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Geologists are scientists who study the structure and dynamics of the Earth and its natural resources.
Geologists draw from different scientific disciplines such as physics, chemistry and biology to study the materials which make the Earth and the forces which shape it. They also review the effects of human intervention on the Earth’s resources.
One of the geologist’s tasks is to discover reserves of natural resources (metals, oil, gas etc) that can be exploited for commercial purposes. They do so by conducting studies in the field, interpreting the data collected and producing maps of the resources.
Geologists can also be involved in the conservation of the environment and the study of climate change: they analyse natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic activity, tsunamis and storms. They also ensure the safety and suitability of sites chosen for mining and construction (tunnels, roads, bridges, dams, etc).
Geologists’ tasks are very varied as they can choose to specialise in different fields and become one of the following:
- Engineering geologist
They identify factors affecting engineering works during design, construction and monitoring phases. For example they study the properties of rocks, soil, groundwater and other natural materials and assess their integrity prior to major construction schemes. This helps to ensure that new constructions are built in the most cost-effective manner and according to environmental regulations.
They investigate the occurrence and circulation of water flowing through the ground in different geological formations. Their role involves testing the quality of water, finding new water supplies and protecting them from pollution.
They provide a link between physics and geology. They study the physical properties of the Earth, collect data on earthquakes and seismic waves and help to understand the mechanisms involved in the movement and formation of continents.
- Wellsite geologist
They advise on the drilling of oil and gas wells by analysing the rocks’ formations that are being drilled.
- Geological mapper
They mainly work on site to collect, analyse and record rock, soil and sediment samples. They use the data collected to determine the structural properties of an area and produce geological maps.
They analyse the chemical composition of the Earth to determine the differences between natural resources all over the world (age, nature, structure).
- Teacher or Lecturer
Some geologists choose a teaching career in Earth sciences in schools, colleges or universities.
Salary can vary greatly according to the sector of employment. The public sector usually offers lower salaries. Within the private sector, oil and gas companies often offer the greatest financial rewards.
Geologists can start their career with a salary of around £25,000 per year. At senior level, they can get up to £50,000 but this can also vary hugely depending on the company. Some experienced geologists working in profitable industries at management level can earn £130,000 per year as well as a range of benefits and bonuses.
Geologists have different responsibilities according to their speciality. Here are some examples of the main tasks:
- Plan field investigations
- Locate and study natural resources
- Visit construction and mining sites
- Advise on site selection and proposed use by consulting geological maps, analysing the ground and testing planned construction materials
- Collect samples of natural resources through drilling and other methods
- Interpret natural resources formations
- Determine the mineralogical and chemical composition of rock samples in a laboratory
- Conduct environmental impact analysis of construction and mining sites and ensure compliance with environmental legislation
- Undertake project management, for example oversee drilling operations, supervise site investigations and budgets
- Manage staff, including consultants and contractors
- Produce reports on findings
- Produce geological maps
- Work with a range of specialist equipment
- Attend professional conferences
- Teach and give lectures
You need to hold at least an undergraduate university degree (BSc) in geology, geoscience or Earth science to become a professional geologist. It is advisable to gain a postgraduate qualification such as an MSc or PhD as well. About 40 UK universities offer courses in geoscience. The Geological Society accredits some of these courses and lists them on its website.
You can become a Chartered Geologist (CGeol) through The Geological Society. You will then need to undertake Continuing Professional Development (CPD).
If you choose a teaching career, you will need to hold a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). At university level, you will need an advanced degree in a specialised area within your geological discipline.
- Excellent analytical skills
- Excellent communication skills
- Ability to understand basic engineering principles
- Passion about the geological and natural environment
- Mapping techniques
- Flexibility and versatility
- Enthusiasm, patience and perseverance
- Ability to work with teams of people from a wide range of backgrounds
- Good physical fitness
Geologists’ working conditions can vary a great deal so it is important to be flexible. You will usually work regular office hours but are likely to spend more time working when sent on site.
Most geologists spend a lot of time in the field, especially at the beginning of their careers. You must be physically fit and happy to work in inhospitable areas and in bad weather conditions. During your studies, you are likely to get experience in “field camps”, living and working under field conditions with faculty members.
This is a great career if you are interested in varied work and love the natural world and travel. If you work in an international company, especially in the areas of petroleum, mining and engineering, you will have many opportunities to travel all around the world. However, fieldwork abroad can be tough and sometimes dangerous.
Some major companies such as BP and Shell offer internships and graduate training schemes. You will get work experience during your studies but it is also important to show your interest for the subject by belonging to a local geological society for example.
Geologists often work for the mining industry, oil, gas and petroleum companies, environmental consultancies and civil engineering firms. They can be hired on a contract basis or hold permanent positions within private companies.
You will easily become a team leader and can move to higher management positions. You can also choose to gain further specialist technical skills.
Some experienced professionals move on to become self-employed consultants.
Also known as…
- Earth Scientist
- Engineering Geologist
- Seismic Interpreter
- Geological Mapper
- Environmental Consultant
What’s it really like?
James Bowkett, 27, is a geologist working for the Subsurface Interpretation Services of New Digital Business.
What is your job title?
Exploration geologist / consultant geologist / data manager / business data analyst.
How long have you been in this particular job?
For 6 months.
What did you do before this job?
I studied and spent 6 months as a teaching assistant at Heriot-Watt University. Before going back into education, I was an exploration geologist at Tethys Petroleum.
How did you end up doing this job?
I was headhunted after my MSc to join this new company looking to expand their geology and geophysics group.
What area(s) of geology do you specialise in?
- Structural geology and sedimentology (carbonate and clastic)
- Regional geological analysis
- Petroleum systems analysis
- Seismic interpretation
- Prospect evaluation
What do you do in a typical working day?
At the moment, I am trialling data management software and building rules to understand varied geological data.
Previously, daily work included creating regional models and maps, interpreting seismic and well data and satellite imagery.
What are the working conditions on the field? Can it be dangerous?
Conditions are varied. There is some risk when in the field, but the industry takes safety very seriously and we mitigate risks by planning work around them. Often, work is uncomfortable and arduous, and undertaken in all weathers. However, a large part of the role is office based, as most interpretation and analysis takes place there.
Do you get to travel a lot for your work, and if yes, which parts of the world have you been to?
At present I do not travel but I expect this to change so that I am travelling on a regular basis; in the past I have spent prolonged periods abroad and in the field. I have travelled to and around the former Soviet Union (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) for work.
What do you like about the job?
I enjoy the varied work, and the opportunity for problem solving. I see a geologist’s role as that of using imperfect information to draw an understanding of the subsurface to aid in the discovery and recovery of mineral wealth.
What do you dislike about the job?
Quick results are rare, and we must often wait long periods to see the fruits of our labours.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
In terms of education, get a BSc (or MSci) and an MSc in petroleum geoscience, petroleum engineering or similar. An MSci is not valued as highly as an MSc; do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
Get work experience: it provides a real advantage in the oil and gas industry and can be valuable both to you and an operator. Make sure you make yourself available for an 8-week stretch minimum and do not expect to take a holiday during this time; do expect to socialise with your work mates.
In terms of affiliations, join The Geological Society (of London or other). If you are based in the UK, join the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain. You can also consider the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and others. Each of these societies offers different opportunities and exposure. Many offer free or cheap student membership. Get out and meet fellows and members. It is a small industry, so the more people you know, the better.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role?
Exploration geologist, development geologist, production geologist, seismic interpreter, or petroleum systems analyst.