Earth and Marine Sciences Degrees: Courses Structure, Specializations & Career | Top Universities

If you want to understand the planet on which we live, then perhaps a degree in Earth and marine sciences could be for you.

Read our guide to find out what to expect from degrees in these fields, some of the science skills necessary, some of the different specializations available, and the potential careers open to graduates. To discover the world's top universities for Earth and marine sciences, visit our ranking.

 

What do earth and marine science degrees cover?

Study Earth science and you can expect to be concerning yourself with topics such as the evolution of life, planetary interiors, the causes of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, oceanic and atmospheric phenomena, and earth surface processes. Study marine science and you will learn more about the ocean, the seas, and how the international resources they provide can be used in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way.

Both Earth and marine sciences include a strong focus on environmental issues. You might look at the Earth’s resources, how we use them and how they can be best preserved, atmospheric changes and their effect on life on Earth, or how human activity might increase the likelihood of natural disasters.

These topics are becoming more and more important by the day; choose to focus on them and you may well find yourself working amidst the frontline of scientists dedicated to protecting the planet.

Entry requirements for Earth and marine sciences degrees

Entry requirements vary from institution to institution. Still, candidates are usually expected to have good grades in mathematics and either chemistry or physics, as these subjects provide the best preparation for the course, science skills never hurt, either. While those applying for undergraduate-level (bachelor’s) degrees will not be expected to have completed formal studies in this area, applicants should be able to demonstrate a keen interest in Earth and marine sciences. This could be through proof of having spent time independently reading about the subject, perhaps combined with some independent trips, expeditions or even relevant work experience or volunteering.

 

Course structure and assessment methods

Most Earth and marine science courses last for three or four years at bachelor’s level and one or two for a master’s degree; this depends mainly on the norm in the country of study. Some universities offer the opportunity to take on a longer course which combines the bachelor’s and master’s levels in one longer program.

Typically, students of Earth and marine sciences will find themselves dividing their time between the lab and the field. Be ready to get your hands dirty and, on occasion, go up against the elements. You’ll need the usual meticulous attention to detail required for lab work, a huge cache of subject-specific knowledge and the ability to convert raw data into solid findings.

Assessment includes essays, research projects, oral presentations and practical exams. Expect the course to be demanding and challenging, but full of opportunities to develop your interests and even to travel to other countries for fieldwork.

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Earth science specializations

‘Earth science’ is really an umbrella term for a wide range of more specialized disciplines. In many cases, universities simply offer these specializations as separate degrees. Others offer wider Earth science degrees with internal options for specialization. Either way, the diversity of the different branches of Earth and marine science means that you will almost certainly have to choose a specialization at a fairly early stage in your academic career.

Here are some of the more popular specializations which you might choose:

Geology

One of the most popular branches within Earth sciences, geology is the study of the physical make-up of the solid parts of the planet Earth. The applications of the subject include developing our understanding of why natural disasters occur; learning to identify the locations of valuable physical resources; and analyzing how the Earth came to be as it is today, and how it is likely to be in the future.

Oceanography

Oceans make up 71% of the world’s surface, according to the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, 95% of this total remains unexplored. Oceanography is the Earth science discipline which aims to help us understand the physical, chemical and biological composition of these large and mysterious swathes of our planet.

Soil science

Though dedicating yourself to studying soil might seem a bit strange, it makes a lot more sense when you realize how important a subject it is. After all, we wouldn’t last very long without the things that grow in soil, and neither would the livestock and plants we raise and cultivate. With the human population rapidly increasing and food shortages threatening to become an issue, soil science is set to play a key role in the future of agriculture.

Meteorology

The study of the atmosphere, meteorology is most often employed in predicting the weather. In the modern age, meteorology is also being used to feed into predictions about climate change. It considers both the effect of meteorological phenomena on human life, and humanity’s effects on the Earth’s atmosphere.

Paleontology

A unique branch of the sciences, paleontology sits somewhere between Earth sciences and biology, and is often categorized as part of the anthropology group of studies. It uses fossils or geochemical evidence to study ancient life, and through them, work out the evolutionary path that led from single-cell organisms to the complex and not-so-complex life-forms which exist today. This is likely to be the Earth sciences specialization chosen by dinosaur fanatics.

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Earth science careers

Your options for Earth science careers will depend on which branch of the subject you’ve chosen to specialize in, and the level to which you study. For those who study to PhD level, or at least complete a research-based master’s degree, specialized Earth science careers include the following:

Earth science careers in geology

A geologist studies the various processes happening inside the planet Earth, analyzing why they happen and what materials are produced or transformed. If you choose to pursue a career in geology, you may find a role within the energy or mining sectors, advising on the location and extraction of different metals, oils and other natural resources. Alternatively, you could choose an academic path, working in a university or a research group in the private sector. The focus of your research could vary from analyzing meteors or using isotope techniques to assess environmental change over long periods, to modelling volcanic activity and predicting earthquakes.

Earth science careers in oceanography

As an oceanographer, you’ll need to be passionate about the ocean and its mysteries. You will analyze the complex interactions happening in the water and how they affect the atmosphere and the biosphere. You could examine pollution levels in different parts of the ocean, contribute weather predictions or climate change projections, advise on mineral exploitation or help provide guidelines and advice for the fishing industry. In addition to data analysis, use of computer simulation and report writing, you could also be involved in more hands-on tasks such as collecting samples from the ocean or ocean floor using specialized equipment.

Earth science careers in geophysics

This is a similar field to geology, but with an emphasis on understanding the physics involved in the Earth’s composition and transformations. Careers as a geophysicist could mean focusing on earthquake forecasting, or on providing guidance for projects such as real estate development, reservoir creation, landfill site usage and extraction of natural resources. This role is likely to have a focus on collecting seismic data in order to estimate the properties of the Earth’s subsurface, and geophysicists are also commonly referred to as seismologists.

Earth science careers in meteorology

A career as a meteorologist is another popular choice among Earth science graduates. Here, your role will involve collecting and analyzing data obtained from the land, the sea and the upper atmospheric layers, and interpreting this data in order to better understand weather conditions and patterns. Based on your research and analysis, you will contribute to making forecasts about the weather and climate patterns, using advanced modelling in order to make short or long-term predictions.

In addition to the specialized Earth science careers listed above, there is also the option of combining your science skills with another less research-orientated profession. You could consider environmental journalism or broadcasting, for example, or employ your expertise within a relevant campaign group. On the other hand, if these careers involve a bit too much sitting down for an outdoorsy Earth sciences graduate, you may consider jobs in conservation or field research.

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Key Skills

Common skills gained from an earth and marine sciences degree include: 

  • Interpreting raw data
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to present findings in a concise and comprehensible fashion
  • Framework for further learning and understanding of how to use scientific literature
  • Technological literacy
  • Experience of fieldwork, often in challenging conditions
  • Working as part of a team
  • Experience of working in a laboratory
  • Awareness of environmental issues
  • Ability to evaluate risk
  • Ability to look at issues systemically and identify patterns
  • Ability to make decisions based on incomplete data
  • Ability to adapt quickly
  • Ability to meet tight deadlines