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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.

Present and Future

At the end of the eighteenth century, literature on the beginning and history of rock formations first began to be published in England by A. Werner and J. Hutton. The field grew with explorations in Europe and the New World. In the near future, geological jobs opportunities should remain about the same but over the next twenty years, the nature and the process of the job should change dramatically. Technological innovations will be important in changing methods of ground exploration and analysis, and the number of undiscovered sites will diminish, shrinking the available job pool. Geologists may find their role more related to environmental questions than resting on issues of venture capital.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Most geologists do field exploration and lab testing in their first two years. Usually paired with a “mentor” or “senior geologist,” entry-level employees visit sites and learn how to take samples, label and store them. Back at the office, duties turn to proofreading, summarizing professional articles and learning specific lab techniques. While not glamorous, the education is important, and those who rise in the profession cite those initial training years as important to their continued success.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Most who’ve decided to leave the profession have left by this point, although a few more will leave between years six and eight. Many in the field are promoted to “senior geologist” positions which involve the supervision of newer geologists and have more supervisory and oversight responsibilities, moving away from those as tester or field agent. Hours become more predictable and schedules become more flexible to allow for greater family and personal life. Many write articles on their own explorations or projects which act as an introduction to the community of geologists. A number of respondents cite the discovery of this community as significant to their satisfaction.

TEN YEARS OUT

The majority (over 60 percent) of ten-year geological survivors are employed by large companies, universities, or the federal government. The remaining 40 percent are private consultants or work for small firms with fewer than six employees. Salaries have increased, but from here on out, geologists can only expect cost-of-living adjustments. Many Ph.D.s who once worked in the private sector have returned to academia, relying on their experience to help them as teachers. Government geologists have settled in administrative and oversight positions, and more direct issues of policy and administration rather than individual testing and report writing. Those who leave the profession at this point do so for reasons of health or retirement.