Nature of the Work
Geologists 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 prospecting, which involves bouncing sound waves off buried rock layers. Some geologists search for oil, natural gas, minerals, and underground water.
Geoscientists play an increasingly important part in studying, preserving, and cleaning up the environment. Many design and monitor waste disposal sites, preserve water supplies, and reclaim contaminated land and water to comply with stricter Federal environmental rules. They also help locate safe sites for hazardous waste facilities and landfills.
Geologists examine chemical and physical properties of specimens in laboratories, sometimes under controlled temperature and pressure. They may 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. A large variety of sophisticated laboratory instruments are used, including x-ray diffractometers, which determine the crystal structure of minerals, and petrographic microscopes for the study of rock and sediment samples. The locations and intensities of earthquakes are determined using seismographs, instruments which measure energy waves resulting from movements in the earth's crust.
Geologists also apply geological knowledge to engineering problems in constructing large buildings, dams, tunnels, and highways. Some administer and manage research and exploration programs, and others become general managers in petroleum and mining companies.
Geology and geophysics are closely related fields, but there are some 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 material resources and to solve environmental problems.
MINERALOGY: The examination, classification, and analysis of minerals, gems, and precious stones.
PETROLOGY: The analysis and classification of rocks to learn their origin and history.
STRUCTURAL GEOLOGY: The study of the deformation of rocks and the forces that cause deformation.
SEDIMENTOLOGY: The study of modern and historic depositional environments.
PALEONTOLOGY: The reconstruction of past environments by studying fossils and other life forms.
GEOCHEMISTRY: The study of the chemical composition of rocks and minerals for a variety of environmental and economic applications.
GEOPHYSICS: The study of gravity, magnetism, and seismic characteristics of the Earth.
SEISMOLOGY: The study of the location and force of earthquakes to understand their origin and minimize their effects.
GEOMORPHOLOGY: The study of the shape of the surface of the earth and the processes that create those shapes.
ECONOMIC GEOLOGY: The study of economically valuable earth materials such as ore deposits.
PETROLEUM GEOLOGY: The use of geologic techniques to locate oil reserves and determine methods for profitable extraction.
HYDROGEOLOGY: The study of the location, movement, and chemical composition of groundwater.
OCEANOGRAPHY: The study of the physical aspects of oceans such as their currents and their interaction with the atmosphere.
REMOTE SENSING: The use of radar, sonar, seismology, and aerial photography to locate and analyze the internal and external formations of the earth.
Geoscientists may be found sampling the deep ocean floor or examining rock specimens from the Moon or Mars. But the work of most geoscientists is more "down to Earth." They work as explorers for new mineral and hydrocarbon resources, consultants on engineering and environmental problems, researchers, teachers, writers, editors, and museum curators as well as in many other challenging positions. They often divide their time among work in the field, the laboratory, and the office.
Field work usually consists of making observations, exploring the subsurface by drilling or using geophysical tools, collecting samples, and making measurements that will be analyzed in the laboratory. For example, rock samples may be X-rayed, studied under an electron microscope, and analyzed to determine physical and chemical properties. Geoscientists may also conduct experiments or design computer models to test theories about geologic phenomena and processes.
In the office, they integrate field and laboratory data and prepare reports and presentations that include maps and diagrams that illustrate the results of their studies. Such maps may pinpoint the possible occurrence of ores, coal, oil, natural gas, water resources, or indicate subsurface conditions or hazards that might affect construction sites or land use.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
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.
Over 500 colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree in geology (or related fields). In addition, more than 300 univeristies award advanced degrees in geology or geophysics.
In California it is difficult to find a university that doesn't offer a good undergraduate geology education. In the Cal State system, most schools offer Master's degrees (CSU Fullerton's program begins in Fall 2000). In the University of California, most schools offer both Master's and Doctoral degrees.
Geology is a physical science, and requires a solid background in mathematics, chemistry and physics. Computer modeling, data processing, and effective oral and written communication skills are important, as well as the ability to think independently and creatively (on the Graduate Record Examination, geologists typically obtain among the highest overall scores of any major). Those involved in fieldwork must have physical stamina.
At the community college level, the focus for students who wish to major in geosciences should be completing lower division requirements for the institution to which they would like to transfer. These will vary from place to place, but most schools will require at least two semesters of calculus (plus differential equations), two semesters of inorganic chemistry, and two semesters of physics. A student who finishes these courses before transferring will not only have an advantage in upper division classes, they will be able to spend their last two years of college concentrating on upper division geoscience courses.
Traditional geoscience courses emphasizing classical geologic methods and concepts (such as mineralogy, paleontology, stratigraphy, and structural geology) are important for all geoscientists. Those students interested in working in the environmental or regulatory field should take courses in hydrology, hazardous waste management, computer methods/modeling, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics, and geologic logging. Some schools today allow undergraduates to choose a field of emphasis (such as surface processes, geochemistry, engineering geology, hydrogeology, or geophysics) for their Bachelor's degree.
The job prospects for geologists depend upon their geologic specialty. The prospects for those in the petroleum or metallic minerals fields fluctuates with the price of the commodity. If gold or gas prices go up, exploration and development jobs increase; conversely, if prices drop, the jobs dry up. The job prospects for those in the environmental field (engineering geology, surface processes, hydrogeology, etc...) are growing rapidly.
The best advice for students today, as always, is to choose your major or field of interest according to your own likes and dislikes: if you choose according to salary expectations or job prospects, you may find yourself spending 1/3 of your life doing something you hate; if you choose a field you enjoy, however, you are more likely to excel in your career.