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Doing geology like it’s your job

March 27, 2008

The geoblogosphere is abuzz with posts and discussions about the current demand (and associated offers) for geologists in both the minerals and petroleum industries.

Geoscience educators and academic researchers (i.e., those that landed a job at a university doing what they love) realize this, but it’s worth repeating: The vast majority of those students who end up with a degree in geoscience do not end up doing what you are doing. If you are tenured or tenure-track, you are but a small slice of the greater community of trained geoscientists.

So, what about the rest of us?

Well, there are a few options. Firstly, one can get out of geology altogether and go sell insurance, open a restaurant, or become a shepherd. This certainly happens (maybe not the shepherd part) but let’s focus on those that can’t get or don’t want an academic job but still want to make their living doing what they love … geology.

We can break it down into two main pathways — public institutions and the private sector. Once upon a time (so I’m told) a job with the US Geological Survey was the job to have. During my PhD research, I collaborated with a marine geologist from the USGS. I had an office there (Menlo Park, CA office) and was in the system as a volunteer (i.e., not on payroll). In an ideal world, the USGS would be a perfect place for those with a hunger for doing research. Unfortunately, the budget is tight and getting tighter by the year. I don’t have the stats at my fingertips, but a long-time USGS employee said that one new position is created for every 5-7 positions left vacant due to retirement. In other words, the postings are pretty competitive … at least they were for anything to do with my field in the last few years. So, this pathway is not significantly different than academia with respect to landing a position. And then there are more local governmental entities (e.g., state geological survey). Honestly, I don’t know what the job prospects are like for those institutions. Feel free to chime in if you know anything about that.

The second major career pathway is the private sector. This could be anything from working for a gigantic corporation to being an independent consultant. It’s pretty rare for a newly-graduated geoscientists to start a successful consulting firm on their own. Consulting is mostly about experience and contacts — you know what you’re doing and you know who your clients are. There are, of course, larger firms that employ young geoscience graduates as well. Geotechnical and/or environmental engineering firms are two that pop into my head.

But, the articles that created the discussion in the first place was talking about the Earth resources industry — minerals and petroleum. Both hard and soft rocks are hot! I’ve heard Australia’s mining industry, in particular, is snatching up new graduates left and right (maybe Lab Lemming can comment on that). I’ve heard Canada’s oil patch (mostly Alberta) is hiring right out of undergraduate … no graduate degree required. Demand for those that understand the Earth is high.

All things considered, more geologists actually working as geologists is a good thing. This is good for science (more data, more information) and this is good for those who want to educate and train students to become working geologists. All these budding geologists need advisers and mentors.

Additionally, more geologists in the world is a good thing. Many may not stay in geology for their whole career, but having some experience doing geology day-in and day-out will hopefully give them a larger appreciation of how the Earth works and why it’s important to understand it.

If you are an undergraduate reading these reports about high demand and salaries, don’t get too excited. The boom-bust cycle is inherent to the way global commerce operates (at least for now). It’s certainly good to know you have options when you do graduate … the more pathways to choose from, the better … but I wouldn’t choose geology solely based upon the current high demand. By the time you are done, it may not be that way. But, if you take geology classes and really like it, stick with it. If you enjoy geology, you’ll most likely put a lot of work into it and end up doing well. If you do well, you’ll have a better chance of being employable.


13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2008 8:55 am

    Don’t forget (in addition to all this good stuff!) that students with geology Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees make, on average, higher salaries than students with equivalent degrees in biology, chemistry, secondary education, and environmental science (presumably the non-geological parts), though not physics (petroleum engineering tops ’em all, though). See this and this for the raw data on the Bacehlor’s degree and this for the Master’s; apparently the NACE (Nat’l Association of Colleges and Employers) does this work every year and it’s been this way for at least a few! This is a great selling point for recruiting geoscience majors.

  2. March 27, 2008 9:17 am

    I really enjoyed this post, Brian. Here’s a shout to second your comments that only a small number of geologists can become professors. Lots of people want those jobs! It is not unusual to have dozens of highly qualified applicants in the pool and several of them will have teaching experience beyond a TA position. To be successful you will need to have great references who will sing about your teaching and research performance, plus have a lot of resume content that your future dean will be able to brag about.

  3. March 27, 2008 9:48 am

    Hobart … depending on the broadness of the posting, the institution, location, etc. some of these postings can attact a lot of applicants. At one point I applied for a posting that had ~100 applicants. That might be on the high end, but you’re right … it’s simple math, way more PhDs than tenure-track positions.

