Two female scientists in a lab

Chemical Oceanography

Ocean Acidification and Climate Change

Chemical oceanography is considered a niche area within the broader field of oceanography. Along with biological, physical, and geographical oceanography, it is one of the four main oceanographic areas. It is said that chemical oceanographers work at the “boundaries between chemistry and biology, geology and physics” and “apply their efforts to a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary challenges.”[1] That is because the chemistry of the ocean is closely tied to ocean circulation and climate (physical oceanography), the plants and animals that live in the ocean (biological oceanography), and the exchange of material with the atmosphere, cryosphere, continents, and mantle (geological oceanography).[2]  Chemical oceanographers are essentially oceanographers, but rather than studying the physics, biology, or geology of the oceans as a broad subject; they examine the chemical composition of this particular environment.

Chemical oceanography is also a highly specialized area – so much so that it is extremely difficult to give an overview without using a lot of chemical jargon. But let’s give it a try . . .

According to NOAA’s National Ocean Service website, chemical oceanographers “study the composition of seawater, its processes and cycles, and the chemical interaction of seawater with the atmosphere and seafloor.”[3] Simply put, chemical oceanographers study the occurrence and movement of chemicals in the ocean. Chemical oceanographers also study contaminants’ effects on marine life and the chemical processes operating in the ocean, seafloor, and marine atmosphere.[4] Chemical oceanographers may use chemistry to “understand how ocean currents move seawater around the globe and how the ocean affects climate or to identify potentially beneficial ocean resources such as natural products that can be used as medicines.”[5] Chemical oceanographers examine vast ranges of time and space scales, including from the molecular level to the global in space and from fractions of a second to billions of years in time.[6]


  1. Chemical Oceanography, MIT-WHOI Joint Program.
  2. Chemical Oceanography, School of Oceanography, University of Washington.
  3. What does an oceanographer do?, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  4. How to Become a Chemical Oceanographer
  5. What does an oceanographer do?, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  6. Chemical Oceanography, MIT-WHOI Joint Program.
The path to becoming a chemical oceanographer

The Path to Becoming a Chemical Oceanographer

From High School to Your First Job

Build a Solid Academic Foundation


Take all available STEM-related courses (chemistry, biology, physics, computer science, algebra, geometry, calculus) offered at your high school. Take all these classes at the most advanced level possible (honors, AP). This will help you build your knowledge base in scientific theory and concepts.


If not available at your high school, try and take chemistry-related (inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, geochemistry), ocean science-related (marine biology, marine microbiology, oceanography, hydrology), and mathematics-related (trigonometry, probability, and statistics) classes offered online.

Keep in Mind:

Gain lab work experience through a research internship. Learn how to write for a scientific and non-scientific audience. The ability to communicate in writing cannot be overstated. Given the international nature of scientific collaboration, become fluent in a foreign language. Be a voracious reader.

Dive In!

And become an expert

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Peruse our library of must-read books

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Take an online course

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Academic Training Programs

And if you need support to fulfill your dreams and ambitions, our searchable database has plenty of scholarship opportunities as well as programs designed to increase diversity in the sciences.


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Make all the right moves

Advice from those who know

Maintain an excellent GPA, especially in the sciences

Attend professional conferences and chemistry and oceanography seminars

Present your research at student research colloquiums

Build experience through internships or as an undergraduate researcher

Have some work experience on your resume

Obtain lab experience and become familiar with lab instrumentation

Join professional societies and organizations

Stay current by reading professional and scientific journals

What degree is right for you?

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Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is required for all entry-level jobs, but advancement is limited. You should obtain a degree in chemistry with a concentration in oceanography or something either closely related (marine biology, microbiology) or complementary (biogeochemistry, atmospheric sciences). Familiarity with lab techniques, computer modeling, and the use of scientific instrumentation is essential.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree is highly recommended as this is where, depending on the program, you will be able to specialize your studies in chemical oceanography. A master’s degree will open up more opportunities with both federal and state government agencies as well as with various firms in the private sector. In a master’s program, you will learn the theory and the practice of chemical oceanography in addition to having the opportunity to engage in fieldwork.


A doctoral degree is required if you want to have a career in academia. Senior research positions with federal and state government agencies (conducting research on the effect of chemical pollutants on the marine environment, establishing policy on climate change) and senior project manager positions with private consulting firms (assessing the quality of fish and fish products, pollution control) may require a doctoral degree. This is also true for high-level positions with non-governmental and nonprofit organizations.

10 Schools With Excellent Chemical Oceanography Programs

Want to see the full list of colleges and universities with degree offerings or relevant courses?

See the full list

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Chemical Oceanography
MIT-WHOI Joint Program

Chemical Oceanography
College of Marine Science, University of South Florida

Ocean Science
Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, University of Georgia

Ocean & Earth Sciences Program
Old Dominion University

Hawaii Pacific University

Ocean Sciences
Oregon State University

Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami

Marine Science Program
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, San José State University

Marine Science and Technology
University of Massachusetts Boston

University of Delaware

Tip 1

Because chemical oceanography is an interdisciplinary area, you may need to create your own studies program. Focus your main studies in chemistry and supplement with classes in oceanography, marine biology, hydrology, and geology.

Tip 2

Try and find a professor in the chemistry department that has an interest in oceanography and see if they would be willing to mentor you. Maintain a good relationship as they can help with getting a job upon degree completion.

Tip 3

Don’t just consider a school’s undergraduate offerings. Even if a school does not offer specific chemical oceanography classes at the undergraduate level, you may eventually be able to take or sit in on classes at the graduate level.

Have familiarity with one or more of the following areas

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Field survey and analytical techniques

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Data analysis

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Mass spectrometry

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Software programming tools

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Laboratory techniques

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Statistical and mathematical methods

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Environmental sample analysis

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Chemical hygiene and safety

Typical Job Functions of a Chemical Oceanographer

Here are some of the interesting things you could be doing.

Planning and conducting field and laboratory research.

Collecting samples from the ocean using special equipment and techniques.

Analyzing samples, scanning for organic and chemical components and anomalous material.

Using electronic instruments to measure temperature, salt concentrations, and nutrient levels.

Examining quantity and quality of materials that are present in ocean water.

Performing simulations of historic oceanic events to determine impact on the ocean’s chemistry.

Maintaining the operation of wave gauges, chemical sensors, and water-column profilers.

Analyzing the effects of pollution and the impacts of chemicals on marine organisms.

Helping establish policy on coastal and marine environments and resources.

There’s an Ocean of Possibilities

Chemical oceanography is an excellent career choice for anyone interested in working on the front lines in the battle against the twin evils of ocean acidification and climate change. The interdisciplinary nature of chemical oceanography will also allow you to satisfy your other ocean science-related interests.

Common employers include:

Federal Government Agencies

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Bureau of Ocean Energy Management


  • U.S. Navy
  • National Defense Research Establishments
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • National Institutes of Health
  • National Science Foundation

State Government Agencies

  • Environmental Protection
  • Fish and Wildlife

Private Industry

  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Emerging Technology
  • Environmental Consulting
  • Marine Transportation
  • Offshore Renewable Energy
  • Ocean Instrumentation Manufacturing
  • Private Laboratories

Non-Governmental Organizations

  • Environmental Organizations
  • Conservation Organizations


  • Universities
  • Research Institutions

Start your career search with our extensive list of employment websites.