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Geologists and geophysicists, also known as geological scientists or geoscientists, study the physical aspects and history of the earth. They identify and examine rocks, study information collected by remote sensing instruments in satellites, conduct geological surveys, construct maps, and use instruments to measure the earth's gravity and magnetic field. They also analyze information collected through seismic studies, which involves bouncing energy waves off buried rock layers. Many geologists and geophysicists search for oil, natural gas, minerals, and groundwater.
Other geological scientists play an important role in preserving and cleaning up the environment. Their activities include designing and monitoring waste disposal sites, preserving water supplies, and reclaiming contaminated land and water to comply with Federal environmental regulations. They also help locate safe sites for hazardous waste facilities and landfills.
Geologists and geophysicists examine chemical and physical properties of specimens in laboratories. They study fossil remains of animal and plant life or experiment with the flow of water and oil through rocks. Some geoscientists use two- or three-dimensional computer modeling to portray water layers and the flow of water or other fluids through rock cracks and porous materials. They use a variety of sophisticated laboratory instruments, including x-ray diffractometers, which determine the crystal structure of minerals, and petrographic microscopes, for the study of rock and sediment samples. Geoscientists also use seismographs, instruments which measure energy waves resulting from movements in the earth's crust, to determine the locations and intensities of earthquakes.
Geoscientists working in the oil and gas industry sometimes process and interpret the maps produced by remote sensing satellites to help identify potential new oil or gas deposits. Seismic technology is also an important exploration tool. Seismic waves are used to develop 3-dimensional computer models of underground or underwater rock formations.
Geologists and geophysicists also apply geological knowledge to engineering problems in constructing large buildings, dams, tunnels, and highways. Some administer and manage research and exploration programs; others become general managers in petroleum and mining companies.
Geology and geophysics are closely related fields, but there are major differences. Geologists study the composition, structure, and history of the earth's crust. They try to find out how rocks were formed and what has happened to them since their formation. Geophysicists use the principles of physics and mathematics to study not only the earth's surface but its internal composition, ground and surface waters, atmosphere, and oceans as well as its magnetic, electrical, and gravitational forces. Both, however, commonly apply their skills to the search for natural resources and to solve environmental problems.
There are numerous subdisciplines or specialties that fall under the two major disciplines of geology and geophysics which further differentiate the kind of work geoscientists do. For example, petroleum geologists. explore for oil and gas deposits by studying and mapping the subsurface of the ocean or land. They use sophisticated geophysical instrumentation, well log data, and computers to collect information. Mineralogistsanalyze and classify minerals and precious stones according to composition and structure. Paleontologists study fossils found in geological formations to trace the evolution of plant and animal life and the geologic history of the earth. Stratigraphers help to locate minerals by studying the distribution and arrangement of sedimentary rock layers and by examining the fossil and mineral content of such layers. Those who study marine geology are usually called oceanographers or marine geologists. They study and map the ocean floor, and collect information using remote sensing devices aboard surface ships or underwater research craft.
Geophysicists may specialize in areas such as geodesy, seismology, or marine geophysics, also known as physical oceanography. Geodesists study the size and shape of the Earth, its gravitational field, tides, polar motion, and rotation. Seismologists interpret data from seismographs and other geophysical instruments to detect earthquakes and locate earthquake-related faults. Physical oceanographers study the physical aspects of oceans such as currents and the interaction of the surface of the sea with the atmosphere.
Hydrology is a discipline closely related to geology and geophysics. Hydrologists study the distribution, circulation, and physical properties of underground and surface waters. They study the form and intensity of precipitation, its rate of infiltration into the soil, movement through the earth, and its return to the ocean and atmosphere. The work they do is particularly important in environmental reservation and remediation.
Some geoscientists spend the majority of their time in an office, others divide their time between fieldwork and office or laboratory work. Geologists often travel to remote field sites by helicopter or four-wheel drive vehicles and cover large areas on foot. Exploration geologists and geophysicists often work overseas or in remote areas, and job relocation is not unusual. Marine geologists and oceanographers may spend considerable time at sea.
Geologists and geophysicists held about 46,000 jobs in 1994. Many more individuals held geology, geophysics, and oceanography faculty positions in colleges and universities, but they are counted as college and university faculty, not geologists, geophysicists, or oceanographers. (See the statement on college and university faculty elsewhere in the Handbook.)
About 1 in 5 were employed in oil and gas companies or oil and gas field service firms. Many other geologists worked for consulting firms and business services, especially engineering services. About 1 geologist in 7 was self-employed; most of whom were consultants to industry or government.
The Federal Government employed about 6,100 geologists, geophysicists, oceanographers, and hydrologists in 1994. Over one-half worked for the Department of the Interior, mostly within the U.S. Geological Survey. Others worked for the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Some worked for State agencies such as State geological surveys and State departments of conservation. Geologists and geophysicists also worked for nonprofit research institutions.
