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Career: Geophysicist

A Day in the life of a Geophysicist

A geophysicist must have a strong science background, a curious mind, and a fascination with natural phenomena to succeed. Geophysicists measure, examine, and explore the physical properties of earth, from below the ground to the atmosphere, from the depths of the ocean to the tops of volcanoes. Daily duties include studying readouts of measurement equipment, examining natural phenomena (such as tidal waves and electromagnetic fields), and writing reports which correlate the two. Geophysics is an academic field which crosses over into the practical arena in a number of areas. Specialization is significant early on—when applying for jobs—in geophysics. For example, the work a seismologist does—studying seismic readings and trying to predict earthquakes—is like that of the tectnophysicist, who studies the movement of tectonic plates, but very unlike what a volcanologist does, measuring underearth temperatures and examining other readings which might predict the formation or eruption of volcanoes. Some geophysicists work with gravity, others with electronic fields. Most of the work of each of the specialties is done primarily in the lab, with some field work. Geophysicists often have to rush to a spot on the globe to examine an immediate phenomenon; unlike geologists, they do less steady on-site work. Geologists also analyze fairly static systems; geophysicists usually examine systems in flux. Those who succeed in geophysics seem to have the ability to be flexible and the willingness to challenge previously held assumptions if their data proves those assumptions untrue. Successful geophysicists are generally able to encompass the complexities of their profession. Many geophysicists move through a number of areas of specialization in five-year blocks. Initial specialization is important because it leads to five years of learning that particular aspect of the field. Professionals tend to enjoy learning how geological systems interrelate, and they are interested in learning about the systems which interact with the ones they already know. Learning about new specialties often happens gradually and unconsciously. Geophysicists take home the most amount of out-of-work reading of any profession in this book, with the possible exception of editor. The continuous challenge and the perpetual education this occupation encourages seem to be two of the major reasons geophysicists are so satisfied with their work.

Paying Your Dues

Geophysicists study geology and physics; a bachelor’s degree is required in the field, although more and more employers are requesting either a Master’s degree, a Ph.D, or three years’ experience. Coursework should include a basic geological core curriculum—stratigraphy, structural geography, and mineralogy—and basic physics curriculum—quantum mechanics, classical physics, electromagnetism, and gravity. It should also include logic, mathematics, and ecological science, a recent addition which is becoming more important to employers. Many companies which use geophysicists, such as hydroelectric power plants and research institutions, put new hirees through an intense, two-day to two-week training course in mission, internal protocols, and responsibilities. A mature outlook and sense of professional obligation are helpful in this career. Much of the work that geophysicists do is unsupervised, and the only line of defense against sloppy research is the withering academic stare of the geophysics community.

Associated Careers

Geophysicists leave the profession only when they retire, die, or find a scientific challenge more interesting, which happens about five percent of the time. Some venture into more obscure branches of physics, led by their initial interaction with geophysics. The most common reason people leave the profession? They go into teaching at university settings. What do they teach? Geophysics.

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