Pilot Peak, Beartooth Plateau, Wyoming: An example of a glacial horn.
CAREERS: WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH A MAJOR IN GEOLOGY
JOBS AND WAGES
Opportunities for interesting and rewarding careers abound for students with degrees in geology. The American Geological Institute reports that there are about 120,000 geoscientists currently working in the United States. Moreover, a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the number of active geoscientists and hydrogeologists is expected to increase by about 18% by 2018, a pace that exceeds that average for all occupations. According to the BLS survey, the median annual wages of geoscientists of all types in May 2008 was $79,160 ($71,450 for hydrogeologists). Median wages are generally higher in the oil and gas industry (median wages, May 2008 = $127,560) and for those employed by the Federal Government (median wages, June 2009 = $94,085), whereas jobs in state government agencies generally pay less than the overall average (median wages, May 2008 = $57,700). The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that average starting salary for college graduates with bachelor's degrees in geoscience was $40,786 in 2007.
TYPES OF CAREERS
Geoscientists typically work in one or more of several closely related fields, including geology, geophysics, and hydrology. Reflecting the complexity of the natural world in which they work, most modern geoscientists possess interdisciplinary skills and often work in teams with other geoscientists whose expertise complements their own. In general, Geologists study the composition, physical materials, and history of the Earth, usually with the goal of understanding the nature of processes that have formed the geologic record. Mineralogists analyze and classify minerals and minerals systems according to their composition, genesis, and structure, usually with the goal of understanding the nature of formation and/or to locate new mineral resources. Paleontologists study fossils to trace the evolution of plant and animal life and to decipher the geologic history of the Earth. Stratigraphers examine the formation and layering of stratified rocks in order to understand the environment in which they formed and the clues such rocks hold regarding Earth-surface processes of the past. Sedimentologists study the nature, origin, and distribution of sediments, such as gravel, sand, silt, and mud, and usually apply such knowledge to further understanding of the processes involved in sediment accumulation and/or genesis of economically important deposits contained therein. Geophysicists, a group that includes geodesists, seismologists, geomagnetisists, use mathematics and principles of physics to study Earth motions, gravitational field, earthquake-related phenomena, and both recent and ancient magnetic information to better understand geodynamic processes and improve models of Earth’s interior. Geochemists study the nature and distribution of chemical elements in groundwater and Earth materials, usually with the goal of better comprehending the type of processes responsible for developing the compositional characteristics. Volcanologists investigate volcanoes and volcanic phenomena to better predict the potential for future eruptions and the nature of volcanic-related hazards to human health and welfare. Glacial geologists study the physical properties and movement of glaciers and ice sheets, sometimes using such information to contribute to contemporary discussions of future climate change. Hydrogeologists study the quantity, composition, distribution, circulation, and physical properties of both surface water and groundwater, and often play an important role in decisions involving both resource-management and land-use. Engineering geologists apply geologic principles to the fields of civil and environmental engineering, using their knowledge to provide advice on major construction projects, environmental remediation, resource management, and natural-hazard reduction. Oceanographers study Earth’s oceans and coastal waters to provide important evidence bearing on coastal process, undersea geology, biological evolution, broad-scale oceanic circulation patterns, and climate change.
NATURE OF THE WORK
Many students are attracted to careers in geoscience because of the opportunity to work outdoors, often in beautiful environs located far from the busy trappings of daily life. Indeed, many geoscientists incorporate a healthy dose of field work in their careers carrying out geologic mapping, sample collection, various types of data-gathering, and the like. Others work almost entirely in office- or laboratory-based settings; whereas still others combine both venues, switching periodically between the field and office or laboratory (or both) as the nature of the work dictates. However, because many geoscientists find that their scientific effectiveness is significantly augmented by their cumulative experience, most geologists and hydrogeologists travel extensively throughout their careers to attend meetings, visit colleagues, participate in field trips, and examine the geology of far-off places. A consequence of this observation is the fact that most geoscientists find themselves becoming better and better as their careers progress and the total amount of their geoscientific experience increases.
The work of many geoscientists is much like that of a detective in that the scientist concentrates on clues indicative of events that occurred in the past and tries to decipher both what happened and why it transpired. In a typical investigation, a geoscientist gathers data of many types – often from the field or from samples, or both – and looks for relationships that can be explained through application of basic principles of geology and other sciences. Using data and observations, geoscientists typically construct detailed models to explain their findings, discuss their ideas with colleagues, and present the conclusions both orally and in print. Many geoscientists are attracted to the geosciences because of the fascinating complexity and interconnectedness of natural systems and by the thrill they experience in making new discoveries. Not surprisingly, a survey published in the early 1990’s by Money magazine rated geology near the top of all professions in terms of job satisfaction!
