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Career: Geologist

A Day in the life of a Geologist

One geologist said she owns a bumper sticker which reads “I’ve got rocks in my head.” A little levity may be appreciated in between analyzing rock formations, interpreting data, and fieldwork studying rocks. Geologists who are reviewing land in the field or consulting on environmental issues can expect to spend five to fifteen hours a day outdoors, usually during the more pleasant months of the year. They take samples and measurements and explore underneath the initial layers of the earth. Once they’ve completed their field work, most return to the lab and test their samples for content and composition. One geologist said, “You’ll be asked simple questions, and you’ve got to come up with ways of answering them when no one method is foolproof. Is there oil under here? If so how much? How long will it take to get it out? Those questions can only be answered with probabilities, not certainties.” It takes a person not only good at approaching problems but also good at dealing with people to satisfy all requirements of this occupation. Many geologists do prospective development for the potential value of land sites for the oil and gas industry. They write reports recommending whether or not to purchase a particular plot of land. A good geologist can be worth millions to a venture-capital-based oil company. “Don’t count on seeing any of the money you make for them,” wrote one semi-disgruntled geologist. Pay is low in this academic industry. Many who enter it cite the intellectual challenge and the ability to work both in a lab and outdoors as the most positive features of the profession. Geologists appreciate the supportive and very involved community of geological scientists: “You learn every day from your peers and the world around you. It’s a perfect combination.” A geologist may find herself in the field for somewhere between three and seven months per year. Those long periods abroad can make life not so predictable for those who value family life and a stable work environment. Those who don’t work in the private sector may find work under the auspices of the largest hirer of geologists, the federal government. Many are employed by the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Defense.

Paying Your Dues

A geologist must have at least a bachelor’s degree in geology or geophysics. Those who wish to advance should consider a Master’s degree and, in certain cases, a Ph.D. Coursework includes such scientific staples as math, physics, chemistry, and statistics, but should also include mineralogy, stratigraphy, and structural geology. Entry-level positions, characterized by a lack of responsibility and paltry remuneration, include field research assistant and lab assistant. Most people work in teams. “I’ve never heard of an occupation that depends more on how well you work with others,” wrote one geologist, “and you’ll never hear more jokes about rocks.” Someone interested in this career should be good with numbers and people, be interested in sciences and natural formations, and should be comfortable working both alone and in groups. This person should also be willing to work long hours under uncertain working conditions (indoors and out) and be happy with a smaller-than-average paycheck.

Associated Careers

Few geologists—about ten percent—leave the profession, and when they do, they tend to migrate to other, related sciences. Some of these, such as geophysics and statistics, have direct correlations to geology. Others, such as oceanography and petroleum engineering, are applied versions of geological knowledge in specific areas. Some move to the EPA in their enforcement division, or the National Parks Service as land surveyors. Others return to school to receive advanced degrees in related or geological sciences.

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