Student Marguerite Rodriguez during a field mapping exercise at a six-week field camp in White Mountains, CA.

What is a geologist?

A geologist is a scientist that studies the earth - its origin, history, and structure. The field of geology is very diverse, as diverse as the earth itself. The world we live on is a spectacular natural laboratory just waiting to be explored, its secrets discovered, and its processes understood. Geologists use their observations to form theories about how the earth works, how it is structured, and of what materials it is composed. Studying rocks and their minerals can tell us much about the history of the earth. Geologists collect information by drilling holes and by collecting rock and soil samples from the surface. They then examine these samples in great detail and try to recreate the events that lead to the rocks being formed and deposited.

There are many branches of geology and thus many types of geologists. There are mineralogists and petrologists who study minerals and rocks. There are geophysicists and geochemists who study the physical and chemical aspects of the earth and its rocks. There are seismologists and volcanologists who study and help predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. There are economic, exploration, mining, and petroleum geologists who help to find and develop natural resources such as precious metals and oil. There are hydrologists who study water flow and water conservation. There are geological engineers who advise construction engineers on the stability of dams, buildings, and highways. There are also paleontologists who study fossils, environmental geologists who work to understand and protect the environment, and even astrogeologists who study planets and moons. So you see that the sky is the limit when studying geology!

Geologist Pam Pinson looks for copper minerals through a binocular microscope.

What makes a good geologist?

To be a good geologist you must have good observation skills. This means being able to observe something and describe it in detail, in writing and verbally, so that you or others can use the information to draw conclusions. Being a good geologist also requires having the ability to take the information that you or someone else has collected and figure out the meaning of that information. You must be an "interpreter" of what the rocks tell you. It is sort of like being a private investigator: you must seek out clues and use the clues to solve some mystery.

To be a good geologist, you must also love science in general. The field of geology is a combination of many sciences: earth science, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and engineering. A basic understanding of all of these sciences is a must for a successful geologist. However, geologists also work with professionals in these fields so that when true expertise is needed, it is available.

Most of all a good geologist must love what she does. The satisfaction of working in her chosen area will give her the determination and motivation to be creative in her methods and thorough in her investigations. She should enjoy working independently and as part of a team. She should love the outdoors but not be intimidated by computers and other laboratory machinery. She should be in the field of geology for the love of it, not for the money.

Geologist Pam Pinson and drillers at a drilling site.

What is life as a geologist like?

Depending on the specific branch of geology, a geologist may spend most of her time in the field or in the office. Most positions involve a balance of both. Life as a geologist can mean very long hours in the field collecting data. Many times deadlines on reports also require more than an eight-hour day. Geologists are professional scientists so they must often design their own study programs. This takes organization and foresight in planning. The program of study often involves collaboration with professionals from other fields. Geologists spend much of their time working with others but must also be able to work independently and trust their own knowledge.

Some branches of geology, such as exploration, mining and petroleum geology, volcanology, and environmental geology require that you travel and work on location. This may mean being away from home for months at a time or moving frequently. Keep in mind this possible demand for relocation when you are considering your career choice. Other positions, such as research or teaching positions or government or consulting jobs, may provide long-term stability in one location and require little or no travel. Most careers in geology do require some field work, even if it is just to stay in touch with the earth and to keep field skills sharp.

How do I become a geologist?

If you like rocks and minerals and you like the outdoors, you are well on your way to becoming a geologist already. To get a head start on college, you should try to take as many math and science courses as possible while in junior high and high school. You can also start learning about the rocks and minerals that you collect. Collecting rocks and minerals is a fun way to learn about geology.

Careers in geology require a bachelor's degree as a minimum (that's at least four years of college). Because there are so many specific fields of geology, however, it is very worthwhile to receive further education and get a master's degree or Ph.D. (that's anywhere from six to ten years of college but worth it!). During undergraduate education the required classes give you just the basics in all of the fields of geology. You do not really get into any specific subject in great detail unless you go to graduate school.

Geologist Marguerite Rodriguez analyzes a rock sample in a copper mine near a 56-cubic-yard shovel.

In order to specialize in one of the specific fields of geology, you should continue your education after your bachelor's degree and pursue a master's degree. There you can decide what interests you most and study it in great detail, doing your own research and coming up with your own discoveries! This is a time of great learning. Obtaining a master's degree or Ph.D. in your area will help guarantee that you will find a professional position in your geological field of choice. A bachelor's degree is not worthless though. It can be more difficult to get into your favorite field, but it is not unusual. Many geologists with bachelor's degrees are top-notch in their fields. It takes a little more perseverance and study, but what can be learned in further schooling can often be learned on the job as well.

During your college education you will have a chance to learn about all of the basic sciences - math, chemistry, physics, biology, and engineering. Beginning classes of geology teach about the earth's processes, history, and place in the solar system. Next you will learn about the many different types of rocks and minerals and how geologists classify them. You will also learn about the structure of the earth and its physics and chemistry. Many of the classes have field exercises where you get a chance to get out of the classroom and do some hands-on field mapping and rock identification. Most universities also require a six-week field-camp course where you learn in detail the field methods required to be a geologist.

One good way to help you learn about what geologists do first-hand, and to help you gain valuable experience, is to work with geologists in a summer internship program during your undergraduate years. Many mining and petroleum companies offer summer student employment. Check with your advisor and ask around in your geology department to learn about opportunities such as these. Career-related experience during college is the best thing you can have to increase your chances of finding a job when you graduate. You gain experience, exposure, and valuable contacts.

Geologist Marguerite Rodriguez mapping a mine bench face, looking for copper minerals at the Phelps Dodge Chino Mine.

What/where are the jobs?

One of the most exciting and fun things about a career in geology is being able to travel and visit beautiful and exotic areas of the world. Geologists work on every continent and in every ocean. There are many possible types of careers and thus many types of job settings, from the research laboratory to the classroom, to the field.

Geologists work for many types of employers such as government agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey, mining and mineral exploration companies, petroleum companies, construction firms, colleges and universities, and research institutions. Some geologists are self-employed as private consultants. Geology provides a wide variety of opportunities in many locations; that's what makes it so inviting!

For more information

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
USGS Science Education webpage
USGS Rocky Mountain Mapping Center
USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center

American Geophysical Union

American Geological Institute
4220 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22302-1502

New Mexico Geological Society

Marguerite Rodriguez, Geologist
(original article by Georgianna E. Peña-Kues, 1984)