COVID-19 Update: To help students through this crisis, The Princeton Review will extend our “Enroll with Confidence” refund policies to cover students who enroll on or after August 1st. For full details, please click here.

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.

Present and Future

Amalgam professions, such as biochemistry and geophysics, are new entrants to the sciences as discrete areas of study. Geophysics grew out of geology and the recognition of geologists that it is a different concern to study a living, moving system than the results of a historical system. It is like comparing the study of history to the study of current events; both are valuable, but they require different intellectual processes. Geophysicists are limited by what they are able to see and examine; this means that new opportunities aren’t created, they just happen when the earth shows some activity. The job market should remain stable, with positions opening up and research duties still available, but to expect an explosion of geophysicist jobs would be an aggressive posture indeed.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

A geophysicist’s first years offer two distinct challenges: One, the transition from the shelter of the academic community to the working world seems to strike geophysicists more roughly than most professionals. While the sense of encouragement continues in the community of geophysicists, the daily tasks of taking readings, assembling large bodies of data, and finding patterns in that data is more monotonous and less challenging than the work students face in college. Two, more often than not, the candidate has to relocate for work, often to remote places where readings can be taken without significant man-made equipment interfering. Hours are reasonable and pay is low to average.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Most geophysicists reach the limits of their current specialization (not the limits of knowledge in the profession, just their area’s professional limits), and begin to branch out into new areas of study. Many begin to write articles and circulate them among colleagues. Those who have been successful as field researchers and lab analysts are given supervisory responsibilities over newer entrants to the profession; many teach elective courses at local universities. Geophysicists gain some control over the direction of their research, and many move into government service. Those who leave the profession do so at critical junctures when they cease to be challenged by their activities for a time.

TEN YEARS OUT

A large number of geophysicists return to academic circles as they reach the limits of their specialties, both in terms of responsibility and independence. Teaching, particularly at research institutions, allows greater leeway in investigation. Geophysicists can expect only cost-of-living adjustments to their salaries from here on.