  4. March 27, 2008 10:58 am

    I agree that you have described things very well in this post, and have pretty well summarized a good portion of what we have been discussing recently.

    And also don’t forget the non-minerals aspect of mining, like sand, gravels, and limestone (slate, marble, etc…). Although these jobs aren’t always considered “glamorous,” I’ve known people who found work in these areas to be at least a good fallback position, and I know one geologist who has done a lot of excellent mapping while working in limestone/cement mines and exploration. These products aren’t cyclical except perhaps with the overall economy, at least as long as roads are being built. Also, jobs tend to be fairly close to large cities, for those who don’t want to be away from home.

    Consulting isn’t usually for beginning geologists, as you said, although companies may sometimes hire new, inexperienced geologists on a “contract” basis – which sometimes is almost identicle to consulting – and sometimes has some variations, like a salary rather than a daily rate, with some benefits. Sometimes the contract geologists are “run” through a geotemp outfit, like GeoTemps in Reno, NV, and others – which are excellent places to look for work.

  5. dmonte permalink
    March 27, 2008 12:18 pm

    I have worked for a east coast state survey for 23 years now. It’s been great fun as you get involved with many different projects but we almost never hire. The economy is bad in my and most adjoining states and as the survey positions are the most desired within the state system they are very hard to come by. Our survey is populated with folks my same vintage and when one leaves so does the position. The other problem is all the positions are civil service, meaning you must be picked off a list. Most new hires, all in the hydro end have worked as interns and therefore previously proved themselves to staff. If you can get someone on your side it is easier to break into the system.

  6. March 27, 2008 1:35 pm

    In terms of the Aussie mining industry, they are desperate for geologists. Last time I browsed the minerals section at, there were over 1000 jobs going, many of which were accepting straight-out-of-BSc students and offering salaries of ~100K AUD (~92K USD).

    It’s quite a situation in Australia. From what I’ve heard, they’re simply not producing classically trained geologists in the universities, but rather mining geologists. Though those who ARE classically trained are being snapped up before they can start post-grad.

    So where does Australia get more geologists from? Here. New Zealand. Last year we had several Aussie consulting companies working their way through our universities attempting to snap up graduate and post graduate students to move over to the continent. Every single one of my friends from my undergrad classes, except 3 or 4 (from a class of 20), are now working in Aussie, or planning on moving over when they finish their post-grad. The money being offered is just ridiculous. And the companies hiring REALLY look after you, which is nice.

    In terms of boom and bust, the boom being experienced in Australia right now is one of the longest they’ve had, and doesn’t look to be abating, even with the economic downturn. China and India still need stupid amounts of coal, iron and other minerals, while others are after diamonds, gold, palladium and commodity materials.

    I love geology as a science and I’ve really enjoyed doing my MSc. But to not hop on this mining gravy-train right now could be foolish. I’m hoping that once I’ve set myself up, I’ll be able to walk away from the money and continue my academic career with a PhD, but who knows.

  7. March 28, 2008 8:56 am

    dmonte … sorry your comment didn’t pop up right away … it was thrown into the spam folder for some reason

  8. March 29, 2008 8:19 pm

    I’ll try to write something coherent before getting redeployed, but if not search my blog for “western australia visa”.


  9. james permalink
    January 30, 2009 4:16 am

    whats the market like now (janurary 2009) ?

  10. January 30, 2009 8:41 am

    james … things have tightened up considerably as you might have guessed … I can’t speak for the entire oil/gas industry, but I know that several companies have significantly reduced (or even frozen) hiring. But, this is limited info … it really depends on the company and the position. There likely are still opportunities out there.

  11. james permalink
    January 30, 2009 9:14 am

    well, maybe things should pick up again. Just for the record i am not a geologist but am beggining a 3 year degree in september. If you dont mind me asking, at 32 years old would you (with your knoledge of the employment trends) say that (even if the outlook was good)i would be too old to be considered for employment/training ?

    I know its a difficult question, and maybe there is a thousand different answers, but from what you have seen, do people who enter this proffesion later in life have much of a chance ?


  12. January 30, 2009 9:20 am

    james … no, I don’t think that is too old … but, like you said it all depends on what kind of job, timing, etc. and so on

  13. james permalink
    January 30, 2009 9:27 am

    alright thanks for reponse

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