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Nature of the Work
* Work at remote field sites is common.
* A bachelor's degree in geology or geophysics is adequate for entry-level jobs; better jobs with good advancement potential usually require at least a master's degree; and a Ph.D. degree is required for most research positions in colleges and universities, and for some research jobs in government.
* Job opportunities are expected to be good in the petroleum and related industries, reflecting increasing demand for energy coupled with fewer degrees awarded in geology in recent years.
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 field 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 metal mining or the oil and gas industry sometimes process and interpret the maps produced by remote sensing satellites to help identify potential new mineral, oil, or gas deposits. Seismic technology is also an important exploration tool. Seismic waves are used to develop three-dimensional computer models of underground or underwater rock formations. Seismic reflection technology may also reveal unusual underground features which sometimes indicate accumulations of natural gas or petroleum, facilitating exploration and reducing the risks associated with drilling in previously unexplored areas.
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 formation. Geophysicists use the principles of physics, mathematics, and chemistry to study not only the Earth's surface, but its internal composition, ground and surface waters, atmosphere, oceans, and its magnetic, electrical, and gravitational forces. Both, however, commonly apply their skills and knowledge to the search for natural resources and to solve environmental problems.
There are numerous subdisciplines or specialties falling under the two major disciplines of geology and geophysics which further differentiate the type 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. Mineralogists analyze 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. Volcanologists, geochemists, and petrologists study the chemical and physical evolution of rocks and minerals, particularly igneous and metamorphic rocks. Geomagnetists measure the Earth's magnetic field and use measurements taken over the past few centuries to devise theoretical models to explain its origin. Paleomagnetists interpret fossil magnetization in rocks and sediments from the continents and oceans, which record the spreading of the sea floor, the wandering of the continents, and the many reversals of polarity that the Earth's magnetic field has undergone through time. Physical oceanographers study the physical aspects of oceans such as currents and the interaction of the surface of the sea with the atmosphere. Other geophysicists study atmospheric sciences and space physics. (See the statements on meteorologists and physicists and astronomers elsewhere in the Handbook.)
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 preservation and remediation.
Some geoscientists spend the majority of their time in an office, but many 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 isolated areas, leading to job relocation. Many exploration geologists travel to meet with prospective clients or investors. Marine geologists and oceanographers may spend considerable time at sea on academic research ships.
Geoscientists in positions funded by Federal Government agencies may be under pressure to design programs and write grant proposals in order to continue their data collection and research. Geoscientists in consulting jobs may face similar pressures to market their skills and write proposals to maintain steady work.
Geologists and geophysicists held about 47,000 jobs in 1996. Many more individuals held geology, geophysics, and oceanography faculty positions in colleges and universities, but they are considered college and university faculty. (See the statement on college and university faculty elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Among salaried geologists and geophysicists, nearly 4 in 10 were employed in engineering and management services, and 2 in 10 worked for oil and gas extraction companies or metal mining companies. About 1 geoscientist in 7 was self-employed; most were consultants to industry or government.
The Federal Government employed about 5,800 geologists, geophysicists, oceanographers, and hydrologists in 1996. Over half worked for the Department of the Interior, mostly within the U.S. Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.). Others worked for the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Over 3,000 worked for State agencies such as State geological surveys and State departments of conservation.
A bachelor's degree in geology or geophysics is adequate for entry-level jobs, but better jobs with good advancement potential usually require at least a master's degree in geology or geophysics. Persons with degrees in physics, chemistry, mathematics, or computer science may also qualify for some geophysics or geology jobs if their coursework included study in geology. 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 involving basic research.
Hundreds of colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree in geology; fewer schools offer programs in geophysics, oceanography, or other geosciences. 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.
