Ocean Engineer


Ocean engineering is a combination of mechanical, electrical, civil, acoustical, and chemical engineering, coupled with a basic understanding of how the oceans work. Ocean engineers design, build, test, and refine instrumentation and equipment that can operate in offshore and/or coastal environments. These instruments must be able to stand up to the wear and tear of frequent use and survive the harsh conditions of the ocean environment (corrosion, waves, currents, severe storms, marine life fouling, etc.) Innovations in instrumentation and equipment design made by ocean engineers have revolutionized the field of oceanography, enabling researchers to travel farther offshore and deeper into the sea, and to stay there for longer periods of time.

The work of ocean engineers also plays an important role in oil and gas, military, and marine navigation sectors. Coastal engineering has become an increasingly important part of ocean engineering. With more and more people living or working at or near the world’s coasts, problems associated with development, such as pollution and waste disposal, will require the expertise and innovation of coastal engineers. Also, waves, rising sea level, and storms have a significant impact on coastlines; coastal engineers work to lessen these impacts and protect coastal structures and systems.

Education Requirements

Estimated Salary

  • Bachelor’s degree in relevant area of engineering
  • Graduate degree in science, engineering, or math required for advancement
    • Some colleges and universities offer 5-year programs that allow students to obtain both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree
  • PhD in Ocean Engineering (or a relevant area of engineering with an emphasis in coastal and ocean engineering) necessary for independent research and academic positions

For salary information, please visit the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Tasks and Duties

An ocean engineer may have a variety of responsibilities depending on the specific nature of their job. These could include:

  • Develop, design, and analyze man-made systems that can operate in marine environments and/or harness the ocean’s resources
    • Prepare system layouts, detailed drawings, and schematics
    • Inspect marine equipment and machinery
    • Design, conduct, and oversee environmental, operational, or performance tests on marine machinery and equipment
  • Determine the effects of waves, currents, and the salt water environment on marine vehicles, structures, instruments, and equipment
  • Design and oversee installation and repair of marine apparatus and equipment
  • Solve engineering problems associated with exploring and harnessing coastal and offshore resources

Knowledge and Skills

Basic skills might include:

  • Mechanical aptitude
    • Ability to read, understand, and interpret blueprints, technical drawings, schematics, and/or computer-generated reports
    • Knowledge of and ability to use engineering tools, engines, and machines
  • Research and Development
    • Develop procedures for testing products
    • Design or redesign mechanical devices; develop prototypes
    • Deployment, operation, and recovery of equipment at sea
  • Computer skills
    • Computer design/drafting equipment and software (e.g. computer-aided design [CAD] and computer-aided manufacturing [CAM])
    • Computer simulations
    • Database software
  • Interpersonal skills
    • Ability to cooperate and collaborate with others. Ocean engineers often work as part of a team. They will cooperate and integrate their work with that of oceanographers, marine biologists, geologists and geophysicists to create tools and devices to help with research projects.
    • Oversee the manufacturing of equipment
    • Perform personnel functions, such as supervision of production workers, technicians, technologists and other engineers
    • Teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students (university-level teaching positions)

May need knowledge in:

  • [Applied] mathematics
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Civil Engineering
  • Geophysics; Marine Geomechanics
  • Hydrodynamics; Wave Mechanics
  • Marine Biology
  • Marine Structures
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Oceanography
  • Underwater Acoustics

Specializations may include:

  • Underwater robotics/submersible vehicles
  • Seafloor mapping and visualization
  • Underwater acoustics
  • Beach protection and nourishment
  • Pollutant and oil spill transport
  • Harbor and port design
  • Offshore energy production/ development of ocean energy resources
  • Fishing technology and aquaculture systems
  • Ship navigation and communication

Basic skills may also include:

  • Research and analytical skills
    • Experimental design and application
    • Field observation and sampling
    • Data organization, processing, and analytics
    • Willingness to work long hours in a laboratory or in the field
    • Some positions may require specialized laboratory skills.
    • Shipboard experience may be useful
  • Written and oral communication skills
    • Preparation of technical reports and presentations
    • Authoring research articles
    • Drafting grant proposals

Connections to Underwater Acoustics

The invention of oceanographic instruments such as computer- and satellite-linked buoys and floats, ocean seismometers, acoustic measuring devices, submersibles, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), has changed the way oceanographers study the oceans and coasts. Data that once took years to compile and involved field sampling in harsh weather conditions can now be accomplished in minutes, often from remote locations, including ships and land-based laboratories.

Ocean engineers may design and build ships (including shipboard systems and machinery); nearshore piers, breakwaters, groins, piles, and sewer outfalls; offshore structures (oil and gas platforms and wind turbines); or dams and reservoirs. Many ocean engineers also develop and maintain underwater acoustic instruments including side scan sonars, multibeam sonars, ROVs, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs, including acoustic gliders), sonar systems, and underwater acoustic positioning systems. They may use these instruments (and underwater sound) to study oceanic properties (e.g. ocean currents and/or temperature) and the structure of seafloor sediments.

Example of someone in this career

Dr. James Miller

Prof. Jim Miller of the Department of Ocean Engineering at the University of Rhode Island is an ocean engineer specializing in underwater acoustics. He came to the field after getting his B.S. and M.S. in Electrical Engineering. During his first job after his M.S. degree, he was assigned to project dealing with submarine towed arrays and took a week-long short course in underwater acoustics from Robert Urick, a famous acoustician and author of an important textbook in the field. Jim was hooked and decided to go get his doctorate degree in oceanographic engineering from MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. After graduating, he joined the faculty of the Naval Postgraduate School. There he taught sonar and signal processing, and did research in the effects of ocean processes on underwater sound propagation. In 1995, he moved to the University of Rhode Island to continue his teaching and research. Jim has been interested in marine bioacoustics for many years and teaches a popular graduate course in that subject. He has been on the Advisory Committee for the Discovery of Sound in the Sea website since its beginning in 2002. In addition to his work in academia, he co-founded FarSounder, Inc., a manufacturer of forward-looking 3D sonars for obstacle avoidance.

Related Careers

  • Acoustician
  • Chemical Engineer
  • Civil Engineer
  • Electrical Engineer
  • Geophysicist
  • Marine Technician
  • Mechanical Engineer
  • Naval Architect
  • Oceanographer
  • Petroleum Engineer
  • Physicist


People and Sound
Communications> How is sound used to transmit data underwater?
Research Ocean Physics> How is sound used to measure temperature in the ocean?
Research Ocean Physics > How is sound used to measure currents in the ocean?
Examine the Earth > How is sound used to study the Earth’s history?

Technology Gallery
Observing the Sea Floor> Side Scan Sonar
Observing the Sea Floor> Multibeam Echosounder
Locating Object using sonar> Sonar
Observing and Monitoring Marine Animals> Acoustic Glider
Observing Ocean Currents and Temperatures> Acoustic Current Meters
Observing Ocean Currents and Temperatures> (ADCP) Acoustic Dopple Current Porfiler
Observing Ocean Currents and Temperatures> RAFOS Floats
Observing Ocean Currents and Temperatures> Acoustic Tomographic Mooring


Bureau of Labor Statistics – Marine Engineer

Sea Grant, Marine Careers: Ocean Engineering

Sea Grant, Marine Careers: Profile, Ocean Engineer

Education Portal: Marine Engineering

Education Portal: Ocean Engineering

University of Rhode Island: Department of Ocean Engineering