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Working in the Aquatic Sciences

The Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) is often asked how students can prepare for careers in aquatic science. We hope this document will provide you with the background and resources to enable you to pursue your interest in aquatic science.

If you would like to contribute to this document, or have questions, please contact the ASLO student representatives at Another important source of information is our listing of institutions offering graduate programs in limnology and oceanography. Additional information on careers in public policy can be found here.


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 involves the study of these same characteristics in inland systems (lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and wetlands) including both fresh and salt waters.
  • WHERE is a particular organism, where do pollutants come from, where does the current flow, etc.
  • HOW MUCH plankton is in an area, how much heat is contained in surface waters, how much oxygen is available in the deep ocean, etc.
  • HOW FAST do algae grow, how do whales eat, how are molecules formed/changed/decomposed, how does water move from Florida to Cape Cod?
  • HOW AND WHY is the world changing?
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What do Aquatic Scientists Study?

Aquatic scientists study virtually everything having to do with water in an effort to improve the natural and human condition. For example:
  • Aquatic chemists are interested in organic, inorganic and trace-metal chemistry.
  • Physical limnologists and oceanographers are concerned with water movements on all scales, from global circulation patterns to small-scale mixing.
  • Marine geologists study the processes that have led to the formation of the ocean basins, and the ways in which geothermal and other geological processes interact with seawater. Geologists working in freshwater systems may be interested in the record of past climates or organisms found in the sediments.
  • Optical limnologists and oceanographers are interested in the factors that affect the transmission of light through the water.
  • Biologists study living things and their interaction with each other and the environment. Some study single species, others may examine how two or more species interact, and still others seek to understand the workings of an entire ecosystem.
career06.jpg - 73105 Bytes Many of these scientists work at the boundaries of these disciplines. For example,biologists may study how organisms adapt to their aquatic environment (e.g., currents or light), and how they interact with each other and with their environment. Chemists may study the effect of compounds released by organisms on, for example, trace metal chemistry or the transport and distribution of chemicals due to water mass movement. Many do comparative studies, looking for similarities and differences between habitats as varied as tropical and polar regions, nutrient-rich and nutrient-poor regions, or stable and unstable regions.

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) time scales, and spatial scales ranging from millimeters to ocean-wide. Aquatic science is interdisciplinary. While most aquatic scientists work primarily in one area, they draw on information from many fields. For this reason, aquatic scientists often work together in 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.

Today, many aquatic scientists are conducting studies related to global change. Because the oceans cover such a large portion of our planet (ca. 70%), changes in ocean processes alter global processes. As the largest reservoir for carbon dioxide on the planet, oceans play a key role in the global carbon cycle and moderate the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Have you ever imagined what the world will be like when you are older? Many scientists develop and test models in order to predict future conditions. These models are used to predict the impact of increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, increased UV-B radiation resulting from stratospheric ozone depletion, changes in currents or ocean temperature, the effects of increased nutrient loading and pollution due to fertilizers, pesticides, sewage or habitat destruction, the short- and long-term effects of increased acidity due to burning of fossil fuels and the increasing pollution of drinking water, and the impact of various fishing practices on commercially important populations such as fish and lobster. career07.jpg - 21474 Bytes

Job Opportunities

Job opportunities in aquatic science exist for individuals with all levels of education. Employers include State and Federal government offices and laboratories (click here for a description of jobs in public policy), universities, industries, magazines, book publishers, television, radio, legal firms, and environmental societies.

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. College and University research and teaching positions generally require a Ph.D. degree in limnology or oceanography. 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. There is no guarantee you will gain employment in your area of interest or specialization. For this reason, it is important that you strive for a general education that provides a foundation for many types of employment. Aquatic scientists generally obtain a foundation in one or more basic science disciplines (biology, chemistry, geology, mathematics or physics) before specializing. As in all other professions, it is also necessary to develop good writing and speaking skills in addition to a proficiency in science, mathematics and computers.

Current job opportunities can be viewed by looking at the Positions Offered Bulletin Board. Resumes and CV's can be posted on ASLO's website The following site will generate a list of jobs that match a given search criteria: Chronicle of Higher Education (


Employment Outlook

career08.jpg - 14426 Bytes In general, opportunities are good for those with a bachelors degree in science. Presently there are far more applicants than jobs in some fields, and a good balance between jobs and applicants in others. For example, there may be 10,000 people who would like a job working with marine mammals, but there are only around 100 jobs in this area nationwide. This is one extreme. In other areas, there may be only 5 jobs nationwide and 4 qualified applicants. In general, there is more competition for jobs in marine biology than there is in aquatic physics, math, modeling, chemistry and geology.

