How do I become a geologist? Eight things every student should know before applying
The Earth is a beautiful, perilous, and downright fascinating planet with a long history we're just beginning to understand. Geologists are central to this budding knowledge. Their hard work has revealed how the Earth was formed, how it's evolved through billions of years, and what is possible in the future.
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The dynamic field of geology has seen significant changes in the past several years, including a variety of breakthroughs regarding tectonic plates and the Earth's core. Meanwhile, the geological record continues to inform us of the perils of — and potential methods for addressing — climate change.
If all this sounds inspiring, you could contribute to this quickly advancing field by pursuing a geology degree . To help you make this important decision, we've compiled a guide that answers common questions such as:
- What is the role of a geologist?
- What does a geologist study?
- Which career paths are open after earning a bachelor's degree?
What does a geologist do?
Geology is a vast field that encompasses many types of job positions and niches. However, these professionals generally study the Earth’s materials, processes and history. No two days look exactly alike, but observations and data analysis are at the heart of this profession.
How to become a geologist
A successful career as a geologist begins with an excellent education. In most cases, the minimum barrier to entry will be a Bachelor of Science in Geology, although some upper-level positions are only attainable with a graduate degree. Depending on where you plan to work, you may need to obtain state-based licensure or registration before you enter the field.
To expand job opportunities, many geology graduates sit for exams from the National Association of State Boards of Geology (ASBOG) , such as the Fundamentals of Geology or the Practice of Geology.
What you need to know before applying to a geology program
Geology can be a fantastic career path, but it's not for everyone. Before you enroll in a geology program, take these key considerations into account:
1. Understand the types of careers you can get with this major
Geology is a vast field that includes a far more comprehensive range of positions than you might anticipate. Examples include:
- Geological surveyor. Systematic investigations help us determine what lies beneath a given piece of land. Geological surveyors conduct these investigations to reveal how natural resources might affect or be affected by human activity and natural disasters.
- Engineering geologist. Risk assessment plays heavily into engineering geology, in which experts determine how manmade and geological structures interact with one another. These professionals often serve as consultants when determining the viability of public or private works projects.
- Geochemist. Proficient in both geology and inorganic chemistry, geochemists investigate how chemical elements are distributed within rocks, soil, and other natural materials. They often work with oil companies, although top environmental agencies employ many.
- Environmental geologist. This applied science draws on the principles of geology to offer practical solutions to the most concerning ecological issues of our time. Environmental geologists conduct field studies in hopes of contributing to a rapidly growing body of knowledge and, ideally, helping humans limit the impact of industrial and commercial activity.
- Hydrogeologist. This branch of environmental geology focuses on the movement of water through soil and rock. Hydrogeologists often play a critical role in planning major construction projects or handling the safe disposal of hazardous materials.
Before enrolling in a particular geology program, examine many career paths to determine whether they might align with your interests and skills. While your plans and goals may naturally evolve as you're exposed to new subject matter, it's still important to understand the scope of career tracks available — and the courses or internships you can complete to help you attain preferred positions.
2. Get a sense of your future income potential
Earning potential varies dramatically from one geology position to the next. Much depends on your educational attainment and experience in the field. The type of organization you work for can also be influential. For example, impressive earnings are possible if you work as a geologist for a large oil or gas company.
Earnings in the public sector may be a bit more modest, but it's certainly possible to maintain a stable income. Again, this varies between agencies. For example, the payment schedule for the US Geological Survey (USGS) can be generous at upper grades. With graduate credentials and sufficient work experience, it's not uncommon for geologists in the public or private sector to earn six figures.
Determining exact income information can be difficult, but you'll find plenty of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and career sites such as Glassdoor or PayScale. While it's impossible to guarantee that you'll reach a specific income level, it's prudent to at least get a basic sense of 'typical' earnings in various geoscience niches. When in doubt, look to the Career Development Center for Insight .
3. Consider: are you passionate about this field?
The very topics that delight some passionate geologists are hopelessly dull for many students. As such, getting a feel for the subject is vital before you dedicate your entire college experience and future career to it.
In addition to a passion for geology, it helps to have an aptitude for other areas of math and science. These play heavily into your geology studies, as it's impossible to truly understand geoscience unless you are also proficient in physics, chemistry, and calculus.
4. Determine geology program availability
Geology is often not available as a major or minor. Even when offered, a program’s scope may be too narrow to fit your specific needs. Look closely at program availability across preferred colleges before settling on a particular institution.
Once you've determined that the appropriate program exists at prospective schools, consider the quality of each program. What are class sizes like? Will you enjoy opportunities to apply concepts in a hands-on environment? Admissions counselors can provide valuable insight, as can faculty members from the geology department and current students or alumni.
5. Think about prerequisites
As we've touched on, geology programs typically incorporate other math and science subjects. As such, multiple prerequisites may be required to confirm that you're ready to take on high-level geology coursework.
At CMU, for example, you must successfully complete courses such as GEL 100 (Introduction to Earth Systems) or GEL 101 (Physical Geology) in order to declare geology your major. From there, you can only remain a geology major if you demonstrate proficiency in written English, oral English, and math.
6. Determine the cost of the program
As you weigh your options, remember to look closely at the cost of your education. This will vary dramatically between colleges — and the overarching cost of tuition might not reflect what you pay once financial aid is considered. Still, your research should begin with confirming the cost of tuition and other expenses (such as textbooks and housing).
7. Plan for how you'll pay for your education
Once you know how much tuition costs, it's time to factor in financial aid. Begin by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will provide helpful insight into your eligibility for various grants or loans.
Next, scope out scholarships. Several are exclusively available to geology students. At CMU, for example, We share eight things every student considering pursuing a degree and career in geology should consider earth and atmospheric science scholarships include:
- BrownOtter Scholarship Endowment. Meant for those with financial need, this scholarship was established by the estate of an alumnus concerned about clean air and water.
- Wayne and Ethel Moore Scholarship. Available to incoming freshmen with plans to study geology, this scholarship honors the contributions of two highly involved members of CMU's geologic community.
- Hubert Dixon Crider Scholarship. Made possible by a generous gift from the Muskegon Development Company, this scholarship provides powerful recognition and support for CMU juniors or seniors who have demonstrated impressive scholastic achievements.
- Martin Steinbis Endowed Scholarship. Another opportunity granted by a proud CMU geology graduate, this scholarship is primarily intended for students with financial need — especially those who hope to enter the energy sector.
8. Think about long-term plans for higher education
As we've discussed, career prospects and salary tend to improve dramatically upon obtaining your master's degree. Yes, many professional opportunities are available after getting your bachelor's — but your potential need for an upper-level degree should still be top of mind as you begin your undergraduate journey.
An ideal bachelor's degree program will help you build advanced research and communication skills. Opportunities to develop closer relationships with (and conduct research alongside) faculty members could be especially influential as you prepare to attend — and excel in — graduate school.
Discover why CMU geology rocks
CMU's geology program builds a solid foundation, paving the path to success in your eventual geoscience career or further academic pursuits. Contact us today to learn more about the many educational opportunities offered through the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.