Choosing a Career in Marine Sciences

The word Oceanography is probably more familiar to the student than Marine Sciences; the two terms are essentially interchangeable, embracing all studies pertaining to the sea, including such subjects as ocean boundaries and bottom topography, the physics and chemistry of sea water, the types of currents, and the many phases of biology. These studies are generally referred to as Physical, Chemical, Biological and Geological Oceanography.

Oceanology, another term that is sometimes used, refers to the technology of doing things in, on, around or under the oceans. In North America the term ocean engineering is in general use. The mapping or charting of the oceans is referred to as Hydrography.

Physical Oceanography

Physical oceanography includes such things as the formation of waves, salinity/density gradients, temperature differences and currents. Air/sea energy interchanges and related ocean-weather phenomena such as global climate change, El Nino, hurricanes and typhoons are special topics of ocean research that require a knowledge of both marine and atmospheric sciences.

Chemical Oceanography

Chemical oceanography deals with the origins and fate of chemical constituents of ocean waters and the chemical reactions that take place in the ocean environment. The effects of contaminants, organic or inorganic and their distribution patterns, are major concerns of marine chemists. Chemical tracers, atmosphere/ocean gas exchanges are used to determine the movement and distribution of deep ocean waters and the cycling or uptake of gases such as carbon dioxide.

Geological Oceanography

Geological oceanography covers the study of the formation of ocean basins, mountain ranges, trenches, undersea volcanoes and how sediments are transported, uplifted and distributed into islands and continents. Findings arising from tectonic plate theories have led to new explanations of continental drift, movements of plates, uplift and mountain building. The discovery of hydrothermal vents has led to many new mineral and biological discoveries in the ocean. Much of the applied geological and geophysical research and surveys is directed to the location of offshore oil, gas and mineral deposits.

Biological Oceanography

Biological oceanography is the study of living things in the ocean, and the interactions of all of them with each other and also with their surrounding physical and chemical environments. Taxonomy is the base of all biological studies and in a broad interpretation of this subject it embraces evolutionary relationships. In the simplest of terms, once the species have been enumerated and identified, the relationships and inter-relationships of the species and dependencies of plants and animals between and amongst themselves becomes the field of ecology. It is concerned with entire communities and the dynamic ways in which they interrelate. One aspect of ecology that has grown into its own is that of the behaviour of animals, including how and why they communicate with each other.

Considerations in Choosing a Career in Marine Sciences

At present a career in the marine sciences involves in one way or another a commitment to some form of research. Research can be taken as the quest for previously unrecorded knowledge by asking questions and recording the answers in some permanent form.

Basic research is the search for knowledge without any direct thought of what use is it? Basic research is at the foundation of all sciences, all medicine, and all technology. With respect to the world's oceans, only a small fraction of what is there is known today. Basic research is mostly conducted in universities, museums and government institutions, and to a lesser extent in private and industrial laboratories. The results of basic research are traditionally made available, free of charge to all, through publication in scientific journals. Basic research is supported financially almost entirely by governments, and in some instances by private philanthropy.

Research positions are scarce, because basic research is relatively poorly funded. To succeed in this field of activity, the highest academic degrees and training (doctoral and post-doctoral studies) are usually required.

Applied Research is the search for specific answers to questions which are of direct interest or benefit to industry, government or business. It is usually carried out or contracted out by the organization most concerned with the problem. The results may or may not be published in the open literature depending in part on whether the product or process is patentable. Applied research is generally well-funded and, as a consequence, more positions are available with qualifications ranging from the very highest for senior positions to those that require more modest scientific and technical skills.

Nature of the Work

Being an oceanographer means being interested in the sea, and it means going to sea, sometimes for long periods of time. They must also work ashore, analyzing data and publishing work so others can benefit. Oceanographic research involves a wide variety of activities ranging from purely theoretical work to internationally-coordinated multi-ship surveys involving the design of instrument arrays. Oceanographers do extensive work in the laboratory, including mathematical modelling of ocean processes, instrument design, testing, calibration and data analysis. In addition to making measurements from ships at the surface and from instruments mounted below the surface, data are obtained by remote sensing from aircraft and satellites, oceanography from space is a reality.

A career in marine sciences requires good health and physical stamina to cope with the rigours of field work at sea. For those whose careers may require shipboard research, one must accept long stretches of time aboard ship and perhaps having to cope with seasickness. The rewards, however, are many in experiencing and seeing strange sights and visiting out-of-the-way places anywhere in the world.

