What it takes to be a meteorologist…
With relatively quiet weather on the go right now, I have decided to write an observation post. As someone who is hoping to work on a meteorology degree very soon (with honors!), I often ask others (and some ask me too) what it takes to actually be a meteorologist. You most often see them on TV, but there are many that work behind the scenes too – in fact those can be the hardest jobs since they write the official products (such as with the National Weather Service). Many also work for private sector companies and the military. So what does it take? This focuses on the educational components (my current situation), although it takes much more. Don’t be worried with what you are like – women and minorities are increasing in numbers in the meteorology business and are highly desired today as well. This pathway can also save significant money since education can be very expensive.
High School Years
It all starts before you finish high school for most people. Most that become meteorologist have the desire since a young age, although some may decide they want to take it up later. I personally have always wanted to do it, but I didn’t have the grades in high school (long story!) and I am entering it later in life. 98% of the time though, that will not apply to you. Make sure you take math, science (in all fields), computer/technology, geography and even English courses right up to 12th grade at advanced levels, since you will need them. A second or third language is increasingly becoming an asset as well (most often Spanish, but also French, Chinese, Arabic, etc.). Most school systems require those courses until 9th or 10th grade at least, but stay in them right to the end and get good grades if you can! It will help you a lot later.
Early in College
Obviously, picking a college is crucial, and money is often an issue, since sometimes you will have to go out of state to find a good meteorology degree as some states do not have them (or have very small ones). My advice, if you don’t live in a state with a good meteorology program, would be to stay local initially – at least for the first couple years – and even a junior college or local college may suffice. You may dream of a high level or popular weather school, but if it requires paying out-of-state tuition, it can be very expensive and funding may be difficult at the undergraduate level. Certainly, do not go international at this stage. Most of the courses you will need are available almost everywhere, and do not require a meteorology degree at this stage. Make sure you are in a science program though, that makes it much easier to transfer.
In your first two years, assuming you don’t have any deficiencies from high school, make sure you get at least 4 calculus courses (one of which should be Differential Equations), 2 or 3 physics courses, 2 computer science courses, 1 or 2 chemistry courses and a linear algebra course. If your school offers them, add geography, statistics, basic science (such as climate science or weather), communications and a second or third language course as electives if possible to round out your degree. It may take summer courses to reach this ideal pathway, and if a third year is required, don’t be discouraged. Since jobs are scarce for young people in many areas, summer courses can also help pass the time and make the fall and winter terms easier.
Proceeding to the Goal…
By the end of second or third year, you should have all the basics. This is when you get into more specialized meteorology courses in most cases. If your school does not have meteorology, this is a good time to transfer. Look at the schools that have strong and popular meteorology programs (as I find that they give you a much better chance of succeeding in the field, although it is not a prerequisite by any means), and choose your best one. Assuming your grades in the core courses mentioned above are strong (i.e. mostly A’s and B’s, a few C’s are probably okay), you should have little trouble being accepted even if you started at a local junior college. The money saved in the first two years may help fund the latter stages as well, considering if you have to go out of state, you can expect to pay much higher tuition. The lucky ones who have a strong meteorology school in their state may not have to worry about that factor. Remember to watch your grades as they are important too for careers! I wouldn’t accept any grade lower than a C in a core course personally, and even if you passed them, retake them if you can.
In the latter years (years 3 and 4 or 4 and 5 for most students), your basic courses come into play and let you learn the more advanced skills needed for a career in meteorology. Since you focused your basic courses in the first two years, you will likely be spending a lot of time on advanced courses. When it comes to electives, look at what specific field in meteorology you want to enter – and it is always good to have more than one pathway available. For a broadcasting job, look at journalism or communications courses. For a climate scientist, look at biology, climate science and nature courses. In the military, some engineering courses may be necessary. Remote sensing courses are also useful for radar and satellite observations, which are heavily used in meteorology. It is also advisable to take internships/practicums with weather offices or other opportunities, if possible, as well. Once again, taking courses in the summer, if possible, would help ease the workload.
The Graduate Route
Increasingly, advanced education beyond undergraduate degrees are required or desired (and that is the path I intend to take). Relatively few schools have graduate degrees, but funding is much better for even out of state students at that level. Although a meteorology undergraduate degree is not entirely required, it is likely you will require all the core courses mentioned above and at least many of the other science courses (as many as you can get in your undergraduate school). High achievement is a must – you likely need at least a B or B+ average in your core courses and meteorology courses in the undergraduate degree just to be considered, and to be accepted, an A- average might be necessary.
If you took a meteorology program and want an advanced one (a Master’s or Doctorate degree), you will just enhance your knowledge. A thesis will likely be required, but the results of that can be very rewarding. Earning an advanced degree gets you in the best position possible to achieve the most jobs and can even give you dream jobs with high level pay in the longer term. Academia and management jobs require a Ph.D. in most cases, which is a reward for a long and difficult road!
Note that some weather forecasters you may see on TV (especially in smaller markets or in areas with less severe weather, such as the west coast) do not have any meteorology training. However, today it is becoming much less common, especially in a competitive marketplace. They are also unable to apply for any certifications. Many others come out with only a certificate of meteorology (which is much shorter – typically 2 or 3 years – and only covers the basics; I personally would not recommend that road for anyone currently in high school or early in college, but for someone who starts meteorology later in their careers, it is probably the easiest option available.)
You certainly cannot expect to work as a government or advanced meteorologist without at least an undergraduate meteorology degree, and a graduate degree certainly improves your chances. Academia usually requires a Doctorate degree, and government jobs usually require at least a Master’s degree these days. It is also ideal to be qualified for multiple branches of meteorology, if possible, to maximize job opportunities.
Also just as I write this, here is another recommended link from Dennis Mersereau (@wxdam) at The Gawker: http://thevane.gawker.com/do-you-have-what-it-takes-to-predict-the-future-the-re-1723297960
Forecaster Craig Ceecee (@EternalWeather1)
Featured image from http://untamedskies.com/scientific-research/ (Owen Shieh, Ph.D.)