Doing geology like it’s your job
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.