What You Can Do with a Degree in Earth Sciences

You can view a bachelor's degree in geology or environmental geology in two ways:

  1. Pre-professional training that leads directly to a career, usually via graduate school, in the general field of Earth sciences; and

  2. A broad, well-rounded undergraduate science program that offers excellent intellectual preparation for any of a large number of career options.

An Earth Science Degree Provides Excellent General Training

Because Earth science majors traditionally overlook the usefulness of their general problem-solving skills, let's stress option No. 2 first. Most undergraduate programs in this University do not lead directly to jobs within their field. There are few businesses that, for example, hire people to discuss 19th century English literature. Instead, most people head off to the University's Placement and Career Services to learn more about the various types of careers that are out there, assess their skills, prepare an effective resume, and land summer internships and job interviews with the many businesses that come for on-campus interviews. Because so many of us have had extensive exposure to the academic life and little exposure to the business, government, or nonprofit worlds, it is well worth visiting Placement and Career Services as soon as possible to figure out what opportunities exist. The sooner you know about what's out there and what preparation is required, the better you can take advantage of opportunities that may lead you down surprisingly interesting and rewarding pathways.

If you chose to pursue a career outside of the Earth sciences, you will find yourself competing with a cross-section of undergraduate majors. This gives you one minor disadvantage and one major advantage. The disadvantage is that many employers do not really know what geology is or what it entails. (You score big, however, if you get someone who did geology as an undergraduate — it turns out that they are everywhere and they remember their major fondly.) This general level of geological ignorance opens up the opportunity for you to (briefly!!) extoll the virtures of your training.

For example, compared to other sciences in which the answers are in the back of the book, geology deals with the real world. This means imperfect data sets, a mixture of descriptive and numerical data, open-ended problems with several possible solutions, and the necessity of working toward and defining the best of several possible answers. These situations with no single clear answers train you to seek out what additional data would help pinpoint a more definitive solution. This ability to logically approach open-ended and messy problems is directly transferrable to business, government, public policy, and other real-world situations because, in fact, life is messy!

Compared with non-science majors, you have extensive experience with various software programs, you are comfortable with all sorts of numerical calculations (even if you didn't like calculus, you can certainly work with numbers far better than your average fuzzy studies major), you are comfortable with technical issues, and you are good at integrating and balancing a complex set of objective data (including, say, both numbers and qualitative observations) when addressing a problem. If you made an effort to take classes that developed your writing and oral presentation skills, then be sure to tout these talents as well! Employers love people with technical skills who can also communicate clearly.

Typical Careers Within the Earth Sciences

Careers in the Earth sciences generally fall into the following categories:

  1. academic (community college, college, and university)
  2. corporate (oil, mining, environmental)
  3. nonprofit (environmental, planning, educational)
  4. government (local and regional planning, state surveys, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, state parks, E.P.A.)
  5. secondary education

Since most of these jobs require some sort of graduate degree, getting into graduate school will be covered first. In general, environmental and government jobs are more likely to hire people with only a bachelor's degree than the other fields.

Getting into Graduate School

You need a solid academic record plus letters of recommendation.

The better you do as an undergraduate, the better the graduate program that you can get into, and the more likely that this program will lead you to your desired career. So, work hard! Also, while many graduate schools' application deadlines are sometime in March, some are much earlier. It pays to start investigating your future research interests and suitable graduate schools over the summer between your junior and senior years!

In addition to good transcripts, you will have to take the Graduate Record Exams (GREs). These are similar to the SATs. There is no longer a geology subject exam.

Pitt's College of General Studies offers classes to help prepare you for the GREs (these classes are not required to take the GREs, but they may be helpful). While you can get your scores immediately after you finish your exam, it may take more than a month for the GRE folks to mail the official results to the graduate programs that you designate. Therefore, DO NOT WAIT TOO LONG TO TAKE THE EXAM! Check out the GRE Web site for the current schedule, and then arrange to take the exam here on campus, in Room G35 in the Cathedral of Learning, by calling 412-624-9103.