Traditional geoscience courses emphasizing classical geologic methods and topics (such as mineralogy, paleontology, stratigraphy, and structural geology) are important for all geoscientists. Those students interested in working in the environmental or regulatory fields, either in environmental consulting firms or Federal or State Government, should take courses in hydrology, hazardous waste management, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics, and geologic logging. An understanding of environmental regulations and government permit issues is also valuable for those planning to work in mining and oil and gas extraction. Computer skills are becoming essential for prospective geoscientists; students who have some experience with computer modeling, data analysis and integration, digital mapping, remote sensing, and geographic information systems (GIS) will be the most prepared entering the job market. A knowledge of the Global Positioning System (GPS) is very helpful. Some employers seek applicants with field experience, so a summer internship may be beneficial to prospective geoscientists.
Geologists and geophysicists must be able to work as part of a team. Strong 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.
Geologists and geophysicists often begin their careers in field exploration or as research assistants in laboratories or offices. 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. During the 1980s and the early 1990s, low oil prices, higher production costs, improvements in energy efficiency, shrinking oil reserves, and restrictions on potential drilling sites caused exploration activities to be curtailed in the United States; this limited the number of job openings for geoscientists in the petroleum and related industries. As a result of generally poor job prospects, the number of graduates in geology and geophysics, especially in petroleum geology, dropped considerably during the last decade.
Recently, a growing worldwide demand for oil and gas, and new exploration and recovery techniques, have returned stability to the petroleum industry and increased the demand for geologists and geophysicists. Growing populations, stronger economies in the United States and abroad, and continuing industrialization of developing countries are driving the need for more energy. At the same time, the oil and gas and related industriessuch as petroleum engineering servicesare taking advantage of new technologies that lower costs and facilitate exploration and recovery of natural gas and oil, particularly in deep water and other previously inaccessible sites. Because of the lower number of degrees awarded in geology recently and the significant number of geoscientists who left the industry during earlier periods of downsizing, job opportunities in the petroleum and related industries are expected to be good. Employment prospects will be best for jobseekers who hold a master's degree and are familiar with advanced technologies, such as computer modeling and GPS, 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.
Employment of geologists and geophysicists is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2006, due in part to the generally improved outlook in the oil and gas industry. Geologists and geophysicists will also continue to be needed to work in areas of environmental protection and reclamation. Some will help clean up contaminated sites in the United States, and others will help private companies and government comply with numerous and complex environmental regulations. However, job opportunities in State and Federal Government and in environmental consulting firms are expected to be fewer in number than in the previous decade and, in some cases, may be limited to replacing retirees or those who leave geoscience jobs for other reasons. The U.S.G.S., the primary employer of geologists in the Federal Government, has recently faced cutbacks. Hiring should continue to be very limited in the U.S.G.S. and other agencies, as the Federal Government attempts to balance its budget during the 1996-2006 projection period. Oceanographers, whose work is often research-oriented and dependent on grants from Federal agencies, are expected to face strong competition. Budget constraints are expected to continue to limit hiring in State government as well.
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 salary offer of about $30,900 a year in 1997. However, starting salaries can vary widely depending on the employing industry. For example, according to a 1996 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 $48,400.
The petroleum, mineral, and mining industries offer higher salaries, but less job security, than other industries. These industries are vulnerable to recessions and changes in oil and gas prices, among other factors, and usually release workers when exploration and drilling slow down.
In 1997, the Federal Government's average salary for geologists in managerial, supervisory, and nonsupervisory positions was $59,700; for geophysicists, $67,100; for hydrologists, $54,800; and for oceanographers, $62,700.
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 meteorologistsas well as mathematicians, computer scientists, soil scientists, and mapping scientistsperform 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 22302-1502. Homepage: http://www.agiweb.org
Geological Society of America, P.O. Box 9140, Boulder, CO 80301-9140. Homepage: http://www.geosociety.org
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 education and training programs in oceanography and related fields is available from:
Marine Technology Society, 1828 L St. NW., Suite 906, Washington, DC 20036.
Information on acquiring a job as a geologist, geophysicist, hydrologist, or oceanographer with the Federal Government may be obtained from the Office of Personnel Management through a telephone-based system. Consult your telephone directory under U.S. Government for a local number or call (912) 757-3000 (TDD 912 744-2299). That number is not toll-free and charges may result. Information also is available from their Internet site: http://www.usajobs.opm.gov
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