How to become a geologist
For the longest time, I thought my dad had the coolest job on earth — visiting oil rigs in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, taking helicopter trips around active volcanoes, collecting weird rocks, and traveling all over the world. I would later find out that as a petroleum geologist, he went exploring for oil in the deepest of oceans. Thus began my fascination with the geosciences.
Geologists usually start out with a strong background in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. In actuality, an advanced degree is often required to be taken seriously in the world of geology. A Masters degree will be sufficient to start at an entry-level position but preference is usually given to PhD holders.
“It has all changed since I was a junior geologist, when a BA [Bachelor of Arts degree] was enough, and there were no helicopters or computers”, notes Stuart McColl, a consultant and a petroleum geologist for many decades. “…The field work was done with horses and the paperwork by hand. But there is still nothing that can replace hands-on experience with the rocks and techniques in the field”.
Like with many career paths, there are various areas of specialization.
If you’re interested in the origins of rocks or the physical structure of the earth, then specializing in petrology, geochemistry, or structural geology may be the route for you. If you still can’t shake off your fascination with dinosaurs, you could specialize in paleontology. Other common specialties include glaciology – study of glaciers, marine geology – study of the ocean floor and continental shelves, as well as the more popular petroleum geology, which explores the earth for oil and gas.
Specializing in one of the many aspects of geology will aid your future job search and help you secure a possible long term position in a particular industry.
Work and Travel
In addition to discipline and self reliance, a zeal for travel is one of the many traits of a geologist. Your studies will definitely take you out on field trips – from places of geological interest in your backyard to more exotic and remote locations all over the world. Since geology is an applied science, practical field experience is required at some point in your career. Most geologists spend time out in the field early on in their careers.
The biggest employers of geologists are the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Most of these jobs are usually on a contract basis which requires that you renew your contract every couple years or so. Other industries that hire geologists include the mining, quarrying, and engineering industries. Even though some employers provide specific training to their geologists to better suit their line of business, having some technical skills to augment your expertise will definitely make you more attractive in the workplace.
Stuart recommends getting with major integrated oil companies such as British Petroleum (BP) or Exxon for overall exposure and training. “They are the best way to see how the business really works”, he adds.
Many geologists do end up becoming professors and continuing their research in an academic environment.
Attending tradeshows and conferences are just a few ways of building your professional network. Like with many niche careers just as geology, building a solid network of references and contacts will only boost and promote your visibility in the industry.
Joining professional organizations such as the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and the Geological Society of America is also a great way of actively participating in the geology community. In some cases, geologists [like engineers] may need to obtain specific licenses to operate in certain states and areas.
Entry level jobs usually start at around $32,000 annually. According to the U.S. Occupational Handbook, geologists can earn from $37,700 to $130,750 per year, but this usually requires that you specialize. With advanced degrees, practical experience, and in certain industries such as oil and gas, geologists can climb into the six figure earning range.
If you want to get rich quickly, geology may not lead you there, but wealth is not totally beyond reach. Participating in startup energy and explorations companies as well as taking advantage of stock opportunities can provide the quickest route.
“Look at Lawrie Payne’s company (Ithaca Energy),” notes Stuart McColl. “He has made millions within five years by pooling his experience and drive, attracting investment money, and retaining a large share position.”
“Hard work, solid training and experience…..no substitute for it!”