Careers in Marine Sciences: Working at the Interface of Land and Sea


When Marlene Noble left her particle physics graduate program at Princeton with a master's degree instead of the Ph.D. she had originally planned to stick around for, it was because she wanted to "work in an emerging field," as she puts it. That field, the study of how sediments move along ocean shelves, is now burgeoning but was at best embryonic in the early 1970s when Noble, now a physical oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California, decamped from theoretical physics to marine geophysics. Her reasons for doing so are a good lesson in how to choose a career.

In speaking with Noble from her office in Menlo Park, her calm and measured approach to choosing her life's work came through loud and clear. Noble's career path, which some may deem circuitous, has been carved by an honest assessment of her capabilities and interests. It is easy to imagine her stepping back often along the way to interrogate the map, asking if a given choice will really take her where she wants to be going and, more important, if she has the right map. In fact, her best advice to graduate students is to "look carefully at the field" they are in, and to ask where the field is going and if they themselves have the necessary skills and interests to move along with it.

The Right Map

To hear her tell it, Noble has often taken her own advice. After undergraduate work in physics at the University of Washington, Seattle, Noble found herself at Princeton University pursuing a Ph.D. in elementary particle physics, a field that, she says, was "becoming overcrowded," such that people working in its Goliath research programs had "smaller and smaller pieces of the whole." Noble says she knew she wanted to work in a field where her own contributions would have more of an effect on the direction in which the field was headed.

And so, after finishing a master's degree in physics at Princeton, Noble, who has always had an interest in oceans and is now an avid windsurfer, joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) graduate program in physical oceanography, which was based at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In her MIT Ph.D. program, the focus was on deep-ocean work, about which, says Noble, she "wasn't particularly enthralled," so she left the MIT program with a master's degree in physical oceanography. As she puts it, she didn't want a Ph.D. in physical oceanography "unless I decided I really liked the field."

Now the plot thickens and, of course, serendipity plays a role in what happens next. Noble's research lab at Woods Hole was right across the street from a USGS lab that, ta-da, was hiring scientists to work in the emerging field of coastal oceanography--the study of how currents move along shelves and slopes, a field whose midwives had been increased interest in offshore oil drilling and coastal pollution problems. Noble got a job in this new USGS group, which she says satisfied her intellectual need to play a role in shaping a new field, combined her love of physics and oceans, and kept her close to coasts and opportunities to pursue her love of water sports.

A Day in the Life

Noble has been working for the USGS ever since and, through a cooperative program with the University of Rhode Island, obtained her Ph. D. in coastal marine processes in 1983. About 15 years ago, Noble moved from the East Coast to the USGS labs at Menlo Park, where she applies what she learned about Atlantic coastal processes to what is happening on the Pacific side of the continent. Noble's research uses the same general approach on the West Coast that was tried and true on the East Coast. Although she says it is hard to describe a typical day--because every day is different--the work involves everything from conducting research cruises to analyzing data to spending hours on the phone discussing ideas and logistical arrangements with collaborators.

Cruises are usually scheduled two to three times a year. A typical cruise, which lasts 3 to 4 days, will place or retrieve tracking instruments that record physical parameters, such as current and temperature, in water depths between 20 and 100 meters, sometimes to depths of 2500 meters. Between cruises, Noble supervises a technical staff of ocean engineers who are experts in designing, operating, and maintaining the instruments, and, although the USGS does not grant degrees, serves as an outside adviser for graduate students pursuing research at other institutions.

Noble has also served as journal editor for Eos and Estuaries and has recently contributed to Next Wave's feature on ethics and authorship. She says there is a strong applied aspect to her work on coastal processes that makes her feel as if she is helping to "improve the coastal environment." For example, in an ongoing project, she and colleagues are collaborating with municipalities near Los Angeles to track and control pollutants in the coastal shelf area.

Check It Out

By way of advice to those interested in careers in coastal processes, Noble recommends a strong undergraduate science degree, with a background in physics or fluids. And a critical activity in shopping for a career, says Noble, is spending some time at a summer job in a particular field, or going to its major conferences, to decide if it actually is your cup of tea and where the future might lead. Noble believes--and her career course bears it out--that there can be a real advantage to stopping at a master's degree and then taking a job in a given research area. It is a way to step back and find out if you like the prospects--and are using the right map--instead of heading through for a Ph.D. without having a look around. Such a not-so-straight-and-narrow path, she says, helps you to "understand the field" and yourself.

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