Atmospheric Scientists

The degree needed by an atmospheric scientist depends on the type of career one wants to pursue. While a bachelor’s degree in meteorology may be sufficient for some positions, a Ph.D. will be required for research positions. Because competition is fierce for positions in this field, job seekers are encouraged to obtain the highest level of degree possible.

The world looks to atmospheric scientists – specifically operational meteorologists – for daily weather forecasts and information about climate change and weather trends, ozone changes and severe weather such as droughts, tornadoes and massive floods. Everyone from neighborhood farmers to air and sea shipping companies relies on these forecasts. Because these scientists study the earth’s air pressure, they are the first-in-line defense for notifying the population of changes in the weather and are responsible for interpreting past weather.

  • Operational meteorologists are the largest group of atmospheric scientists, and their data is obtained from many places such as weather satellites, radars, sensors and stations across the globe. They interpret data from sophisticated computer models to make their forecasts; these high-level programs, in conjunction with high-speed computers, have allowed forecasts to become much more accurate than in previous decades.
  • Climatologists are also atmospheric scientists who focus on long-term weather and patterns. Through their work, it can be determined what coming growing seasons will look like – warmer than normal, higher than average rainfall, or more snow than is normal for a given region. Studies performed by climatologists may be used when new buildings or heating and cooling systems are designed.
    Two types of atmospheric scientists – physical and environmental meteorologists – work exclusively in research.
  • While physical meteorologists study the chemical and physical properties of the atmosphere, they also study the dispersal of air pollutants over urban areas. On the other hand, environmental meteorologists study problems facing the world, such as pollution or a shortage of water, and report on their environmental impact.
  • Meteorologists involved in research also look for ways to control or diminish air pollution to create a safer environment for everyone.

Weather never stops happening so atmospheric scientists can expect to work at any time of day or night; they will work in offices and in the field, and they can even expect to find themselves broadcasting their findings on radio or television. Some meteorologists – such as those who work for car companies analyzing emissions data – work in private industry.
A bachelor’s degree will help open doors to this field, but higher-level or second degrees offer real advancement. For example, the federal government requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in any field combined with a host of additional classes such as meteorology, analysis and predictions of weather systems, atmospheric dynamics and thermodynamics, remote sensing of the atmosphere or instrumentation, and college physics, among others. A second bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree is highly recommended for those who would like to move to the area of operational meteorology – or forecasting the weather.

As a stand-alone degree, meteorology or atmospheric science is hard to find. However, many related courses are offered as complements to physics, earth science, geography and geophysics programs, and a number of colleges and universities combine the study of meteorology with other related studies such as agriculture, hydrology, oceanography, engineering or physics. Prospective scientists are advised to keep in mind their intended career’s primary focus and participate in courses that will help further that plan. For example, if a meteorologist would like to work for a television station, communication skills will be critical to success. It is also important to remember that the majority of people entering this field go through an internship period or begin as low-level data collectors, eventually working toward more responsibility. The American Meteorological Society offers the Certified Consulting

Meteorologist professional certification and the Certified Broadcast Meteorologist professional certification to individuals who have been in the field for 5 or more years.
The employment outlook for atmospheric scientists is exceptional, as this field is expected to grow faster than average. While the federal government has historically been the single largest employer of these scientists, the greatest number of future jobs will arise in the private sector, as farmers, commodity investors, insurance companies, utility companies, and transportation and construction firms will benefit from more closely monitored and specifically analyzed data meant for their specific needs. Competition for positions within meteorology is fierce and the faster-than-average job growth in the private sector is good news, but this growth will also be affected by the health of the economy. Atmospheric scientists have a wide spectrum of income opportunities, with the median annual income falling in the low $80’s. During the last census, the lowest 10 percent earned just about $30,000 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $127,000.