribute to any one piece of research or project. As such, all oceanographers must have a keen understanding of biology, physics, geology and chemistry to unravel the mysteries of the oceans and the processes that work within it. 

What do marine meteorologists do?

Operational marine meteorologists collect weather and ocean data from weather stations, satellites and observation vessels. They feed this into computers, interpret the output and produce and analyse charts. This information is used to predict weather changes, and to provide a record of past weather, from which calculations of largescale changes in the global climate can be made. There are two Global Collecting Centres (GCCs) which are part of the World Meteorological Organization’s Marine Meteorology Programme – one run by the Met Office in the UK, and the other based in Germany. The GCCs collect marine data from around the world, process and distribute it.  
The Met Office has also established a research centre – the National Centre for Ocean Forecasting. Applied marine meteorologists are concerned with the practical use of meteorological data. They use various ocean modelling systems for wave, storm surge and ocean current forecasting etc. This helps organisations such as ferry operators and oil companies to plan their work. Predictions of conditions over seasons are useful for government departments and many other organisations.  

There are occasional opportunities for technical and support staff to undertake the more routine work in oceanography and marine meteorology. 

What skills and personal qualities do you need?

  • an affinity towards meteorology and an interest in the marine environment 

  • knowledge of policy and legislation in the marine sector 

  • understand the link between wider socio-economic contexts and the marine sector 

  • analytical skills and data modelling 

  • scientific writing skills – including both journalistic writing and science communications 

  • to be observant, patient, accurate and able to pay attention to detail 

  • numerical skills and applied maths skills - most oceanographers and marine meteorologists utilise advanced statistics 

  • problem-solving skills 

  • ICT skills 

  • the ability to work in a team 

  • leadership qualities 

  • good communication and presentation skills. It is useful to have the ability in another language. 

What about entry, training and qualifications?

Professional Oceanographer 

Oceanography is a career for graduates; most entrants also have postgraduate qualifications. A degree in ocean science, meteorology, geology, biology, chemistry or environmental science is often required. Degree courses in ocean science, oceanography and marine science combined with other earth sciences are also available. Choosing a broad area of study rather than a specialist first degree will help to keep your options open. The majority of oceanographers also have some form of postgraduate qualification at Masters or PhD level, with many developing their research interests while undertaking their postgraduate qualification. 

Professional Meteorologist 

Professional meteorologists usually have degrees in maths, physics or meteorology, but other subjects may be acceptable. Postgraduate courses in meteorology are also available for those with appropriate degree subjects. A postgraduate degree is required for research posts; however, it is not essential for other types of work, but will significantly increase your chances of securing other meteorological positions. 

The Met Office in the UK is a major employer of meteorologists who provide off- and on-the-job training for graduates. The Met Office usually asks for a degree or equivalent in either meteorology or another analytical degree, such as physical science or mathematics, with an ability in physics and maths at AS-level or higher (or equivalent). Additionally, employers will usually ask you to demonstrate your interest in the weather. 

Entry requirements for technical and support staff vary, but you are likely to need A level or equivalent qualifications; some technicians hold qualifications at Higher National level. Support staff in marine meteorology may be able to work towards the NVQ level 3 in weather observing or an NVQ level 4 in weather forecasting. 

Who employs oceanographers/marine meteorologists?

  • Research institutes (such as those funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council) 

  • Research teams at universities 

  • National meteorological services, such as the Met Office in the UK which provides services to all kinds of public and private organisations 

  • Energy-supply companies 

  • Companies in the water industry 

  • Marine survey and consulting companies 

  • Ocean instrumentation manufacturers 

  • Defence establishments 

  • Environmental consultancies 

What about future prospects?

Job vacancies are often offered for a fixed-term of about three years to work on a particular project. Many jobs are based overseas…or at sea! With experience, oceanographers can progress to senior research scientist and management-level positions. Experienced marine meteorologists may move into the increasing number of forecasting and consultative services. 

What else can you do to improve your employability?

Joining a professional institute, such as the IMarEST, provides you with a range of benefits and services that are tailored to your point in your career, to support your professional development, raise your profile and connect you with other like-minded professionals from around the world. 

Once you have joined a professional institute like the IMarEST, you can join your local branch to become involved in local activities and communities to get more from your membership and further boost your profile. Additionally, you can join a Special Interest Group. The IMarEST has an Operational Oceanography SIG which aims to provide sustained marine measurements, analyses, predictions and assessments for use in improving public safety and national security, supporting the shipping industry and protecting the marine environment.  

You could also gain relevant experience by volunteering. Many non-governmental organisations run conservation research expeditions that you can gain practical fieldwork skills and research skills, whilst also having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Check out the list of the IMarEST’s NGO Partners for ideas as to where you could go. The IMarEST also offers a variety of volunteering opportunities. Take a look at our ‘get involved’ brochure as well as our volunteering brochure to find out more!