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The Real Poop

How can you tell if you're a pirate? Because you just arrrrgh.

Okay, so maybe the whole pirate thing didn't work out. We know you practiced your salty brogue for a long time and honed your peg leg limp. Your stripy shirt and eye patch looked good, but there’s just not really a market for being a pirate. It's even been tough in Pittsburgh since the whole Barry Bonds thing.

Do not lose hope! There is still a chance for you to spend months at sea with salt-crusted hair, but actually contribute to society instead of just stealing booty and burying it on deserted islands. Oceanographers are the pirates of the scientific world, sailing the seven seas conducting research and studying the movement of the ocean and how it interacts with climate, creates weather, and affects (and is affected by) humanity.

Oceanographers have a huge variety of responsibilities as scientists. Sure, they may need to swab the occasional poop deck (it's not as bad as you think), but they will also be working in laboratories, writing proposals for scientific research, trekking (or more likely sailing) to remote corners of the world, and presenting findings to clients, sponsors, and the scientific community.

How can one position have such a variety of job responsibilities? What is this, a super-scientist? The reality is that an Oceanographer may work for a government organization, an environmental protection agency, or a private corporation. Add to this fact that every Oceanographer is going to have a specialty or set of pet projects, and you can see why all the variety exists.

Because of this smorgasbord of saltwater possibilities, any Oceanographer worth their salt is going to need to be a master of a plethora of different skills. First off, you are going to need to be extremely detail-oriented and a strong critical thinker. Critical thinking does not mean you walk around commenting to yourself how terrible everyone else's sense of style is. Critical thinking is an ability to look at a large amount of data and observations, and draw conclusions about them.

Oceanographers also work on complex projects involving many steps, and therefore need to be excellent problem solvers. If the instructions for the mac and cheese involve a few too many steps and you need to keep checking the box to see what comes next, there might be careers you are better suited to. May we suggest something outside of the scientific (or culinary) realm.

If this is sounding like a good fit so far, ask yourself this question: How are my communication skills? Communication abilities—this means speaking and writing—are key characteristics for a successful Oceanographer. Why, you ask? Did you picture yourself alone on a sailboat, communing with crustaceans? Wrong. Well, sort of wrong. While part of an Oceanographer's job will have them on—or near—the water, a major facet of the position involves writing proposals or grants for scientific research, explaining findings to folks who don't necessarily understand "sea speak," and writing about results in scientific journals or other publications.

Finally we get to the sailing part! Oceanographers may spend significant amounts of time—we are talking months here—on the water conducting research and taking measurements and samples. Which means that being an Oceanographer requires a certain amount of intestinal fortitude. That is to say, you need to be kind of tough. If lying in a hammock or watching a movie in 3-D gets you seasick, then months spent sailing inside the Arctic Circle is going to suck.

Think you've got what it takes? Critical thinking skills, communication abilities, and toughness out the wazoo? Then we should talk about how you might become an Oceanographer. To start with, you should study lots of...don't let this surprise you...science. Oceanographers need a solid foundation in all of the physical sciences to understand the complex interplay among ocean water, land, climate, and life. So you should definitely not drop Physics to take Underwater Basket Weaving (just because it has water in the name doesn't make it applicable). Along with Physics, take Biology, Chemistry, Geology, and, of course, anything water-related if you have the chance.

After high school, would-be Oceanographers are going to earn a minimum of a bachelor's degree in a scientific field. This is the minimum for entry-level positions. To be truly competitive in the scientific job market (and scientists are a notoriously vicious lot), you will most likely want to go for a master’s degree in a specialized field. Some may even want to continue to earn a PhD in Oceanography or a related discipline, especially if they want to conduct high-level research or teach at the university level.

Whatever route you sail to becoming an Oceanographer, once you earn your degree you may be conducting research for an environmental nonprofit, or identifying promising sites for offshore oil drilling. You could study frozen diatoms in Antarctica trying to predict global warming patterns, or research Equatorial currents to help forecast hurricanes. Just get your sea legs ready.