Rock and coal: How to become a geologist in 5 easy(ish) steps
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Rock and coal: How to become a geologist in 5 easy(ish) steps

18 Oct 2017

If being between a rock and a hard place is your idea of bliss, becoming a geologist might just rock your world.

Though it’s a common misconception (and though this article is replete with rock puns), geology is not just the study of rocks.

Geologists study the physical structure and substance of the Earth and how this has changed over time, which can give insight into the history of our planet all the way back to the formation of the solar system.

Studying Earth’s structure opens up many career paths. Geologists are involved in a range of activities in both the public and private sector, such as evaluating water sources, remediating environmental issues and mapping reserves of natural resources for commercial excavation.

Many geologists are involved in environmental conservation and the study of climate change. They use their skills to analyse volcanic activity, tsunamis, storms, earthquakes, landslides and other natural disasters.

They can also serve an important role in determining the safety and suitability of sites chosen for mining and construction.

If this sounds like a gneiss career path for you, here are the steps you need to take to become a geologist.

Be curious, and willing to live like a rolling stone

According to Dr David Chew, head of the geology department at Trinity College Dublin, one of the main prerequisites of being suited to a career as a geologist is to have an inquisitive and curious mind.

“Geologists often do fieldwork, either alone or in small teams,” Chew explains. “So, an ability to like your own company or that of others is useful.”

This fieldwork will not only expose an aspiring geologist to the elements – sometimes creating uncomfortable and even risky conditions – but will often bring them to far-flung places. Anyone interested in a career as a geologist should be comfortable with spending a lot of time outdoors and be willing to travel for work.

Additionally, Chew advised that those who are interested in a geology career should be content interpreting “disparate (and often incomplete) datasets” and have keen skills of observation.

As geology is rooted in the real world, the work will often present geologists with open-ended problems that have numerous solutions.

Patience will be necessary, too, while working as a geologist, as most projects tend to be slow-burning and will only bear fruit after protracted periods of time.

Rock a degree in geology

“A geology or earth science degree is the best path [to becoming a geologist],” Chew explains. Some universities require that you enter into a general science degree and specialise in geology, while others have a geology degree outright.

Look into how the geology programme works at your prospective university and determine whether you’re willing to do general science for a portion of your undergraduate studies or if you would prefer to get straight to the core of the subject matter.

Many geology courses have a mandatory field-trip element, which will see students go abroad for excavations and projects. It would be wise to investigate whether your passport is in order and set aside money in anticipation of these trips.

Narrow your field of study and get a master’s

It is difficult to go into a career straight from an undergraduate degree in geology, so you might have to complete a master’s degree. Picking a master’s course is the best time to specialise, which will hugely determine the kind of career you end up having.

If you are interested in going into the petroleum industry, for example, you might want to look into a petroleum-focused master’s, such as seismic stratigraphy. The larger oil companies will almost always require a master’s or PhD, but some smaller companies may be more flexible on this front.

If you’re more interested in the environmental aspect, a master’s in environmental geology is your best bet. This area is extremely broad, so the qualification could lead you to anything from a career in a government agency, to advising private companies on compliance with relevant environmental regulations.

If you would like to become an academic and shape young minds, you will need to get a PhD. While getting into a PhD programme is challenging in itself, be warned that it will be considerably more competitive to get into a postdoctoral position. The competitiveness of academia in general is something a prospective lecturer must seriously consider.

Overall, there is a bevy of specialities to choose from, each with their own unique set of opportunities.

Determine what kind of career you want

Geology can offer many opportunities, but that doesn’t mean all of these opportunities will best suit your needs.

The salary range within geology is pretty wide. While work in the public sector will have low-to-mid-range salaries depending on your position, private oil companies can make more lucrative offers.

However, these oil companies often offer employment on a contract basis. While this may be off-putting to those who would like to settle into a position quickly, it might work extremely well for those who crave variety. Public sector jobs are more stable and offer benefits, such as a public pension plan.

No one option is objectively better than the other – what it boils down to is your own personality and how this relates to what you require in working life.

Also, working on offshore oil rigs or in the mining industry can present occupational hazards. While there is a general expectation that your place of work will comply with health and safety regulations, the augmented risk that comes with these careers may warrant consideration.

It is also worth noting that the opportunities within geology are extremely market-driven – whether there will be jobs within your chosen speciality depends largely on which areas are getting funding.

“Many jobs related to the exploration for natural resources are very dependent on the global financial climate,” explained Chew, as modern-day exploration requires a lot of capital.

As with any career, it’s important that you ask yourself how your values will align with the kind of work available to geologists. Some people find practices such as fracking, or even the oil industry, objectionable. Working in a career that goes against one’s beliefs can be stressful, so it is important to develop an awareness of your own priorities.

Get an internship

Most geology qualifications will already entail hands-on experience, but putting yourself forward for additional internships can bolster your CV and give you an advantage when applying for jobs.

“Working (or an internship) in a geological survey or a small mineral exploration company is a great way to start practising and furthering the various skills learned in university,” said Chew.

Joining geology societies, such as the European Federation of Geologists or the Geological Society in the UK, can offer excellent networking opportunities

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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