Within only a few moments, a catastrophic avalanche, volcano, earthquake or tsunami could kill every living creature nearby. It would be impossible to predict these natural disasters and mitigate their harm without the science of geology, which investigates the history and evolution of the Earth and other celestial bodies.
A common misconception about geology is that it is all about examining rocks, but the profession is much more complex than that and often involves figuring out what is going on beneath a planet’s surface, says Nate Gardner, an environmental project manager at Stantec, a Canada-based global design firm.
In contrast to the average person gazing at a hill, a stream and a cliff without much thought, a geologist viewing the same landscape is more likely to think about why the landscape looks the way it does, according to Gardner, a geologist who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology.
“Not to sound dramatic and cliché, but a geologist reads those very same features and sees a story unfolding over millions of years where continents collide, ice sheets wax and wane, and erosion from thousands of storms denude the land,” he wrote in an email.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of U.S. geoscientists — a category that includes geologists — will be 5% higher in 2029 than it was in 2019, a faster job growth rate than the average across all U.S. occupations. As of May 2019, the median salary among U.S. geoscientists, excluding hydrologists and geographers, was $92,040, according to the bureau.
What Geology Is and What Geologists Do
Geology is an applied science that focuses on natural objects, events and places. It includes elements of basic science fields like biology, physics and chemistry and also incorporates elements of quantitative or analytical fields such as mathematics, statistics and computer science.
Geology sheds light on how the Earth came to be the way it is today, how it might change in the future and to what extent other planets are different or similar. This field also explores the causes and effects of natural phenomenon, including obvious everyday occurrences like ocean tides and subtle, slow changes such as the gradual drifting of continents. The study of geology is closely connected to the fields of environmental science and climate science.
Steve Dunn, chair of the geology and geography department at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, says geology is a very interdisciplinary science that requires knowledge of a variety of academic disciplines.
Geology often involves intellectual time travel, whereby scientists in the field use evidence from the present to figure out what happened in the past and predict what might occur in the future.
“We cannot always do experiments on Earth’s history,” Dunn says. “So the Earth has gone through a number of phases or eras to get to its present state, and we cannot run an experiment in a laboratory that replicates that.”
“The factor of time, for one thing, does make geology quite a bit different,” he adds. “The study of Earth’s history requires an approach that you might call forensic science.”
The difficulty of geological research is comparable to the challenge of using a single frame of a lengthy movie to figure out the entire plot, Dunn says.
Because geology involves solving puzzles based on a limited amount of information, it is a fun area of study which requires tremendous creativity, he explains. There aren’t always clear-cut and precise answers in this field, and geologists often disagree with one another, Dunn says, noting that an aspiring geologist needs to be comfortable with uncertainty.
Geology Jobs: Types of Geologists and Where They Work
Many geologists specialize in discovering and mining natural resources, ranging from basic necessities like water and minerals to luxury items such as precious metals and gemstones. Some geologists are soil scientists who can optimize soil quality, while others specialize in locating and extracting energy sources such as crude oil and natural gas.
Geologists may also be involved in extracting lithium and other materials used in technological devices, and they often specialize in minimizing or eradicating environmental pollution.
Marine geologists study the ocean floor, river and lake basins, and coastal areas. Astrogeologists assist with space exploration efforts by comparing the environment of Earth with that of other planets and suns, moons, stars and asteroids, and their work may someday facilitate space colonization.
Here is a list of some of the many occupations where a geology degree is beneficial.
— Astrogeologist or planetary geologist
— Engineering geologist
— Environmental consultant
— Environmental geologist
— Geological surveyor
— Geology professor
— Glacial geologist
— High school science teacher
— Mining geologist
— Natural history or natural science museum curator
— Petroleum geologist
— Sedimentologist or soil scientist
— Structural geologist
Geology Education, Training and Courses
A bachelor’s degree is sufficient for many geology professions, though a master’s or doctoral degree may be required for research roles, according to experts.
Interesting field experience can bolster someone’s marketability, and that sort of experience is often more important than the amount of education someone has, says Edward W. Boehm, a geologist who owns a company that sells gemstones.
Dunn notes that at the undergraduate level, the geology curriculum is relatively standard and includes courses that focus on rocks, minerals and groundwater. It also typically covers Earth history, climate science, geochemistry, geophysics sedimentary geology and structural geology, he says.
Geology faculty say that geology programs at the graduate level tend to focus on a specific branch of geology, so prospective geology grad students should choose programs based on their personal interests. These students should also seek out mentors who are working in areas they find fascinating.
Some U.S. states don’t have licensing mandates for geologists but most states do, though a state’s licensing requirements may apply only to certain types of geologists. The National Association of State Boards of Geology produces the examination materials that states use to determine whether geologists are worthy of license and registration as a “professional geologist.”
Designation as a professional geologist is often necessary for someone to transition from doing geological work while being supervised to completing projects by themselves. Some geologists not only obtain state licensure but also gain certification from the American Institute of Professional Geologists.
Reasons to Consider Studying Geology
The study of geology is especially important nowadays due to resource shortages and climate changes, so someone interested in addressing those issues should think about pursuing a degree in geology, says Al Werner, a geology professor at Mount Holyoke.
“Geologists, in the most general sense, should have excellent analytical, observation, and communications skills and be passionate about the natural environment,” Melissa Hage, an assistant professor of environmental science at Emory University‘s Oxford College in Georgia, wrote in an email. “They should be comfortable with different types of technology. The type of career path chosen will dictate the degree to which someone needs to be comfortable outdoors and conducting field work.”
A knack for original thought is valuable within the geological field, so inventive individuals may be especially well-suited to this profession, according to geologists.
“There is so much we have yet to learn about the Earth and you need to be able to think of different solutions to the questions you come upon in your research,” Jacqueline Gerst, the energy division manager at Batelle — a global research and development firm based in Ohio — explained in an email.
Some geologists say they were drawn to the field because of their intense curiosity about the natural world and the joy they feel when spending time outdoors.
“For geologists, our lab is outside,” says Christopher Seminack, an associate professor of geology at the University of North Georgia. “I personally love spending time outside … I just like learning how the Earth works, and it’s all outside.”
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