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Careers in the Aquatic Sciences

What is Aquatic Science?

Aquatic science is the study of the planet's oceanic and freshwater environments. Oceanography is the study of the biological, chemical, geological, optical and physical characteristics of oceans and estuaries, while limnology is the study of these same characteristics in inland waters (lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and wetlands).

For more information on what types of questions aquatic scientists ask, check out this ASLO Bulletin article from August 2013 on the top 10 paradigms and the top 10 problems to solve in the aquatic sciences.

What do Aquatic Scientists Study?

Aquatic scientists use comparative studies, long term data, models, and theory to address a myriad of questions pertaining to water- water movement, water chemistry, aquatic organisms, aquatic ecosystems, movement of materials in and out of aquatic ecosystems, and the use of water by humans, just to name a few disciplines. Aquatic scientists study processes that cover time scales ranging from less than a second to daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, annual, decadal, or geological (millions of years), and spatial scales ranging from millimeters to ecosystems to ocean-wide.

Many aquatic scientists work at the boundaries of disciplines and therefore they often work in interdisciplinary groups. For example, physical and biological oceanographers collaborate to understand the effect of physical processes on organisms, while chemists and biologists work together to understand the ways in which the chemical constituents of water bodies interact with plants, animals, and microorganisms such as bacteria.

Aquatic scientists may be working at the scale of trying to understand global oceanic change or quantifying the global flux of methane from inland waters. Conversely, they could be working at the local, trying to understand the source of a pollution problem in a drinking water supply or working to conserve a local endangered population.

Job Opportunities

Job opportunities in aquatic science exist for individuals with all levels of education. Employers include state and federal government laboratories, universities, industries, magazines, book publishers, television, radio, legal firms, and environmental societies.

Check out this article in the February 2014 ASLO Bulletin about redefining career paths in aquatic ecology.

After four years of college you may find employment as a laboratory technician, particularly in government positions. If you have more training, you can do the same sort of work, but will have more freedom and responsibility and may supervise other staff. University research and teaching positions generally require a Ph.D. degree. Specific duties depend on the specialized field of study and the job description. Aquatic scientists may focus on areas such as research, teaching, administration, consulting, or writing. Virtually all jobs will involve more than one of these areas. As in all other professions, it is also necessary to develop good writing and speaking skills as an aquatic scientist in addition to a proficiency in science, mathematics and computers.

Click here for more information specific to those interested in pursuing careers in Policy.

Current job opportunities can be viewed by looking at the Positions Offered board.

Programs and workshops for recent PhDs can be viewed here.

Preparation for Aquatic Science Careers

Job opportunities are varied, and exist at all educational levels. However, as with other fields, the higher-level jobs require more education and generally pay better. Regardless of your particular area of interest, some basic recommendations apply:

  • Starting as early as possible, read about whichever aquatic environment(s) particularly interests you. Spend time at a body of water near you, and study the changes over a day, week, season or longer. Be aware of what you see, and study what you don't understand. Seek out individuals with similar interests.
  • Concentrate on acquiring a good foundation in writing and mathematics. Take all the math, science and computer courses you can and develop your reading and communication skills.
  • Practical experience in a laboratory will put you ahead. Sometimes this means volunteering your time, but it's worth it. Locate aquatic scientists in your area, and volunteer to help in any way you can. Ask questions and discuss with them the problems and rewards of a career in aquatic science.
  • As an undergraduate, seek a college or university that is strong in science. Specialize in the area of science which interests you the most, but not exclusively. Math, statistics, operations research, systems ecology and computer programming are courses that greatly improve opportunities for employment in aquatic science research. Most importantly, as an undergraduate student you should make every effort to become involved in a research project in a scientist's laboratory.
  • Many summer research programs are available at institutions with graduate-level limnology or oceanography programs. These summer research experiences, generally for students after completion of the second or third year, provide a good opportunity to learn more about the discipline before embarking on a graduate program and provide valuable field or laboratory experience. You can learn more about the various programs by contacting institutions offering advanced degrees in limnology or oceanography.
  • Attend seminars and join aquatic science organizations such as the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography to better understand the field and current issues, and to get to know the community of people with which you want to work.