Opportunities are best for those with strong training in mathematics or engineering and those with an interdisciplinary foundation that will enable them to work at the interface between disciplines. Even when the number of available positions in the field is not large, first-rate scientists are always very much in demand. Job opportunities in all fields change over time, and can change quite rapidly. Our advice is, therefore, to follow your interests, work hard, and be persistent.

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Earnings depend on educational background, experience, assigned responsibilities, area of specialization, the size, type, and geographical location of the employing institution, and years of service. An individual with a bachelors degree and no experience may find employment with the federal government at GS-5 (current range is $25,347 to $32,952) to GS-7 (current range is $31,397 to $40,818) levels, depending on college grades. Those with a Ph.D. degree generally earn from $40,000 to $90,000 per year, and can be more than $100,000/year for senior scientists or full professors.

Working conditions

Many aquatic science researchers spend at least some time each year engaged in field work, collecting data and samples in natural environments on board small boats or large research vessels. Oceanographic data are collected during research cruises lasting from 1 week to over 2 months and involve scientists from many disciplines. Limnological data are more often collected during 1-2 day field trips that are usually narrower in scope, or during stays at field stations that may last from days to months. Aquatic scientists are generally affiliated with one or more professional societies such as the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography. Through such societies, they are able to keep up with the latest advances in their field, attend scientific meetings in the U.S. and abroad, and build a network of colleagues throughout the world. Such meetings range in size from less than 100 to several thousand, depending on the purpose and subject matter. Because aquatic science is a relatively small discipline with an interdisciplinary focus, there is a strong sense of community.

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When not in the field or at meetings, research scientists spend most of their time in the laboratory running experiments or at the computer analyzing data. They also read and evaluate papers from scientific journals and relate that work to their own research, write papers describing their own work and write research proposals to obtain funds for their research. Many scientists work together on joint projects. Those in academia teach and supervise students, along with the above activities. All scientists spend time communicating with colleagues and the general public.

Many aquatic scientists have administrative jobs, either with academic institutions or federal or private agencies. These individuals spend more time in the office and communicating with others. Like research scientists, they attend national or international conferences to keep up in their fields, write reports, and give oral presentations on their reports and recommendations.

Most academic oceanographers are supported only part time by teaching, and supplement their income by obtaining research grants from the federal or state government or private sources, writing for technical publications, and serving as consultants. Academic limnologists are more likely to have full-time research and teaching positions.

A "typical" day for a university scientist is occupied by a diversity of tasks. Much time is spent preparing for and delivering lectures in classes, grading examinations, and planning and executing laboratory exercises for specific courses. An academic scientist also spends time advising graduate and undergraduate students, and spends some portion of many days (but not every day) attending committee meetings or involved in committee activities. These tasks leave only a portion of each day free for research activities, which include field trips, laboratory experiments, data analysis, preparation of scientific articles or proposals/requests for research funds, and attending research seminars (not all of these are carried out in a single day), as well as the daily necessity of maintaining the laboratory. These tasks occupy a full day's work, and academic scientists usually work more than 8 hours each day and more than 5 days every week.

While many aquatic scientists enter into a career focusing on research and/or academia, other opportunities exist in the public policy arena. Click here for information on job opportunities and working conditions.

See these links for other useful information on:

Sea Grant :
Center for Limnology (U. Wisconson):

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, as well as about weather and the water cycle. 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 English and mathematics. Take all the math, science and computer courses you can in secondary school, and develop your reading and communication skills. This should be your highest priority in high school.
  • 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. Participate in math and science clubs.
  • Very important: graduate schools prefer to accept students from undergraduate programs who major in a core science (physics, chemistry, biology or geology) rather than a specialized subject such as limnology or oceanography. In addition, interest in students with an interdisiplinary background including a core science and a social science or enginering is increasing. 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. Make sure you take a few courses in statistics, computers and data management since many decisions depend upon your ability to recognize good data. And, continue to strengthen your reading and communication skills. Most importantly, as an undergraduate student you should make every effort to become involved in a research project in a scientist's laboratory.
  • Students interested in biology often assume they do not need to pursue math or other sciences at the college level and beyond This is simply not true. In addition to a broad background in biology, it is very important for persons wishing to work in the natural sciences to have quantitative skills. Math, statistics, operations research, systems ecology and computer programming are courses that greatly improve opportunities for employment in aquatic science research.
  • While efforts should focus on the traditional major as an undergraduate, it is helpful to take a course in aquatic science to get a feel for the discipline. In addition, 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. Don't worry if your college does not have a summer program; students from all institutions are eligible. You can learn more about the various programs by contacting institutions offering advanced degrees in limnology or oceanography.
  • Keep your interests and training broad in order to adapt to future change.
  • 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.
  • Prospective graduate advisors are looking for graduate students who are:
    1. Willing to learn
    2. Willing to work hard
    3. Persistent
    4. Imaginative
    5. Diligent
    6. Good at problem solving

In summary, get an excellent all-around education, learn what's happening in aquatic science, get involved, talk to people, participate, and be persistent!