Employment Opportunities

Professional employment in the marine sciences is limited and the competition is high. Industry offers some positions for those with bachelor's degrees in science or engineering. A student is well-advised to obtain the best possible undergraduate (scientific or engineering) degree and then apply this training to marine work. A student intent on pursuing a career in a marine technical field should attempt to obtain a bachelor's degree with emphasis on the marine sciences.

The principal employer of marine scientists in Canada is the federal government, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, for physical, chemical and biological oceanographers, and the Department of Natural Resources for marine geologists and geophysicists. Other governments and departments employ oceanographers as well as the universities for teaching and research. Fisheries research requires a knowledge of almost all aspects of oceanography for stock assessment and modelling the population dynamics of fish populations. The rapid expansion of the aquaculture industry has led to the requirement for many specialists including those with a knowledge of fish nutrition and disease control.

Private sector employment depends to a large extent on contractual arrangements particularly for environmental studies, assessments and surveys. Some of the major mineral resource companies employ their own marine specialists while others prefer to engage specialists. Canadian expertise in this field is well-recognized internationally and many Canadians and Canadian companies are actively engaged in various parts of the world; many of whom are employed by or on assignment through the United Nations Organization.

Despite the downturn in government services and employment, students interested in ocean sciences should view the future with a fair degree of optimism. A university degree in one of the ocean sciences combined with courses in environmental sciences, resource management, law or computer science, opens the door to a number of careers, some within the government, UN Agencies or industry. Since many pollutants, natural or anthropogenic, find their way into the ocean, it has become a focus of attention of environmentalists around the world. The need for professionals who understand how the ocean is affected by the ever-increasing developments of urbanization and industrialization along with the potential threats of marine accidents continues to grow.

Educational Requirements

High School

The first step for a student considering a career in marine sciences is to choose relevant science courses, from the physical, chemical, biological or earth sciences. Mathematics and training on and the use of computers must be regarded as an essential element of any high school science program. Students should also begin their development of basic skills in written and spoken English and/or French.

University Undergraduate Studies
On entry into university, students are well-advised to continue their studies in the physical, chemical, biological, earth sciences and mathematics. Language training should be continued in order to communicate scientific knowledge. An understanding of a foreign language is a definite asset.

Consideration might be given to elective courses in other science fields; they may well have a bearing on specialization upon graduation or selection of a graduate school. It is not necessary for the student to take marine science courses. Universities offering postgraduate training in marine sciences are looking for candidates with majors or honours in any science field. If it is possible to participate in marine-oriented field courses it would be beneficial. Universities associated with either the Huntsman or Bamfield Marine Laboratories offer this experience even if they offer no other marine science courses.

University Graduate Studies

A master's program can usually be completed in one to two years after the bachelor's degree. The requirement for admission to this program is a strong undergraduate degree in the sciences. Courses at the graduate level will be considerably more advanced than at the undergraduate level; some but not all will be slanted towards the specialities and research interests of the professors on staff. However, in most universities students will be encouraged to explore different options and broaden their training.


Many Canadian universities offer undergraduate courses in marine sciences but only those offering substantive courses at the postgraduate level are listed below:

Alberta, University of

Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2E3
Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

The program offers Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees. Areas of research in marine sciences include abyssal flows, numerical model development, paleoclimate modelling, the role of the ocean in climate, theoretical studies on waves in the atmosphere and ocean as well as studies on the three oceans that surround Canada (Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific).

Tel: 403-492-6076
Fax: 403-492-2030


British Columbia, University of
17 - 1984 West Mall
Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z4
Department of Oceanography

Graduate education and research in oceanography have been carried out at the University of British Columbia since 1949, the longest among Canadian universities. Research studies are conducted in biological, chemical, geological and physical oceanography and atmospheric science with much emphasis on interdisciplinary studies. Combined honours oceanography B.Sc. degrees are offered in the following disciplines: biology, chemistry, geology, geophysics and physics. Since 1988 the Department of Oceanography and the Department of Geography have jointly offered a program in atmospheric science.

The university is a member of the Bamfield Marine Station, Bamfield, B.C.

Tel: 604-822-3278
Fax: 604-822-6091


Dalhousie University

Halifax, Nova Scotia
B3H 4J1
Department of Oceanography

Dalhousie University offers undergraduate courses in the Marine Sciences. Graduate degrees in Marine Sciences are offered by the Departments of Biology and Oceanography. Research facilities for graduate work are excellent, and active research studies are being undertaken in the Departments of Biology, Geology and Oceanography. Special facilities include an Aquatron for biological research.

Dalhousie is a member of the Huntsman Marine Laboratory, St. Andrews, N.B.


Guelph, University of

Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1

The University of Guelph offers a number of undergraduate and graduate courses in marine and freshwater biology. There is a widespread interest in Marine Biology through an active group of research scientists.

