What You Can Do with a Degree in Geology
You can view a bachelor's degree in geology in two ways:
- Pre-professional training that leads directly to a career in geology, or
- A broad, well-rounded undergraduate science program that offers excellent intellectual preparation for a large range of career options.
Excellent General Intellectual Training
Because geology majors traditionally overlook the usefulness of their general problem-solving skills, let's stress option No. 2 first. Most undergraduate programs do not lead directly to jobs within their field. For example, few businesses hire people to discuss 19th century English literature. Instead, people in most majors head off to the University's Placement and Career Services to learn more about the types of careers that are out there and about how to assess their skills, prepare an effective resume, and land summer internships and job interviews. It is worth visiting Placement and Career Services as soon as possible to figure out what opportunities exist and to find out when the major career fairs are.
If you pursue a career outside of geology, 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!!) extol the virtues 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 picking the best explanation given limited data. This ability to logically confront open-ended and messy problems is directly analogous to making decisions in business, government, public policy, and other real-world situations because, in fact, life is messy!
Compared with non-science majors, geology majors have extensive experience with various software programs, 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 non-sciences major), are comfortable with technical issues, and are experienced at integrating and balancing a complex set of objective data (including both numerical 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
Let’s say you really want to be a professional geologist. Careers in geology generally fall into the following categories:
- Corporate (oil, mining, environmental, engineering)
- Nonprofit (environmental, planning, educational)
- Government (local and regional planning, state and Federal environmental regulation and protection (D.E.P. and E.P.A.), geological engineering (PennDOT), state geological surveys, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, state parks, E.P.A.)
- Secondary education (Earth sciences)
- Academic (community college, college, and university)
The American Geosciences Institute regularly publishes data on current and projected workforce needs for geoscientists. They also are compiling a set of pathways for geoscientists to follow to enter various careers. Each pathway is called a "Career Compass". These one-page sheets are somewhat graphically complex, but if you look at the symbol key and read things over you can pretty quickly get an overview of the things you might want to do to become, for example, an environmental geologist. Click here to see their growing list.
An excellent way to learn more about working in industry, government, or the nonprofit world is to attend the monthly meetings of one or more of the following organizations:
- The Pittsburgh Geological Society (PGS): Features a mix of geologists working in petroleum, geological engineering, environmental consulting, and government.
- The Pittsburgh Association of Petroleum Geologists (PAPG): Focuses almost exclusively on oil and natural gas exploration.
- The Association of Engineering and Environmental Geologists (AEG): Mainly environmental and engineering geologists.
- The Geophysical Society of Pittsburgh (an official branch of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG): Geophysicists with a strong emphasis on petroleum exploration.
These meetings feature a happy hour, dinner, and a formal lecture. The happy hour and dinner provide excellent opportunities to introduce yourself to random geoscientists and ask them about who they work for, what they do, and any advice they might have for you. If someone seems pretty interesting, ask them whether they might offer an internship. Instead of giving them a resume, make up business cards that give your name, major, expected graduation date, contact info, and that you are interested in an internship or, if the time is right, a full-time job. If “Interested in an Internship” is in bold, it will help remind them once they are back in the office to think about getting an internship approved by management.
Another great way to learn about geology careers to to check out this book from the library: Great Jobs for Geology Majors by Blythe Cameson.
(At this link you can also click on the LC Subject Heading "Geology --Vocational guidance" to see if newer books have been published.)
Getting a Career in the Petroleum Industry
The major oil companies (e.g., BP. ExxonMobil, Shell, etc.) tend to hire only geologists with masters or PhD degrees. Smaller oil and natural gas companies are more likely to hire students with bachelors degrees, especially during a boom cycle. Go to Pittsburgh’s professional society meetings to meet people and learn more about local hiring practices.
The best way to get a petroleum 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 getting master's degree in a petroleum-focused subject (like seismic stratigraphy) seems to make sense, in fact many oil companies are less interested in your specific research skills and more interested in hiring the most intelligent people available. Also, the ability to productively work in a team is a must. So, do your thesis research on whatever you find interesting! A second way to get an oil company job is to scan the want ads of the major Houston, Texas, 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.
The oil industry includes a lot of oil-field support services companies. 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 and another major player, Halliburton, have offices around the world. Check out their websites for employment listings, and Schlumberger, at least, regularly comes to Pitt’s job fairs for scientists and engineers.
One advantage of working in the petroleum industry is the high salaries and great benefits. The main disadvantage is that the oil industry has historically gone through boom (hiring) and bust (firing) periods. We are currently in a bust period. The fracking boom has reduced the need for exploration geologists (because everyone knows where the shales are). As long as they are drilling they still need mud loggers (geologists who identify the rocks coming out of the drill hole) to tell the drillers where their bits are in the stratigraphy. This job entails being at remote drill sites for odd hours. They drill 24-7, so a mud logger might live continuously at the drill site for X days, then get Y days off.
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 economic 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. If you are interested in mining, check out the undergraduate Mining Engineering Certificate offered through Pitt’s Department of Civil Engineering.
Careers in Environmental Geology
Environmental geology is a broad field that includes such things as site assessment, site remediation, groundwater geology, surface water hydrology, and ensuring that various organizations comply with the relevant environmental regulations. You could work for a government agency, for a company wanting to ensure its own compliance with environmental regulations, or for a private environmental consulting company. Check out the extensive entry under Wikipedia’s “Geoprofessions” page for more information. Many private companies hire at the BS and masters levels, with pay corresponding to your level of training and experience. There is a large number of firms with a correspondingly large range in size and personality. Talk to people you meet at the society meetings to get a sense of what the different companies do and how they operate.
Careers in Engineering Geology and Geotechnical Geology
Engineering geology is concerned with the stability of soil and rocks in a host of civil engineering, mining, and petroleum situations. Lower level geotechnical work often involves soil sampling and assessment of new construction sites. Higher level work involves the application of rock mechanics, geomorphology, and various engineering principles to the construction of road cuts, bridges, dams, locks, dikes, and major buildings. Wikipedia has nice pages devoted to geotechnical engineering and engineering geology (under “Geoprofessions”). One time-honored way to become an engineering geologist is to excel at structural geology and geomorphology and then simply get an entry-level job in the field. Hands-on work on field projects under the guidance of a senior environmental geologist is excellent training! Or you can go on to get at least a master's degree in engineering geology and start out in the professional world with sharper skills and a higher-level position. The Army Corps of Engineers has their own guide to career development for geotechical engineers. Graduate schools that include an engineering graduate program include (in no particular order) Portland State University, University of Nevada--Reno, Colorado School of Mines, South Dakota School of Mines, Missouri University of Science and Technology, and the University of Texas at Austin.
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 road cuts 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.
Careers in Teaching
A geology degree provides a broad scientific background for those wishing to teach science in a primary or secondary school. 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.
To become a professor you will have to get a PhD. Be aware that the academic career track is highly competitive. Getting into a good PhD program is relatively easy, getting a postdoctoral position is somewhat challenging, getting a tenure-track position is quite challenging, and earning tenure is sometimes even more 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 challenge. In general, the pursuit of an academic career requires enough love of research and teaching that you do not mind the years of hard work and stress.