Maths, Physics and Chemistry in Oceanography

There is a wide range of opportunities open to those who study mathematics, physics and chemistry. Choosing one of these three subjects, taken to degree or postgraduate level, will offer the prospects of careers ranging from academia to zymurgy (the branch of chemistry concerned with fermentation processes in brewing!). In oceanography, the majority of jobs currently available are filled by people from mathematics, physics or chemistry backgrounds, sometimes as joint honours degrees with oceanography. There are also opportunities for graduates in biology, marine biology, biochemistry, zoology, geology and geophysics, but these subjects are discussed elsewhere on the website.

Oceanographers seek to understand the physical and chemical processes of the oceans. They measure parameters such as temperature, salinity, current speed, gas fluxes, chemical components, and even the age of the water. Collecting data can mean spending six or seven weeks at sea, and then working on the data back at the lab, but often you might work from shore using data collected by others, or by remote sensing satellite, instrumented buoy or a free–drifting survey instrument. Increasingly, data is gathered by robots such as subsea gliders, “Argo” floats and autonomous underwater vehicles, but ships still play an important role.

In recent years there has been growth in oceanographic exploration. This is because oceans play an important role in the regulation of our planet’s climate, and understanding the oceans enables better predictions of climate change, global warming and sea level rise. It is therefore no surprise to learn that some oceanographers come from meteorological backgrounds. The recent realisation that ocean chemistry is being changed by the addition of extra carbon has led to a new emphasis too on chemistry.

Most laboratories use multi–disciplinary teams, with scientists from a range of degree disciplines, working together to solve problems

Work is international in outlook, funding, staffing and publication of results, so oceanographers can expect to travel widely and, at the very least, to work alongside colleagues from many nations.

Computer modellers are now an essential part of research teams, as they help to organise the observed data into computer simulations of the ocean/atmosphere system.

In the private sector, oceanographers might work on the prediction of extreme sea conditions for offshore oil and gas platform designers. They look at pollution, both as chemists and as computer modellers, helping to predict the path that an oil slick may take. Opportunities can be found in the various ocean industries, port and harbour authorities, civil engineering firms, and also with the manufacturers of ocean instrumentation. In the public sector, there are opportunities such as the universities, research councils, defence research, meteorology offices, civil service, planning authorities, international organisations, and so on. In addition to these, there are the various pressure groups and charities who need oceanographic expertise – and of course you can study the subject simply out of interest.

Oceanographic vacancies in both the public and private sector can be hard to find. The competition is high quality, and contracts tend to be short, rarely over five years in duration, so young oceanographers may find that they move around a great deal in the first ten or so years of their careers. However, these moves should be seen as opportunities to widen experience and gain an international reputation. In the long run you will probably need to gain a doctorate in order to secure a permanent post.

Entry qualifications are high, a first or upper second class honours degree in mathematics, physics or chemistry with a Master’s degree in oceanography are typical of new recruits. You could study oceanography as a first degree, students often choose to study it as joint honours with mathematics, physics or chemistry to ensure that basic scientific knowledge is at a high enough level. You must have a good understanding of computing and, if possible, have an understanding of a foreign language or two. If you are still at school, aim for high grades; competition for posts is tough enough that even the grades you gained at school are looked at. For A–level or equivalent, you must do a combination that includes mathematics, physics and one other science.

For more information on typical companies, see our current list of corporate members and please use the search engine provided for areas of interest.

Further Information:

For further information you should check out the web pages of the various research laboratories. A good start is to check out national Oceanography Centre, From there, you will find links across the globe. Periodicals worth reading are New Scientist and Nature, as both contain regular oceanographic features and advertise job vacancies.

There are many excellent textbooks available, for example the Open University publishes a very well regarded selection of oceanographic books.   A useful introductory book is Oceanography: An Illustrated Guide by C P Summerhayes and S A Thorpe, published by Manson, London, ISBN 1–874545–38–3 (hardback) ISBN 1–874545–37–5 (paperback).


In England and Wales, the Challenger Society for Marine Science is the main learned society for professional oceanographers, and is also a founding member of the European Federation of Marine Science Societies.


Challenger Society for Marine Science
Room 251/20
National Oceanography Centre
Waterfront Campus
European Way
Hampshire SO14 3ZH

w www.challenger–

In Scotland there is also:

The Scottish Association for Marine Science
P.O. Box 3
Argyll PA34 4AD

t 01631 559000
f 01631 559001
w www.nerc–