Oceanography Degree Program Options by Level

Oct 26, 2019

Degrees in oceanography are available at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels. Students in these programs examine the physical, chemical, geological and biological elements of oceans and marine environments to prepare for careers in research.

Essential Information

Bachelor of Science programs in oceanography are more common, though Bachelor of Arts programs, requiring fewer math, science and engineering courses, are also available. Students in these degree programs examine many elements of the marine environment, including the physical and chemical composition of ocean water and the organisms that live in it. Studies also focus on the oceanic ecosystem, as well as ways in which the ocean interacts with the land and the air. A few schools offer an online option, allowing part of the degree program to be completed from a distance.

When applying for a master's degree program, applicants must first earn a bachelor's degree in oceanography, engineering or a similar field of science. Oftentimes, the student's undergraduate degree determines which specialization is pursued. A biology major, for example, generally enters the biological oceanography specialization, while a chemistry major chooses the chemical oceanography specialization. Substantial mathematics training is also strongly suggested. Most schools require that master's students compose a thesis project, though some schools offer non-thesis degree programs. Certain specializations may also require students to participate in an internship.

The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Oceanography program is heavily based on advanced research. Students work closely with faculty in their area of expertise while conducting an original research project. Ph.D. students continue their advanced study of the biological, chemical, geological and physical components of the ocean and marine environments. Students may enter into the doctoral program with a bachelor's degree or master's degree in oceanography or a related science. If students wish to bypass the master's degree and go straight for a Ph.D. after completing a bachelor's degree, they may be expected to pass a qualifying exam and complete extra credit hours. A dissertation is typically required.

Bachelor's Degree in Oceanography

Bachelor's degree programs often have concentrations in areas such as marine geology and geophysics, marine environmental science or coastal zone management, though some programs cover oceanography more broadly. A high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) credential is generally required for entrance into these programs.

The curriculum of a bachelor's degree program in oceanography is highly interdisciplinary, drawing many courses from the biology, chemistry, mathematics and environmental studies departments. Courses a student may be required to take include:

  • Technical communication and partial differential equations
  • Alleviation and reparation of coastal systems
  • Marine materials conservation and evaluating environmental impact
  • Aquaculture
  • Coastal form and structure
  • Worldwide biogeochemical patterns and cycles

Master of Science in Oceanography

Students entering into a Master of Science in Oceanography program select an area of specialization, such as biological, chemical, geological or physical oceanography. Conversely, oceanography is sometimes also presented as a concentration in a marine master's degree program. Students in a master's degree program translate information on topics such as marine environments, ocean circulation and paleoceanography into solutions for a variety of societal and environmental problems. A master's degree typically requires completion of 32 to 36 credit hours for graduation. Specific courses a student may encounter at in master's program include:

  • Biological data analysis and chemistry of the marine environment
  • Marine nekton (free-swimming marine organisms)
  • Coastal and estuarine systems and processes
  • Geochemical tracers in aquatic ecosystems
  • Hydrodynamics and ocean wave concepts and theories
  • Contemporary topics in environmental science

Doctor of Philosophy in Oceanography

Like the master's degree program, a specialization is chosen, though students gain at least a general understanding of all areas through the intensive coursework. Ph.D. students are given the opportunity to customize their degree program based on former schooling and main interests; the department must approve their curricula. Additional credits come from their dissertation proposal, research and defense. Students have the option of taking courses such as:

  • Instrumentation for environmental measurement
  • Sediment dynamics in coasts and estuaries
  • Paleoceanographic evolution
  • Integrated coastal administration
  • Ocean-atmosphere interactions
  • Marine ecosystem dynamics and fishery economics

Popular Career Options

Students often enroll in bachelor's degree programs as preparation for a graduate degree program. Although most careers in oceanography require a master's degree or higher, a bachelor's degree is considered sufficient for some technical positions. Some careers available to bachelor's degree holders include:

  • Oceanographic technician
  • Marine technician
  • Scientific research technician

A master's degree is the minimum requirement for many jobs in the field of oceanography. A graduate's specialization is the key determining factor for which occupation they will pursue. Jobs are available through government agencies, scientific research institutions and private companies. Some specific career titles include:

  • Marine biologist
  • Oceanographer
  • Marine physicist
  • Ocean engineer
  • Marine archaeologist

Earning a doctoral degree in oceanography allows marine biologists and oceanographers to conduct independent research and obtain administrative or teaching positions.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides statistics for oceanographers within the geoscientist category. The BLS noted that 29,260 geoscientists were employed in 2018 with an expected job growth of 6% from 2018 to 2028 (www.bls.gov). According to PayScale.com, oceanographers earned an annual median salary of $67,000 as of August 2019.

The BLS lists marine biologists under the title of zoologists and wildlife biologists. Employment for these professionals was expected to rise 5% during the 2018-2028 decade. PayScale.com reported in September 2019 that the annual median wage for marine biologists was $52,000. Atmospheric, earth, marine and space science professors made an annual median income of $90,860, and biological science professors received an annual median pay of $82,550 in 2018, reports the BLS.

The interdisciplinary coursework in oceanography bachelor's degree programs can prepare students for entry-level work as research technicians. Students interested in such careers as marine biologist, oceanographer and oceanography professor will need to complete a research-intensive master's or doctoral degree.

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