Your application will also require about three letters of recommendation from people, generally your professors, who are familiar with your capabilities as a student. If you really want to include a letter from a boss or someone else who was not one of your instructors, this should generally be in addition to the required number of letters. Faculty members generally do not mind writing letters of recommendation. However, we like to do it a lot more if we have a lot to write about. So, make it a point to interact with your professors! Questions and comments during and after class, general conversations, and outstanding performance on written and oral work help make you stand out. If in a given class you had more opportunities to shine in front of the TA than the professor, ask the TA to help add detail to the letter written by the professor. An excellent way to get meaty letters is to undertake some sort of research or independent study. This close collaboration provides ample opportunity for the faculty member to observe a range of characteristics essential for graduate school, including independence, reliability, attention to detail, lab skills, scientific creativity, ability to understand and synthesize the technical literature, and the ability to think and write clearly.

Whether you apply to a master's or a PhD program depends to a certain extent on your career goals (see below) and to a certain extent on your academic record and the school you apply to. If you want to go for a PhD, you can either get a separate master's followed by a PhD, or some programs will take you naturally and seamlessly from a master's to a PhD, while still others will prefer that you just jump right into the PhD program. If you have strong grades and GRE scores, you can pick any of these routes. If you are a solid "B" student, you may find that you have to prove yourself a star in a master's program before you will be admitted to a PhD program.

Your General Research Interests Narrow the Choice of Graduate Schools

Choosing a graduate school is not easy. The most important thing is figuring out which area or areas you find most interesting. Getting involved in undergraduate research or independent study is a great way to help pinpoint what exactly you like the most. Another option is to make a point of scanning Geology magazine (it's in the Physics and Geology Library). It features short articles of current interest. If you pay attention to the subjects you find the most interesting, plus the names and places where this work was done, this will give you a first indication of some subject areas and schools you could consider. Also, any faculty member who shares your general interests will be able to list several schools with strong reputations in your field of interest. Of course, you can also surf the Web. View a directory to all geoscience departments in the United States and Canada.

In general, look for a school with several faculty members working in areas related to your interests. This gives you more flexibility in designing exactly the project you want and, if it turns out for some reason that you do not get along so well with your intended advisor, you can switch to another without having to transfer to another school. Advisor switching is normal.

The following book provides excellent practical advice on selecting a graduate school, an advisor or project, and writing your thesis without going insane and moving to a cabin in Montana:

Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or Ph.D.
by Robert L. Peters, Ph.D. (1992)

You may feel too busy to read it now, but it is full of hard-won advice that could save you a lot of grief! It comes very highly recommended. Go get it from the library or buy a copy for yourself. Read it this summer, and consult it again and again while you're in graduate school.

Funding Your Graduate School Education

Graduate schools generally offer full or partial funding (either through teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or advisor research funding) to their best applicants. If you are a star, try to get guarenteed summer support for a certain number of years. If you can score a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, top schools will recruit you and give you free trips to their campuses!

People are often interested in studying abroad, but this generally requires advance preparation in order to secure funding. Most U.S. geosciences graduate students are more or less fully funded by their departments and/or advisors' grants. A lot of funding in Europe comes directly through national governments and isn't necessarily open to Americans. Thus, you have to either get a scholarship (Rhodes, Marshall, Churchill, Fulbright, etc., see "Scholarships"), find an advisor who will come up with money to support you, or be prepared to pay a fair amount of money for graduate school. The Study Abroad Office can provide you with expert assistance.

Career Options

Academic Careers

Because of the extensive exposure that undergraduates get to academia, the goal of becoming a professor is a fairly common one. You will have to get a PhD in order to become a professor. Be aware that the academic career track is highly competitive. Getting into a good PhD program is relatively easy, getting a postdoctoral position is fairly challenging, getting a tenure-track position is extremely challenging, and earning tenure is even more extremely challenging. Be prepared for stress the whole way. While it is most difficult to obtain and keep a position at a major research university, even four-year liberal arts colleges generally expect enough research and grant money to make tenure a real challenge. Before embarking on an academic career path, talk to junior faculty members about their experiences to get a feel for what this choice entails. In general, the pursuit of an academic career requires so much love of research and teaching that you do not mind the years of research, the extended job-hunt anxiety, the relatively modest pay, and the stress related to building up a tenure portfolio while undertaking a significant risk of denial of tenure at the end of it all.

