If the scent of salt spray puts a smile on your face, if you can't seem to keep your toes out of the tidepools, if oceans are your obsession, you may have a career in Oceanography in mind. If you're a middle school or high school student, there is a lot you can do now to put yourself on track for an Oceanographic career. If you're already in college, or thinking of returning to pursue a degree in Oceanography, take a personal inventory to see what skills and knowledge you already have and which you'll need to acquire.
Oceanography is a wide field, and there are many career paths you can take. You may be interested in ocean currents, wave action, or the ocean bottom and want to study physical or geological oceanography. Perhaps you enjoy learning about the living creatures of the world's oceans, anything from bacteria to whales, and want to study marine biology. You may be curious about the role that the ocean plays in the world climate, and follow oceanic and atmospheric studies. If you have a particular area of Oceanography that interests you, you'll be able to focus your studies early. Or you may be interested in the chemical aspects of the ocean and pursue chemical oceanography.
IF YOU'RE IN MIDDLE OR HIGH SCHOOL
As with all science professions, it's good to get a broad background in science and math while you're still in school. Besides required science and math courses, be sure to complete coursework in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Earth Science is an excellent class for future oceanographers, since the physical features of the earth affects the oceans. If your school has classes in Oceanography or Marine Biology, be sure to take them. This will give you a better background, and help you decide what aspects of Oceanography interest you most. As for math, do your best to get through math to the highest level you can - through Calculus if possible. Statistics is also a good class to take if your school offers it. Computer sciences may be helpful. And believe it or not, shop classes can be helpful later on. After all, if you're aboard a research vessel far out to sea, or working at a research station in Antarctica, and some piece of equipment goes wrong, it will be up to you and your colleagues to fix it on the spot.
If there is an aquarium or marine research station in your area, visit it often. Find out if there are classes or workshops offered for students your age, and sign up for them. Try to meet some of the researchers who work there, and ask them about their work. Most research scientists are happy to discuss their research with interested listeners. Some may be excellent resources for any science project you have in mind. If you live far from an ocean, look up departments of Oceanography and marine research stations on the internet. Try emailing some of the researchers, tell them you're interested in a career in Oceanography, and ask how they became interested in the field and got started in their career.
Go for any opportunities to do research of your own, through your school's science club or local science fairs. If you can put together a good Oceanography research project of your own, you'll have something terrific to talk about on your college application essays.
While in high school, research which universities you'd like to attend. Consider location, cost, and the opportunities to participate in research while you are an undergraduate. If you attend a university with a department of Oceanography, consider double-majoring in Oceanography and a field related to your specific interests: Zoology, Botany, Microbiology, Atmospheric Science, and so on. You will have an adviser in college who can help you decide how to do this.
WHEN YOU'RE IN COLLEGE
See your college adviser as soon as possible. Your adviser can help you decide which direction your career is going to go, direct you to other instructors who will be helpful along the way, and will help make sure that you're taking all the right courses.
Get to know the professors in your major as soon as you can. Ask to meet with them and discuss their research. Show them any work you have done so far in your field. If you express a strong interest in their work, your professors may offer you opportunities to work with them. This helps build credentials when you go looking for a job later. These same professors may know of scholarships that you qualify for.
Take advantage of internship opportunities if they arise. Internships will get you into the profession quickly by giving you a chance to learn about ocean science on the job. It will also help build your resume.
Summer field experience is great if you can get it. Watch the job postings in your department, and apply for any summer jobs in your field.
ON TO GRADUATE SCHOOL
As with most science careers, you'll need to go to graduate school to qualify for most positions. Your undergraduate professors can help you decide which college to attend based on the research interests you have formed as an undergraduate. If you have been reading research papers in your chosen branch of Oceanography as part of your coursework, you may already have an idea of which researchers you'd like to work under as a graduate student. Try writing or emailing them with a polite letter expressing interest in their research and asking about opportunities for graduate studies at their institutions. You will probably apply to several graduate schools, especially if one you've chosen is highly competitive.
Once in grad school you'll be assigned to a major professor. You'll work with that professor, and may have opportunities to fund your education by working as a research assistant or teaching assistant. Here's where self-motivation and self-direction will be extremely valuable. It's easy to coast along, taking classes as you normally do in college. But when it comes to doing your own research for your Master's thesis or Ph.D. dissertation, it can be hard to discipline yourself to get the work done, the data analyzed, and the paper written. Set deadlines for yourself and meet them. The best attitude to take is to start with finishing in mind. Don't tell yourself, "If I finish my degree..." Tell yourself, "WHEN I finish my degree..."
After graduation, you'll be looking for a job. You might take a post-doc position for a year or two to learn more about conducting research. Or you might teach at a college as a non-tenure-track instructor as you learn more about teaching. You might go straight into a tenure-track position at a university, where you may teach and do research.
Government agencies also hire oceanographers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hires oceanographers. The military, too, is interested in oceanographic research, particularly the Office of Naval Research.
Private agencies that protect endangered habitats often need oceanographers. An interest in tropical reef biology or aspect of Antarctic or Arctic oceans may move you to a career in habitat preservation.
By the time you're finished with graduate school, you'll have a good idea where you want to end up. It's a long road to follow to finally get a job, but if you have a powerful interest in the world's oceans, the effort will lead to a rewarding lifelong career.