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What Does a Subsea Engineer Do?

By Terrie Brockmann
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Subsea engineering, called marine or seabed-to-surface engineering, is a specialty job that deals with underwater projects. A subsea engineer generally designs and installs underwater structures, including oil well rigging, wellheads, and pipelines. Typically, subsea engineers have working knowledge of underwater procedures, vehicles, and equipment. Some of this equipment may include imaging equipment, robotic tools and vehicles, as well as traditional construction tools. Subsea engineering jobs are available throughout the world, but not all of the jobs are associated with the oil and gas industry.

Underwater engineering reaches beyond the oil and gas industry. For example, a subsea engineer may perform research projects for cable-laying companies and supervise a crew of divers. Some energy companies are proposing laying electrical cables between islands to provide power to places that do not have the resources to produce their own energy. Subsea engineers generally are responsible for studying the soil and seabed conditions and choose the best location for cables.

Engineers who are interested in science and research may find employment with an oceanography study group. Typically, a subsea engineer in an oceanography study will work with analysis equipment and techniques and use specialty software. Subsea engineers usually work to support research divers who are not engineers. A subsea engineer may design and customize underwater vehicles and equipment to conform to the project's needs, coordinate onshore and subsea operations, and properly document all procedures.

Not all companies expect the same duties of subsea engineers. Some companies hire senior engineers to spearhead projects and lead a group of subsea engineers. Other companies hire a lead subsea engineer to manage personnel and scheduling, allowing the senior engineer to concentrate on more technical work. Generally, different job positions have different eligibility requirements.

A subsea engineer usually has a degree, such as a master's degree, in engineering and has extra training in subsea engineering. Many schools offer full-time, part-time, or online or distance learning courses in subsea engineering. Specialty subsea engineering courses generally include up-to-date technology and procedures, as well as information on current environmental policies. A few companies offer apprenticeship to their subsea engineers who do not have formal schooling beyond a high school diploma or its equivalent. Frequently, apprenticeships are open only to candidates who have worked in the subsea industry for several years.

Other subsea engineer careers include jobs that specialize in hydraulic jumpers or umbilical systems and risk management of undersea projects. Some subsea engineers own or work for consultation businesses. They help companies plan projects, maintain underwater equipment, or analyze potential problems through risk management and may be required to work in other regions of the world. Another job that often requires travel is freelance subsea engineering, which normally involves structure repair and upkeep.

Why Study Subsea Engineering?

There are many reasons to study subsea engineering, including personal and academic interest in natural resources and marine environments and conservation, curiosity about a lesser-known engineering field, and the opportunity to embark on a lifelong career.

Follow Personal Interest

Subsea engineering may be a natural area of interest for individuals who spend a lot of time in or near the sea. Outdoorspeople interested in the sciences might find this field particularly appealing since it allows them to marry their leisure pursuits such as snorkeling and diving with their work.

Embrace New Technologies

Technology goes hand in hand with subsea engineering. Engineers must design, build and install subsea systems and equipment to operate and exist in adverse conditions for long periods. The need and ability to control these systems and their parts from remote locations involves new and emerging technologies, requiring engineers' technical and hands-on knowledge.

Make a Difference

People who strive to make a difference globally through energy or environmental conservation work can find subsea engineering a rewarding career. Further, subsea engineers often strive to tap oil and gas resources using technologies that are not harmful to the surrounding environment. Preserving the marine environment is one way that subsea engineers can profoundly contribute to today and tomorrow's world.

How Much Do Subsea Engineers Make?

Petroleum engineers are akin to subsea engineers in terms of occupation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that petroleum engineers' median pay in 2020 was $137,330 per year or $66.02 per hour. From 2020 to 2030, labor statisticians expected employment for this sector of the architecture and engineering industry to grow by 8 percent, in line with the average growth rate for all occupations. 

Here is an idea of how petroleum engineers' median pay lines up against similar occupations for 2020:

  • Architectural and engineering managers: $149,530
  • Civil engineers: $88,570
  • Industrial engineers: $88,950
  • Mechanical engineers: $90,160
  • Mining and geological engineers: $93,800

How To Become a Subsea Engineer?

Most subsea engineer positions require a bachelor's degree in engineering or chemical, civil or mechanical engineering. High school classes in mathematics and the sciences or an associate's degree in hydrological or geological technology or a related field are good places to start for students interested in entering the field. Cooperative education programs that give students hands-on experience while earning academic credit are another great starting place.

High school and college students may also consider joining local chapters of national associations such as the Technology Student Association or American Society for Engineering Education. Through these organizations, students can learn about their field of interest and network with like-minded students and industry professionals through conferences, events and publications.

Prepare for Management

For individuals who wish to pursue subsea engineering management, hiring companies may require a master's degree. As a result, some engineering students may choose to attend universities and colleges that offer 5-year programs that provide a bachelor's and master's degree.

Seek Licensure or Certification

As in many career fields, licensure and certification are important aspects of subsea engineering. Many subsea engineers choose to acquire professional engineering licenses later in their careers, which allows them to oversee other engineers' work and sign off on projects.

Excel in the Field

Performing well in both practical and theoretical classes ensures success for students to become subsea engineers. Also, actively participating in community projects or volunteer assignments and becoming a member of related organizations such as one of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's societies positions individuals as dedicated and active participants in their chosen field of subsea engineering.

From doing data entry for a local engineering or surveying company to updating its website or taking soil samples weekly, there are all kinds of volunteer and paid positions that allow future subsea engineers to engage with and learn from industry professionals. While working in a marine environment may come later in their journey, getting hands-on experience in a related engineering environment boosts their career path. Subsea engineering employers pay special attention to candidates with a resume that showcases their academic and practical successes.

What Skills Must a Subsea Engineer Exhibit?

In addition to theoretical and practical knowledge and formal education, a successful subsea engineer must exhibit or develop the following skills:

  • Analytical
  • Creativity
  • Interpersonal
  • Math
  • Problem-solving

Many of these skills are innate and can also be learned in the classroom or on the job. For students who want to become subsea engineers, experts recommend taking on apprenticeships or internships with engineering companies to understand and accrue these skills and qualities.

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Discussion Comments

By anon167573 — On Apr 13, 2011

@brockmann: thank your for your views. You said that i need to be "certified." You see, my employer is not involved in subsea operations. Can the course in MSc Subsea Engineering "solely" satisfy my training needs?

By brockmann — On Feb 25, 2011

I believe you answered your own question when you said you "have not had any exposure on subsea technology." You can ask your employer to train you in subsea techniques. Don't forget that you need to be certified, which generally means that you need schooling in subsea operations. Good luck!

By anon154031 — On Feb 19, 2011

I am a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering, and have 3 years' experience in the offshore oil platform industry.

I have not had any exposure on subsea technology.

Can I consider myself for MSc Subsea Engineering ?

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