Careers in the Petroleum Industry

Most oil company geologists start out working within either the exploration or research divisions. While there are a very few companies that from time to time hire at the bachelor's level, most hire at the master's or PhD levels. The type of training and work that you do once hired by an oil company varies depending on which company you work for. ExxonMobil, for example, has an extensive two-year training program, and the company's employees say it's interesting work. Other companies put you right on the job such that you learn as you go, and the work done at some companies seems to be less than interesting. Each company has a distinct corporate personality that makes getting an informational interview a valuable tool to ensure that you end up liking where you work.

The best way to get an oil job is to go to a graduate school that attracts lots of oil companies on their annual recruitment tours. Ask the schools you are considering about their ties to oil companies. While an excellent way to appeal to all oil companies is to get a master's degree in seismic stratigraphy, many oil companies are less interested in your specific research skills and more interested in attracting the most intelligent people to their company. A second way to get an oil company job is to scan the want ads of the major Houston, Tex., newspapers (most oil companies have their exploration divisions in Houston and advertise open positions in the newspapers). Corporate Web pages may or may not solicit resumes. (By the way, there is a lot to do in Houston, and it is located next to some good hiking and outdoors areas. Plus, it is very cheap to fly to Mexico, Costa Rica, and other spots in Central America.)

The oil industry contracts out a great deal of its specialized work to various support firms. For example, Schlumberger's subsidiary GeoQuest provides a range of software programs to analyze and display subsurface seismic and wireline data. GeoQuest has hired people with undergraduate geology degrees to help service and support their software packages. Schlumberger has offices around the United States and the rest of the world, and a Web site that solicits resumes. If you can, try to get an informational interview with someone at one of the branch offices.

One advantage of working in these industries is the relatively high salaries and good benefits. Some companies provide enjoyable work environments and interesting work. The main disadvantage is that the oil industry has historically gone through boom (hiring) and bust (firing) periods. Some recent corporate mergers have mimicked a bust period in that people have gotten laid off. However, most have weathered the latest sets of mergers, and in general the oil industry is pursuing a strategy of slow, sustained growth in an effort to avoid the painful contractions of the past.

There is also an active oil and gas industry in the Pittsburgh area. Join the Pittsburgh Geological Society to find out more!

Careers in the Mining Industry

Most mining jobs require at least a master's degree in economic geology, so choose an appropriate graduate program and ask lots of questions before embarking on this career. Although many mining jobs can require you to live overseas, there are mining and quarrying operations all over the country, and persistent investigation and informational interviewing could easily turn up a job.

Careers in Environmental Geology

Environmental geology is a broad field that includes under its umbrella such things as site assessment, site remediation, hydrogeology, slope stability, and anything else geological that may pose a hazard to people or infrastructure. Environmental firms often hire at the BS and master's levels, with pay corresponding to your level of training and experience. There is a large number of firms with a corresponding range in size and personality. Informational interviews are an excellent way to assess the type of work done by entry-level geoscientists and to assess the potential for career advancement. In addition, numerous govermental and nonprofit organizations require environmental geologists (see below).

The environmental studies Web site contains a host of information regarding internships and opportunities in environmental geology, and the Pittsburgh Geological Society includes among its members many who work in the general area of environmental geology.

Government and Nonprofit Careers

These jobs include basic field research for purposes ranging from the assessment of contaminated waste sites to the viability of future waste sites to the stability of roadcuts and bridge pilings. They also include library and field research aimed at developing policy papers or undertaking basic outreach and public education. You could end up working for various environmental organizations, natural science museums, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, regional and city planning agencies, and other such agencies that need geological expertise. Government jobs also include the United States Geological Survey, which has divisions that cover basic geology, water resources, and volcanic and earthquake hazards.

Again, the environmental studies Web site contains a host of information regarding internships and opportunities in environmental geology.

Careers in Teaching

If you want to teach science in a primary or secondary school, a geology/environmental geology degree provides a broad scientific background. You should consult with the School of Education at Pitt for more information regarding the requirements for teaching various Earth science-related courses in public or private schools.

Getting a Job!

Once you are ready to get a job, you first have to target specific companies and organizations to figure out which ones you want to work for, and then you have to apply for and land the job o' your dreams.