Is there a shortage of oceanographers?

My father (Hi, Dad!) sent me this NYT article on the Rutgers University glider program. Gliders are little ocean-going robots that dive down, take measurements, and surface to email their data back to you. Since ship time is so expensive, having a glider noodling about on its own is incredibly helpful in figuring out what the ocean is doing. The NYT article definitely brought home the “gliders! yay!” message, but what excited my father was this:

Through its novel glider program, Rutgers is trying to drum up interest in ocean science at a time when federal officials are alarmed about a shortage of scholars in a field considered crucial because of growing concerns about ocean health as a result of climate change and overfishing.

The federal Departments of Commerce and Education, in a report last fall focusing on a branch of marine science that assesses fish stocks, said the National Marine Fisheries Service was “now experiencing a perfect storm.” Citing many imminent retirements, an increased workload and a “decreasing supply” of such scientists, the report called on Congress to bolster financing to expand the number of graduate students.

Really? This doesn’t really jive with the grad student scuttlebutt about the job market – it’s hard to find reliable work. Many of the federal agencies hire postdocs on 1-year contracts, which is extremely stressful for people who need a steady income to raise their family. But nothing would make this grad student happier than the promise of good employment in about 3.5 years, so tell me I’m wrong!

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6 Responses to Is there a shortage of oceanographers?

  1. ChrisM says:

    I think the problem is that BOTH Of those things are true. There is now, more then EVER a need for more scientists-oceanographers, systematists, ecologists, etc. and we are seeing many of the older guard retiring, passing on, etc. But NOT the replacement of those positions. There is still much WORK for them to do but no JOBS for those people. (i.e., I will always have starfish to ID but not the job to pay me to do so)

    Many government positions, for example are remnant positions from the last few decades and are jobs that won’t be re-hired as many classical positions are deemed too much of a luxury.

    Universities vary, but a lot of their resources go into academic disciplines that have a good return-medicine, microbiology, etc. Many disciplines with expensive infrastructural needs (e.g., ships, museums, etc.) don’t do much for those institutions unless they have a historical tradition of that study.

    But with the forthcoming Obama money and increasing menace from climate change? Who knows how that will change…

  2. Hao says:

    One could also take the cynical view that if overfishing continues and all stocks become depleted, we won’t really need NMFS anymore…

  3. This does make one wonder why NMFS thinks that expanding the supply of graduate students is helpful, rather than creating jobs for existing PhDs. Adding to the supply without increasing demand seems rather cruel.

  4. ChrisM says:

    They may be covering all bases. Creating a larger job pool is the academic equivalent of having a large gene pool. More to pick from and selection will invariably remove a great many of them.

    I knew/saw many students in grad school (both masters & PhD) who never made it completely through or if they did, just didn’t want to do research.

    It could also simply be, that specific fisheries type fields ARE doing well-and will need more people. Fisheries schools tend to emphasize statistics and population dynamics and very pragmatic applications relative to more theory based oceanography or general Ichthyology curricula.

    and yes. It is cruel..but they have nothing to lose…

  5. Sam says:

    Back in March, I actually heard a talk by Jim Berkson, one of the authors of the NOAA study mentioned in the Times article. He was speaking specifically of a shortage in scientists with quantitative and computer skills needed for stock assessments. The upshot, as I remember, was that the re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act mandates more science, and that this combined with the coming retirements adds up to a shortage.

    I’m starting a masters in Fisheries Science in the fall, and my dad was likewise excited to read this. 3.5 years sounds about right…

  6. Eric says:

    Ouch! Hao I think even if the dpletions hapen like that NMFS will morph to NMFPS (which we could argue the merits of changing it now)

    Well, I too hope that these reports are right. Though for me it will likely be longer than 3.5yrs.

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