Sam Anderson has been all around the world studying the sea and the importance of its colour and has just finished a six-month project in Cape Town, South Africa monitoring harmful algal blooms.
What is oceanography?
It's the science of the sea and covers areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, and geology.
What does your oceanography career involve?
A lot of the work is research and development. I spend a lot of time working in physical oceanography studying ocean colour. This involves measuring the reflected light coming back from the sea surface, and using it to tell what's living in the sea.
We also measure currents for engineering projects like new flood defences or to help site sewage outfalls in the best place. There's a general impression that oceanography is about swimming with whales and dolphins but you rarely have anything to do with wildlife.
Who do you work for?
I work for an electronic design and manufacture company that develops new instrumentation systems which are used to get environmental data back from the sea. It is a growth area as there is a lot more legislation that governs what you can do in and with the sea.
Any specialist projects you've worked on?
I'm currently looking at how to develop better flood monitoring in river estuaries. I was also involved in the last Volvo Ocean Race, when instruments were fixed on all the yachts to monitor the oceans while they travelled round the world. My job was to go to all the ports that the yachts stopped in to service the instrumentation and download all the data. That was a fantastic job and meant flying all round the world!
What's a typical day like as an oceanographer?
One week you'll spend your whole time in the office in front of a computer, the next will involve lots of site visits and meetings with clients. I've done two-week research cruises too, and basically spent a fortnight at sea, so it helps not to be seasick!
What hours do you work?
On field trips you work as long as you need to in order to get the work done. When you're working with some instruments such as ocean optics, you can only work in daylight hours. Other research cruises might involve shifts, as the work goes on 24 hours a day. In the office it's more like a normal 36-hour week.
What equipment do you use?
Computers are crucial. When you're working in the field you use equipment such as radiometers to measure ocean colour, and conductivity, temperature and depth devices to measure salinity (the level of salt) and temperature of sea water. I'll also spend time putting equipment together, wiring them up and servicing them, so you have to be quite useful with your hands.
What makes a good oceanographer?
An interest in the subject and an enquiring mind are vital. And you've got to be flexible as well, and be prepared to do what needs to be done to complete a project. You don't actually have to swim or get into the water as much of the work is done from the boats.
What is good about your oceanography career?
Getting to travel, the variety of work, and the fact there's always something different going on. Mind, it can get a bit boring when you spend at lot of time afterwards in the office processing data and programming equipment.
What about on-the-job training?
I ask for training on specific tasks as I find the need to learn new techniques and computer programs. A lot of the instruments we use for measuring involve new technology and the manufacturers often provide training. If I need to learn something to do my job I am usually able to find a source for instruction and help.
Sam's route to an oceanography career
- Left school with A levels in geography, maths and physics.
- Degree in oceanography with physical geography.
- Worked at the university during her summer holidays, and was offered the chance to take part in a project in Portugal.
- Offered full-time job after graduation.
Sam's oceanography career tips
- You've got to be keen and it's got to be something you really want to do.
- Geography is important. You must be practical.
- Try and get work experience and meet people.
Oceanography career related jobs
- Chartered surveyor
- Technical surveyor
Salary of an oceanographer
- Salaries in academic posts are governed by the Natural Environment Research Centre (NERC) pay scales for scientists.
- Entrants with a degree will start at around £16,000, rising to around £30,000 with experience.
- Oceanographers working for commercial organisations often receive higher salaries.
- Entry to the career is with a degree in oceanography, a science, or a subject such as physical geography, geology or environmental science, followed by a Masters in oceanography.
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