How to become a Geologist

Did you say you want to be a geologist? Great choice! The earth sciences are rewarding and challenging, and offer a chance for life-long learning. Like all scientists, geologists strive to expand the field’s body of knowledge and to apply new technology to their work. Creativity and attention to detail are valuable assets to geologists, as are an open mind and the desire to learn. We’ll start with that “learning” aspect.

Right off the bat, plan on going to college. Getting a job as a geologist requires a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctorate (PhD) degree. Only a couple of decades ago many geologists went to work after earning a Bachelor of Science degree, and a few still do. However, geologists hired with just a Bachelor’s degree often find themselves in jobs with little hope for advancement. Many employers believe an advanced degree proves a candidate can perform original research, which is essential to their businesses. Should you plan to teach or work in a research environment like a national, state, or provincial geological survey; opportunities will be extremely limited without a PhD. Therefore, plan on spending six years or more in college to get the education needed to be employable.

Choice of an undergraduate school is generally less “important” than where you attend graduate school. Almost all four-year colleges and universities offer geology degrees. An advantage of small programs is that undergraduates often learn from professors instead of graduate students. Even in the largest schools, though, they may have contact with well-known scientists in upper-level (Junior and Senior) classes.  In large programs one can even “specialize”; choose among disciplines like petroleum geology, paleontology, geophysics, or vulcanology. Most students, however, don’t make a choice until graduate school.

Though geology is defined as the study of the earth, geology students don’t spend all their time staring at rocks and minerals. While working toward an undergraduate degree, students must also study other sciences – biology, physics, and chemistry – and mathematics. If you avoid those courses and manage to reach graduate school with a Bachelor of Arts, you’ll probably be required to complete these deficiencies to obtain a Master’s of Science. Budding geology students should also hone their language skills for writing scientific reports. Developing computer skills beyond running Office programs may be critical: the rock hammer has been replaced by complex remote-sensing and three-dimensional modeling software as the modern geological exploration tool.

Upperclassmen and graduate students often have opportunities to apply for summer internships with potential employers. These are invaluable experiences of which you definitely should take advantage. Summer internships provide an opportunity to see how working professionals perform (as opposed to academic professionals, often something quite different). The exposure often leads to jobs after graduation, and may also provide funding opportunities for thesis or dissertation work.

Most working geologists are employed in four industries: mining, energy, environmental, or government and academia. Mining and energy jobs especially are concentrated in certain geographic areas. This means that you may be required to move – sometimes far from your hometown – when that first job offer comes. Though jobs in government and academia are geographically widespread, they are scarce and both settings offer limited advancement potential to non-PhDs. Environmental companies have jobs in many  locations and are more likely to hire geologists with Bachelor’s degrees. These jobs may be less well-paid than jobs in other industries, however, and also require more “scut work” – the dirty jobs that employees with more experience or education prefer to avoid.

If you want to become a geologist, the most important thing to do is to get a good education. You should also prepare to move to where the jobs are. To be the best geologist you can; I suggest you develop an open mind, an insatiable curiosity, and the ability to adapt to an ever-changing science.