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Students are expected to take about 12 courses during their first two years in the Joint Program. Typically these will include 4 core courses, 2 math courses and 6 or more electives. This number is a recommendation and not a requirement – there are no formal physical oceanography course requirements in the Joint Program. In addition, students are expected to attend research seminars and to complete widespread independent reading of the literature. They are encouraged to explore the diverse course offerings in other departments at MIT as well as to take advantage of the opportunity to cross-register at Harvard or Brown.

Core courses and mathematics

The core curriculum is intended to provide the minimum, essential foundation for students pursuing research in physical oceanography or an interdisciplinary field including physical oceanography. Students typically take 4 area-specific core courses.

For students interested in General Physical Oceanography, these are typically:

  • Fluid Dynamics of the Atmosphere and Ocean (12.800)
  • Introduction to Observational Physical Oceanography (12.808)
  • Steady Circulation of the Ocean and Atmosphere (12.801)
  • Wave Motions in the Ocean and Atmosphere (12.802)

For students with interdisciplinary interests, one or two of these courses (usually 12.801 or 12.802) are substitute with a more area-specific core course. Several area-specific, alternative core-courses are listed below:

Physical Oceanography and Climate

12.812  General Circulation of the Atmosphere (F)

12.801  General Circulation of the ocean (S)

Physical-biological-chemical Interactions

12.742  Marine Chemistry (F)

7.47      Biological Oceanography (S)

Coastal/Nearshore Physical Oceanography and Engineering

1.69      Coastal Engineering (F)

And one of

12.862   Coastal Physical Oceanography (F)

12.802   Wave Motions in the Ocean and Atmosphere (S)

Students typically take these courses during their first year unless they have had prior experience with the subject matter before entering.

In addition, most research topics in physical oceanography require an understanding of the methods of applied mathematics. We recommend that students take two Applied Math courses.


The core curricula have been kept to a minimum in order to allow each student to define a program of elective courses that are tailored to their research interest. Some of the most common and relevant electives are indicated within the different curricula by an asterisk (*). In addition, to help prepare for research on these diverse topics, Joint Program students may choose elective courses from the offerings of any MIT or WHOI department and cross-registration is available with Harvard. The list of possible elective is thus very extensive. Students are encouraged to consult the sample curricula as well as the appropriate course catalogues. Students are expected to define their own, personal paths through an elective course program, with advice from their major advisor and other academic staff members.

Physical oceanography students take around 14 to 16 courses during their first two years in residence. The goal of the program is to lay the foundation for later scholarship and research and to allow students to follow their individual interests. Here are some examples of different paths toward the Ph.D. These example course lists are by no means exclusive. Students are encouraged to consult with their advisors to determine courses that best suit their research and interests.

Focus: General Physical Oceanography

12.805* Laboratory in Physical Oceanography

12.803* Quasi-balanced Circulation

12.804* Large Scale Flow Dynamic Laboratory

12.755   Hydraulic Phenomena in Geophysical Fluid Flows
12.862   Coastal Physical Oceanography

12.758   Classic Papers PO

12.809   Hydraulic Flows

12.820   Turbulence in the Atmosphere and Oceans

12.824   Instability Theory

12.831   Dynamics and Transport in the Stratosphere (S)

12.870   Air-Sea Interaction

12.950   Computational Ocean Modeling

Focus: Physical Oceanography and Climate

12.842* Physics and Chemistry of Climate (F)

12.756* Climate Variability and Diagnostics (S, odd)

12.740* Paleooceanography (S, even)

12.802* Wave Motions in the Ocean and Atmosphere (S)

12.864* Inference from data and models (starting in 2015-2016).

12.708  Advanced Seminar in Paleoceanography

12.707  The history of the Earth’s Climate (S, odd)

12.757  Climate Change Science and Communication (S)

12.831  Dynamics and Transport in the Stratosphere (S)

12.848  Global Climate Change: Economics, Science and Policy (S)

12.885  Environmental Science and Society (F)

EPS208 Physics of Climate (Harvard, F)

EPS231 Climate Dynamics (Harvard, S)

Focus: Physical-Bio-Chemical Interactions

7.410*   Applied Statistics (F)

12.823* Modeling the Biology and Physics of the Ocean (S)

12.802* Wave Motions in the Ocean and Atmosphere (S)

7.430     Genetics of Marine Organisms

7.431     Topics in Marine Ecology

7.440     Intro to Mathematical Ecology

7.437     Topics in Molecular Biological Oceanography

7.436     Topics in Phytoplankton Biology

7.434     Topics in Zooplankton Biology connectivity

7.435     Topics in Benthic Biology

7.439     Topics in Marine Microbiology

12.746   Marine Organic Geochemistry

2.29       Numerical Fluid Mechanics

12.864    Inference from Data and Models

7.440      An Introduction to Mathematical Ecology

1.715      Environmental Data Analysis

12.714    Computational Data Analysis

Focus: Costal/Nearshore Physical oceanography and Engineering

2.29*      Numerical Fluid Mechanics

12.805*   Laboratory in Physical Oceanography

12.820*   Turbulence in the Ocean and Atmosphere


2.27*       Turbulent and separated flows

1.64*       Physical Limnology

1.723       Numerical Modeling

1.72         Groundwater

1.67         Sediment transport and coastal processes

12.754     Coastal geomorphology

12.864     Inference from data and models

For more complete information on course offerings, see the MIT catalog.