A bachelor's degree in geology or geophysics is adequate for entry into some lower level geology jobs, but better jobs with good advancement potential usually require at least a master's degree in geology or geophysics. Persons with strong backgrounds in physics, chemistry, mathematics, or computer science also may qualify for some geophysics or geology jobs. A Ph.D. degree is required for most research positions in colleges and universities, and is also important for work in Federal agencies and some State geological surveys that involve basic research.
Hundreds of colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree in geology, geophysics, oceanography, or other geoscience. Other programs offering related training for beginning geological scientists include geophysical technology, geophysical engineering, geophysical prospecting, engineering geology, petroleum geology, hydrology, and geochemistry. In addition, several hundred more universities award advanced degrees in geology or geophysics.
Geologists and geophysicists need to be able to work as part of a team. Computer modeling, data processing, and effective oral and written communication skills are important, as well as the ability to think independently and creatively. Those involved in fieldwork must have physical stamina.
Traditional geoscience courses emphasizing classical geologic methods and topics (such as mineralogy, paleontology, stratigraphy, and structural geology) are important for all geoscientists. However, those students interested in working in the environmental or regulatory fields should take courses in hydrology, hazardous waste management, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics, and geologic logging. Also, some employers seek applicants with field experience, so a summer internship or employment in an environmentally-related area may be beneficial to prospective geoscientists.
Geologists and geophysicists often begin their careers in field exploration or as research assistants in laboratories. They are given more difficult assignments as they gain experience. Eventually they may be promoted to project leader, program manager, or another management and research position.
Many jobs for geologists and geophysicists are in or related to the petroleum industry, especially the exploration for oil and gas. This industry is subject to cyclical fluctuations. Low oil prices, higher production costs, improvements in energy efficiency, shrinking oil reserves, and restrictions on potential drilling sites have caused exploration activities to be curtailed in the United States. If these conditions continue, there will be limited openings in the petroleum industry for geoscientists working in the United States.
As a result of generally poor job prospects in the past few years, the number of students enrolling in geology and geophysics has dropped considerably. Although enrollments are rising again, the number of students trained in petroleum geology is likely to be so low that even a small increase in openings in the oil industry will be greater than the number of petroleum geologists and geophysicists available to fill them, creating good employment opportunities if exploration activities increase significantly. Employment prospects will be best for jobseekers who hold a master's degree and are familiar with the advanced technologies, such as computer modeling, which are increasingly used to locate new oil and gas fields or pinpoint hidden deposits in existing fields. Because of the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry, hiring on a contractual basis is common.
Despite the generally poor job prospects encountered by geoscientists in recent years in the petroleum industry, employment of geologists and geophysicists is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Recent setbacks have been offset by increased demand for these professionals in environmental protection and reclamation. Geologists and geophysicists will continue to be needed to help clean up contaminated sites in the United States, and to help private companies and government comply with more numerous and complex environmental regulations. In particular, jobs requiring training in engineering geology, hydrology and geochemistry should be in demand. However, the number of geoscientists obtaining training in these areas has been increasing, so they may experience competition despite the increasing number of jobs available.
Surveys by the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicate that graduates with bachelor's degrees in geology and the geological sciences received an average starting offer of about $27,900 a year in 1995. However, the starting salaries can vary widely depending on the employing industry. For example, according to a 1994 American Association of Petroleum Geologists survey, the average salary in the oil and gas industry for geoscientists with less than 2 years of experience was about $42,500.
Although the petroleum, mineral, and mining industries offer higher salaries, the competition in these areas is normally intense, and the job security less than in other areas.
In 1995, the Federal Government's average salary for geologists in managerial, supervisory, and nonsupervisory positions was $55,540; for geophysicists, $62,220; for hydrologists, $51,080; and for oceanographers, $58,98.
Many geologists and geophysicists work in the petroleum and natural gas industry. This industry also employs many other workers in the scientific and technical aspects of petroleum and natural gas exploration and extraction, including engineering technicians, science technicians, petroleum engineers, and surveyors. Also, some life scientists, physicists, chemists, and meteorologists, as well as mathematicians, computer scientists, soil scientists, and mapping scientists, perform related work in both petroleum and natural gas exploration and extraction and in environment-related activities.
Information on training and career opportunities for geologists is available from:
American Geological Institute, 4220 King St., Alexandria, VA 22302-1507.
Geological Society of America, P.O. Box 9140, 3300 Penrose Pl., Boulder, CO 80301.
American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Communications Department, P.O. Box 979, Tulsa, OK 74101.
Information on training and career opportunities for geophysicists is available from:
American Geophysical Union, 2000 Florida Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20009.
A list of curricula in colleges and universities offering programs in oceanography and related fields is available from:
Marine Technology Society, 1828 L St. NW., Suite 906, Washington, DC 20036.
Information on Federal job opportunities is available from local offices of State employment services or branches of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management located in major metropolitan areas.
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