University of Southern Indiana

Geology Careers

Who is a Geologist?

A geologist is a scientist interested in the comprehensive study of the Earth.  This includes the detailed study of earthquakes, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, glaciers, deserts, and the oceans to name a few.  Geologists combine their understanding of earth materials (minerals and rocks) with processes to discover natural resources and solve real-world problems. 

Geologists have a natural curiosity about the Earth.  How was it formed?  What impact will melting glaciers have on the oceans and climate? How do volcanoes form? What makes a mountain? Why did trilobites go extinct?  What will be the impact on society of depleted resources, such as fresh water?

Geologists are concerned about the Earth. How and where will we dispose of industrial and nuclear wastes, such as what remediation can be done to clean up polluted areas? How can we meet society's growing demands for energy and conserve natural resources for future generations?

In summary, geologists enjoy the outdoors, understand risks and causes of natural disasters, comprehend temporal and/or spatial relationships, and are responsible stewards of the Earth.  At USI, the geology program focuses on hands-on learning, including field trips that build a student's passion for and knowledge of geology.

What’s my job outlook as a Geologist?

Geoscientists are employed in a wide range of academic, industrial, and governmental positions. Salary varies greatly, but is generally more than $35,000 a year for entering geoscientists. Some petroleum geologists have a beginning salary of $75,000 per year.  Starting salaries increase significantly with completion of a Master’s degree in geology, with environmental consulting positions starting at $45,000 and petroleum geologists starting at $102,900 per year (AAPG 2015 Salary Survey).  In most cases, high performing geology students will be able to complete a M.S. degree at no additional cost via tuition waiver, along with a stipend for conducting research or teaching at the University. The following table summarizes salaries for selected Earth and Space Science occupations, and the average salary for physical scientists and for all occupations.

*Data are for persons age 25 and over. Earnings are 2015 annual averages for full-time wage and salary workers. Credit: Bureau of Labor Statistics (12 January 2017).

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of geoscientists is projected to grow 10 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations.  Employment opportunities will also be spurred from increasing retirements of current geoscientists (mean age of 58 years) over the next ten years.  Along with the need for energy, environmental protection, and responsible land and resource management, the demand for geoscientists will continue to increase into the future.

Geologists at Work

Geologists may be found sampling the deep ocean floor or collecting rock specimens on the Moon. But the work of most geoscientists is more "down to earth."  They work as explorers for new mineral or hydrocarbon resources, consultants on engineering or environmental problems, researchers, teachers, writers, editors, museum curators and in many other challenging occupations. They often divide their time among the joys of working in the outdoor environment, the laboratory and the office.

Field work may entail the preparation of geologic maps and collecting samples that will later be analyzed in the laboratory. Geoscientists may also conduct experiments or design computer models to test hypotheses in order to provide data which will mitigate the effects of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and flooding.

In the office, they integrate field and laboratory data to write reports that include maps and diagrams that illustrate the results of their investigations. Such maps can pinpoint areas favorable to the occurrence of ores, coal, oil, natural gas or underground water, or indicate subsurface conditions of construction sites.

Preparation of a Geologist

High school students planning to major in geology need to complete two years of algebra, one year of geometry/trigonometry, and one year of chemistry.  They are also encouraged to complete courses in Pre-Calculus and Calculus.  The ability of students to express ideas and concepts clearly and concisely, both orally and in written form, is fundamental to all sciences, and especially geology.

Transfer students electing to major in geology at USI need to contact a geology faculty member as soon as possible. Early completion of the chemistry sequence is especially important for beginning geology majors.

Intellectual Training

By pursing a degree in geology, you will learn to examine 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 numerical calculations, are familiar 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 seek out people with technical skills who can also communicate effectively.

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. Many private companies hire at the bachelor’s and master’s 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.

Careers in Geotechnical Geology and Engineering Geology

Geotechnical geology and engineering geology is concerned with the stability of soil and rocks in a host of civil engineering, mining, and petroleum situations. Lower level work often involves soil sampling and assessment of new construction sites. Higher level work involves the application of rock mechanics and various engineering principles to the construction of road cuts, bridges, dams, locks, dikes, and major buildings. Higher level work, and higher paid positions, will certainly require at least a master's degree in engineering geology.

Petroleum Geologists

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 bachelor’s degrees, especially during a boom cycle. 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.

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 (layoff) periods. Fortunately, the oil industry currently needs to replace baby boomers, so the major companies are pursuing a strategy of slow but sustained hiring in an effort to transfer the vast experience of the baby boomers to the next generation of geologists.

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 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.

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 Department of Teacher Education for more information regarding the requirements for teaching various Earth science-related courses in public or private schools.

Academic Careers

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.

Additional Resources

The following organizations and web sites are useful in finding more information about career opportunities in geology:

American Association of Petroleum Geologists 

American Geological Institute

American Geophysical Union

American Institute of Professional Geologists

Geological Society of America

Contact Dr. William S. Elliott, Jr.

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