Atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists held about 11,100 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most atmospheric scientists in 2012 were as follows:
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||36%|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||29|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private||19|
|Radio and television broadcasting||8|
In the federal government, most atmospheric scientists work as weather forecasters with the National Weather Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in weather stations throughout the United States —at airports, in or near cities, and in isolated and remote areas. In smaller stations, they often work alone; in larger ones, they work as part of a team. The U.S. Department of Defense employed several hundred atmospheric scientists in 2012. In addition, hundreds of members of the Armed Forces are involved in atmospheric science.
Atmospheric scientists involved in research often work in offices and laboratories. Some may travel frequently to collect data in the field and to observe weather events, such as tornadoes, up close. They watch actual weather conditions from the ground or from an aircraft.
Atmospheric scientists who work in private industry may have to travel to meet with clients or to gather information in the field. For example, forensic meteorologists may need to collect information from the scene of an accident as part of their investigation.
Broadcast meteorologists give their reports to the general public from television and radio studios. They may also broadcast from outdoor locations to tell audiences about current weather conditions.
Most atmospheric scientists work full time. Weather conditions can change quickly, so weather forecasters need to continuously monitor conditions. Many, especially entry-level staff at field stations, work rotating shifts to cover all 24 hours in a day, and they work on nights, weekends, and holidays to provide the most current weather information. In addition, they work extended hours during severe weather, such as hurricanes. Other atmospheric scientists have a standard workweek, although researchers may work nights and weekends on particular projects.
Atmospheric scientists need a bachelor’s degree in meteorology or a closely related earth sciences field for most positions. For research positions, atmospheric scientists need a master’s degree at minimum, but usually will need a Ph.D.
Atmospheric scientists typically need a bachelor’s degree, either in atmospheric science or a related scientific field that specifically studies atmospheric qualities and phenomena. A bachelor’s degree in physics, chemistry, or geology may be adequate alternate majors for those who wish to enter the atmospheric sciences. Many schools offer atmospheric science courses through other departments, such as physics and geosciences. Prospective meteorologists usually take courses outside of the typical atmospheric sciences field.
Course requirements, in addition to courses in meteorology and atmospheric science, usually include advanced courses in physics and mathematics. Classes in computer programming are important because many atmospheric scientists have to write and edit the computer software programs that produce forecasts. Coursework in communications is also becoming important as organizations are becoming more focused on making their data useful and educating their communities and the nation.
Courses should be taken in subjects that are relevant to their desired area of specialization. For example, those who wish to become broadcast meteorologists for radio or television stations may take courses in speech, journalism, or related fields.
Atmospheric scientists who work in research must at least have a master’s degree, but will usually need a Ph.D. in atmospheric science or a related field. Most graduate programs do not require prospective students to have a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science. A bachelor’s degree in mathematics, physics, or engineering is excellent preparation for graduate study in atmospheric science. In addition to advanced meteorological coursework, graduate students take courses in other disciplines, such as oceanography and geophysics.
Atmospheric scientists and meteorologists who find employment in the National Weather Service will need to take 200 hours of on-the-job training per year for the first 2 years of employment.
Although it is not necessary for entry, a master’s degree in atmospheric science can greatly enhance employment opportunities, pay, and advancement potential for meteorologists in government and private industry. A master’s degree in business administration (MBA) may be useful for meteorologists interested in working in private industry as consultants who help firms make important business decisions on the basis of their forecasts.
Atmospheric scientists typically have an interest in the Building and Thinking interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws.
If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking interest which might fit with a career as an atmospheric scientist, you can take a career test to measure your interests.
Atmospheric scientists should also possess the following specific qualities:
Communication skills. Atmospheric scientists need to be able to write and speak clearly so that their knowledge about the weather can be used effectively by communities and individuals.
Critical-thinking skills. Atmospheric scientists need to be able to analyze the results of their computer models and forecasts to determine the most likely outcome.
Math skills. Atmospheric scientists use calculus, statistics, and other advanced topics in mathematics to develop models used to forecast the weather. They also use mathematical calculations to study the relationship between properties of the atmosphere, such as how changes in air pressure may affect air temperature.
The median annual wage for atmospheric scientists was $89,260 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $49,120, and the top 10 percent earned more than $134,730.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists in the top four industries in which these scientists worked were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$97,710|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state,
local, and private
|Radio and television broadcasting||82,360|
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||82,310|
Most atmospheric scientists work full time. Weather conditions can change quickly, so weather forecasters need to continuously monitor conditions. Many, especially entry-level staff at field stations, work rotating shifts to cover all 24 hours in a day, and they work on nights, weekends, and holidays to provide the most current weather information. In addition, they work extended hours during severe weather, such as hurricanes. Other atmospheric scientists have a standard work week, although researchers may work nights and weekends on particular projects.
Employment of atmospheric scientists is projected to grow by 10 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. New computer models have vastly improved the accuracy of forecasts and allow atmospheric scientists to tailor forecasts to specific purposes. This should increase the need for atmospheric scientists working in private industry as businesses demand more specialized weather information.
Prospective atmospheric scientists should expect competition because the number of graduates from meteorology programs is expected to exceed the number of job openings. Workers with a graduate degree should enjoy better prospects than those whose highest level of education is a bachelor’s degree.
Competition may be strong for research positions at colleges and universities because of the limited number of positions available. Few opportunities are expected in federal government because atmospheric scientists will be hired only to replace workers who retire or leave for other reasons. Budget constraints are also expected to limit hiring by federal agencies such as the National Weather Service. The best job prospects for meteorologists will be in private industry.
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For information about federal government atmospheric science careers in the National Weather Service and other agencies within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, visit