Guelph is a member of the Huntsman Marine Laboratory.


McGill University

805 Sherbrooke St. W.
Montreal, Quebec H3A 2K6
Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

Both undergraduate and graduate courses are offered in essentially all fields of marine sciences. McGill is well-recognized for its teaching and research in arctic, temperate and tropical regions.

It is associated with the Huntsman Marine Laboratory and Centre océanographique de Rimouski, Québec. The Belairs Research Institute in the Barbados, West Indies, is a research field station of McGill University which is used for tropical marine sciences research.

Tel: 514-398-3764
Fax: 514-398-6115
email - Undergraduate Studies:
email - Graduate Studies:


Memorial University of Newfoundland

Elizabeth Avenue
St. John's, Newfoundland A1C 5S7

Many undergraduate and graduate courses in the Marine Sciences are offered. Graduate research studies in Marine Sciences are carried out at the university and at the Marine Sciences Research Laboratory at Logie Bay which has a superb diving facility and excellent sea water laboratories for holding marine life. The Engineering Department offers many graduate courses leading to degrees in Ocean Engineering.

Université du Québec à Rimouski
Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski (ISMER)

310, allée des Ursulines,
C. P. 3300 Rimouski (Québec)
G5L 3A1

Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski (ISMER) is at the forefront of oceanography research at UQAR, occupying an entire building on the UQAR Rimouski campus. The institute has close to 100 students in graduate oceanography programs. Researchers and students have access to high tech equipment, a 50 m long research vessel (Coriolis II), and an aquaculture laboratory kept supplied with seawater. ISMER's multidisciplinary research teams of biologists, chemists, geologists, and physicists, and other associated specialists are actively involved in a number of national and international marine science programs.

ISMER is devoted to the discovery and advancement of basic and applied knowledge of coastal environments. Operating from a sustainable development perspective, the institution is a leader in fields such as climate change at different latitudes, the effects of ultraviolet rays on the lowest links in the food chain, and the impact of contaminants on coastal ecosystems. Marine acoustics, aquaculture, population dynamics, and sediment transportation are other areas where it has developed extensive expertise.

Training programs include:
  • Master's in oceanography aimed at training scientists to adopt a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to the study of ocean phenomena
  • PhD in oceanography aimed at training independent researchers on the cutting edge of their fields

UQAR also has a number of other ocean-related research and training projects. The university offers the following training programs:

  • Bachelor's in biology with a concentration in marine sciences that includes an environmental focus and fieldwork
  • Bachelor's in geography with a concentration in marine environments that seeks to familiarize students with cartography, current dynamics, the geography of maritime Québec, and ecosystem enhancement

Victoria, University of

P.O. Box 1700
Victoria, B.C. V8W 2Y2
School of Earth and Ocean Sciences

The Department of Biology offers programs leading to the degrees of M.Sc. and Ph.D in Marine Biology. The School of Earth and Ocean Sciences and the Centre for Earth and Ocean Research both offer courses in Meteorology and Oceanography.

Victoria is a member of the Bamfield Marine Station.

Tel: 604-472-4001
Fax: 604-472-4004


Bamfield Marine Station

Bamfield, British Columbia V0R 1B0

The station is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island and is jointly operated by the Universities of Alberta, British Columbia, Calgary, Simon Fraser and Victoria in the Western Canadian Universities Marine Biological Society. It offers summer courses to senior undergraduate and graduate students. Facilities include research space, aquarium facilities, boats, diving equipment, library, lecture hall and accommodations.


Huntsman Marine Laboratory

Brandy Cove Road
St. Andrews, N.B. E0G 2X0

This marine laboratory was established as a teaching and research facility in the Marine Sciences for students and scientists in Eastern Canada. University membership includes Acadia, Dalhousie, Guelph, McGill, Moncton, Mount Allison, New Brunswick, Ottawa, Queen's, Saint Mary's, Toronto, Waterloo, Western Ontario, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and York.

Its member institutions sponsor courses throughout the year as well as courses for naturalists, fishermen and students. The facilities include well-equipped laboratories, research vessels, residences and a public aquarium. Other research facilities are available at the St. Andrews Biological Station (Department of Fisheries and Oceans). The Laboratory is a partner in the International Atlantic Salmon Foundation along with the St. Andrews Biological Station.

Additional University Information

For additional information on colleges and universities offering undergraduate and graduate programs in oceanography, refer to Curricula in the Atmospheric, Oceanic, Hydrologic and Related Sciences, published by the American Meteorological Society and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. It contains information on the courses, faculties, programs and facilities of about 100 universities and colleges in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.