Useful References on Getting into Graduate School

career11.jpg - 16110 Bytes Dale F. Bloom, Jonathan D. Karp & Nicholas Cohen (1998). The Ph.D. Process : A Student's Guide to Graduate School in the Sciences, Oxford University Press
Robert L. Peters (1997). Getting What You Came for : The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or a Ph.D., The Noonday Press
Derek Salman Pugh & Estelle m. Phillips (2000). How to Get a Phd : A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors, Open University Press
Robert V. Smith (1998). Graduate Research : A Guide for Students in the Sciences, University of Washington Press

Funding for Graduate Study

Graduate students in science are generally financially supported (i.e., paid tuition and a stipend to cover living expenses) by a variety of methods. These include teaching assistantships through one’s department or university, graduate research assistantships, through one’s advisor, and fellowships, which can come from a number of agencies. Fellowships are available that cover tuition and provide a stipend and may provide money for research expenses and/or travel. Please refer to the following links for information on fellowships for students in science or engineering disciplines (please note, this is not an exhaustive list).

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National Science Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship:
American Association of University Women Dissertation Fellowship:
Smithsonian Institution Fellowships:
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Short-Term Fellowship:
American Museum of Natural History Lerner-Gray Fund for Marine Research:
Women Divers Hall of Fame Hillary Viders Scholarship:
American Academy of Underwater Scientists Student Scholarship:
Sigma Delta Epsilon Research Fellowships:
Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid of Research:

Useful References on Scholarships and Fellowships for Graduate School

Dan Cassidy & Daniel J. Cassidy (2000). Dan Cassidy's Worldwide Graduate Scholarship Directory : Thousands of Top Scholarships Throughout the United States and Around the World, Career Press

Student Services, Inc Staff Student Services (1998). The Graduate Student's Complete Scholarship Book


Special Skills

Good communication skills (verbal and written); organization; solid foundation in the basic concepts of the discipline; Computer literacy; and persistence.


Colleges and Universities with Aquatic Science Programs

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Undergraduate and/or graduate degrees in limnology or oceanography are offered by more than 100 colleges and universities throughout the country. Information on specific institutions can be obtained from Lovejoy's College Guide, Peterson’s Guide and other college directories, under headings such as aquatic science, biology, chemistry, earth science, geology, limnology, marine biology, meteorology, ocean engineering, oceanography, and physics. These college directories should be available for reference in guidance offices, media centers, libraries, and online.


Selected References on Aquatic Science Careers


Bergis & Morris, Natural History of Lakes
Cambridge University Press. 1987

Careers in Oceanography
American Geophysical Union
2000 Florida Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20009

Careers in Oceanography and Marine-Related Fields
The Oceanography Society
1124 Wivenhoe Way
Virginia Beach, VA 23454

Marine Education: A Bibliography of Educational Materials Available from the Nation's Sea Grant College Programs
Sea Grant Marine Education Bibliography
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory
J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium
P.O. Box 7000, Ocean Springs, MS 39564-7000 ($2.00/copy)

Marine Science Careers: A Sea Grant Guide to Ocean Opportunities
Tracey I. Crago, Sea Grant Communicator
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
193 Oyster Pond Rd., MS #2
Woods Hole, MA 02543-1525 ($5.00 a copy)

Occupational Outlook Handbook
(section on "Environmental Scientists")
Bureau of Labor Statistics
U.S. Department of Labor
Washington, DC 20212

Ocean Opportunities - a Guide to What the Oceans Have to Offer
Marine Technology Society
2000 Florida Ave. NW Suite 500
Washington, D.C. 20009 ($3.00/copy)

Training and Careers in Marine Science
International Oceanographic Foundation
3979 Rickenbacker Causeway
Miami, Florida 33149 ($1.00/copy)

University Curricula in Oceanography and Related Fields
Marine Technology Society
1825 K St. NW, Suite 203
Washington, DC 20006