The work of geoscientists and hydrogeologists is typically interdisciplinary in nature, involving application of principles from biology, chemistry, physics, and more. As a result, most geoscientists combine broad scientific backgrounds with strongly focused research or work-related expertise. Because of the complex nature of the natural systems that they investigate, most geoscientists tend to work as part of teams in which each member contributes expertise. Multi-authored research papers and work-related reports are common, as indicated by many of the bibliographical entries included in the Faculty pages. Effective interpersonal skills are often a key ingredient to successful and highly enjoyable careers.
Now, perhaps, more than ever, many students decide to pursue careers in geoscience because of a commitment to help others and to assist in global efforts to preserve and safeguard the natural environment. Studies indicate that increasing numbers of people worldwide are choosing to live in geologically at-risk areas including low-lying coasts, landslide-prone regions, areas where fresh water supplies are limited or face imminent threat of pollution, and locations subject to serious volcanic- or earthquake-related hazards. As a result, the future likely holds many opportunities for newly minted geoscientists to use their expertise to help avert disasters and perhaps save lives.
EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITES OF THE FUTURE
Prospects for employment of students holding degrees in geology and related geoscience fields are promising. Job growth in the geosciences is expected to exceed the average for all occupations from 2010 through 2018 according to studies published by the Bureau for Labor Statistics. In some sectors of the field, demand is expected to surpass the supply of qualified new workers. The continued need for energy and natural materials, environmental protection, natural-hazard mitigation, and responsible stewardship of land and natural resources is expected to stimulate employment of geologists and maintain the robust levels of salary compensation. This effect should be bolstered by anticipated increases in spending to improve the nation’s infrastructure, a process that will increase demand for geologists with engineering-related expertise. Demand for geologists and hydrogeologists is also expected to be augmented by worldwide demographic trends indicating that populations will increasingly migrate toward geologically sensitive, and sometimes dangerous, regions. Moreover, anticipated assessment of volcanic-related hazards, earthquake potential, coastal erosions tendencies, and water-resource issues will result in increased opportunities for qualified geoscientists. Hydrogeologists, in particular, are expected to benefit from the increased need for qualified professionals to provide advice concerning issues as varied as soil and water contamination, storm-water management, coastal aquifer contamination, hazardous-waste site management, and effective design of environmental remediation systems. Jobs in the oil and gas industry, normally relatively high paying but cyclical in availability due to fluctuations in commodity pricing, are expected to be bolstered by anticipated high petroleum prices that point toward continued demand for qualified graduates. Even in those sectors where employment is affected by reduced budget levels such as agencies of the Federal or state governments, opportunities for employment will continue due to the need to replace current workers lost due to attrition. Some of the Federal agencies that hire geologists include the U.S. Geological Survey (including the Division of Water Resources), Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy. Most states have a dedicated geological survey (for more information, visit http://www.stategeologists.org). Perhaps not unexpectedly, students entering the field with a master’s degree in a geoscience field should expect to enjoy significantly enhanced choice of career path and salary level over those holding only a bachelor’s degree.
WHAT STUDENTS DO AFTER GRADUATION
GWU students who graduate with a degree in geoscience typically follow various pathways as they launch their post-baccalaureate careers. Many of our students choose to pursue additional study in graduate school. Most enter MS programs; however, it is not unusual for students to undertake Ph.D. studies directly upon leaving GWU. Students who complete senior research projects and qualify for Special Honors typically have greater choice of schools to attend and are usually more likely to receive financial aid in the form of assistantships. In recent years, GWU geology students have gone on to pursue studies at many of the most prominent graduate departments for geology in the United States, including those at Stanford, UCLA, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Arizona, University of Michigan, and Washington University at Saint Louis, among others. In all cases, such students have been the beneficiaries of full financial aid through graduate assistantships. Students who ultimately complete a doctorate degree typically pursue careers in research and/or academia. Students choosing to complete only a master’s degree have considerable latitude with respect to pursuing careers in industry, including working at firms specializing in environmental applications.
Other students have chosen to enter the private work force directly upon graduation. Most such students obtain employment with private firms that specialize in environmental applications. There are many such companies located in the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area, and such firms are common in most urban areas of the United States. Students who accept positions with such firms immediately after completing their BA or BS degree can expect to take on a variety of duties ranging from sample collection and other field-based responsibilities to providing research for the report-writing staff. Other students have chosen to accept employment in the energy or mineral resources industries working for companies engaged in petroleum exploration or mineral-resource development.
Some students have chosen to work for Federal agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) whose national headquarters are located nearby in Reston, Virginia. Students who have followed this route in recent years have worked on teams focused on topics ranging from coal characterization to field mapping of volcanic rocks. The nature of such jobs varies from temporary contract work to extended full-time positions. However, in nearly every case, students report that the jobs provide extraordinary opportunities for meeting and interacting with a wide array of geoscientists, thus providing contacts and forging friendships that can last for most of a career. In some cases, such employment opportunities have been the direct result of internships held by students while they pursued their studies at GWU.
More information regarding careers in the geosciences can be found at the following web sites. Some of these sites contain links to specific job-related sites and other information.