Career and Professional Development

What is a Geoscientist?

A geoscientist is someone who studies the Earth’s physical makeup and history. Geology is the science that provides the key to finding new sources of useful Earth materials and to understanding Earth processes that affect our lives.

Geoscientists provide basic information to society for solving problems and establishing policy for resource management, environmental protection, public health, safety, and welfare.

Geoscientists are curious about the Earth. How was it formed? How is it changing?What effects will shrinking glaciers have on the oceans and climate? How do islands form? What makes a continent move? Why did the dinosaurs become extinct? What makes a mountain?

Geoscientists are concerned about the Earth. Is there a global warming trend? How and where should we dispose industrial wastes? How can we reasonably fill society’s growing demands for energy, conserve natural resources for future generations, and yet have a clean environment?

Geoscientists enjoy the Earth. It is an outdoor laboratory filled with opportunities to observe Earth processes in action. By applying knowledge of forces that shape the Earth, geoscientists seek to reconstruct the past and anticipate the future.

What Do Geoscientists Do?

Geoscientists gather and interpret data about the Earth for the purpose of increasing our understanding and improving the quality of human life.

Geoscientists study and help to mitigate natural hazards such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods and landslides.

Geologists investigate the materials, processes, products and history of the Earth. They often specialize in one of the following areas:

Environmental Geologists work to solve problems with pollution, waste disposal and urban development and hazards such as flooding and erosion.

Geophysicists decipher the Earth’s interior and magnetic, electric and gravitational fields.

Geochemists investigate the nature and distribution of chemical elements in rocks and minerals.

Petroleum Geologists are involved in exploration and production of oil and natural gas.

Economic Geologists explore for and develop geologic materials that have profitable uses.

Hydrologists investigate the movement and quality of surface water.

Hydrogeologists study the abundance, distribution and quality of ground water.

Engineering Geologists investigate geologic factors that affect engineering structures such as bridges, buildings, airports and dams.

Environmental Geologists work to solve problems with pollution, waste disposal and urban development and hazards such as flooding and erosion.

Seismologists study the location and force of earthquakes and trace the behavior of earthquake waves to interpret the structure of the Earth.

Planetary Geologists study the moon and other planets to understand the evolution of the solar system.

Geochronologists determine the age of certain rocks by calculating the rates of decay of certain radioactive elements and thus help reconstruct the geologic history of the Earth.

Geomorphologists study the effects of Earth processes and investigate the nature, origin and development of present landforms and their relationship to underlying structures.

Glaciologists study the physical properties and movement of glaciers and ice sheets.

Marine Geologists investigate the oceans and continental shelves.­

Mineralogists study the formation, composition and properties of minerals.

Paleontologists study fossils to understand past life forms and their changes through time and to reconstruct past environments.

Petrologists determine the origin and genesis of rocks by analyzing mineral or grain relationships.

Sedimentologists study sedimentary rocks and the processes of sediment formation, transportation and deposition.

Stratigraphers investigate the time and space relationships of layered rocks and their fossil and mineral content.

Structural geologists study deformation, fracturing and folding that has occurred in the Earth’s crust.

Volcanologists investigate volcanoes and volcanic phenomena.

Where Do Geoscientists Work?

Geoscientists 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 positions. They often divide their time among work in the field, the laboratory and the office.

Field work usually consists of preparing geologic maps, collecting samples and making measurements that will be analyzed in the laboratory. For example, rock samples may be X-rayed, studied under a polarizing or electron microscope and analyzed for chemical content. Geoscientists may also conduct experiments or design computer models to test theories about geologic phenomena.

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

Generally speaking, geoscientific work includes a mix of indoor and outdoor duties.

(Sources: American Association of Petroleum Geologists, American Geological Institute, and Geological Society of America)

Some areas of employment and types of employers are as follows:

Fossil Fuel Industry

The oil, gas, and coal industries have been the traditional employer of most geologists. Most companies hire people with at least a Masters degree, and with a strong background in mathematics, computer programming, stratigraphy, geophysics, and field methods. It is suggested that you take a formal geologic field course if this is your desired goal.

Environmental Consulting

Environmental or engineering consulting firms throughout the US hire a significant number of earth science students at all levels. Most small or medium size companies, however, tend to take their new hires at entry level. In general, students who have internship or similar work experiences would have better chances to find jobs in the environmental consulting industry. Good communication skills and a little field experience always help.

Mining Industry

This industry is highly dependent on the world market and highly cyclical, varying greatly from year to year. They are currently hiring well trained students. Students who are considering careers in industry should enroll in a traditional geology based summer field camp.

Federal, State and Local Government

Environmental protection has created many jobs, particularly at the federal and state level. In addition, many municipalities hire geologists to evaluate building sites and the geology of highway routes.

The federal government hires bachelors, masters and Ph.D. level geologists for positions in a variety of agencies all over the U.S. Agencies include the Bureau of Mines, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Transportation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, and the National Parks. If you're interested in working for the government, the Federal Jobs Information Center website is helpful https://www.usajobs.gov/.

Engineering Geology

Aside from environmental problems associated with engineering projects, engineering geologists are hired to evaluate soil and rock foundations and evaluate potential sources of building materials. Engineering geology, and hydrogeology are specialties properly learned only in graduate study and students can find jobs at local consulting companies.

Career Outlook for Geoscientists

American Geological Institute Geoscience Enrollment Trends
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Prospects for Geoscientists