COLLEGE COMPASS -- Occupational Overview

Geologists and Geophysicists

Nature of the Work

Geologists and geophysicists study the physical aspects and history of the earth. They identify and examine rocks, study information collected by remote sensing instruments in satellites, conduct geological surveys, construct maps, and use instruments to measure the earth's gravity and magnetic field. They also analyze information collected through seismic prospecting, which involves bouncing sound waves off buried rock layers. Many geologists and geophysicists search for oil, natural gas, minerals, and underground water.

Increasingly, geologists, geophysicists, and other earth scientists are becoming known as geological scientists or geoscientists, terms which better describe their role in studying all aspects of the earth.

Geoscientists play an increasingly important part in studying, preserving, and cleaning up the environment. Many design and monitor waste disposal sites, preserve water supplies, and reclaim contaminated land and water to comply with stricter Federal environmental rules. They also help locate safe sites for hazardous waste facilities and landfills.

Geologists and geophysicists examine chemical and physical properties of specimens in laboratories, sometimes under controlled temperature and pressure. They may study fossil remains of animal and plant life or experiment with the flow of water and oil through rocks. Some geoscientists use two- or three-dimensional computer modeling to portray water layers and the flow of water or other fluids through rock cracks and porous materials. A large variety of sophisticated laboratory instruments is used, including x-ray diffractometers, which determine the crystal structure of minerals, and petrographic microscopes, for study of rock and sediment samples. The locations and intensities of earthquakes are determined using seismographs, instruments which measure energy waves resulting from movements in the earth's crust.

Geologists and geophysicists also apply geological knowledge to engineering problems in constructing large buildings, dams, tunnels, and highways. Some administer and manage research and exploration programs, and others become general managers in petroleum and mining companies.

Geology and geophysics are closely related fields, but there are some major differences. Geologists study the composition, structure, and history of the earth's crust. They try to find out how rocks were formed and what has happened to them since their formation. Geophysicists use the principles of physics and mathematics to study not only the earth's surface but its internal composition, ground and surface waters, atmosphere, and oceans as well as its magnetic, electrical, and gravitational forces. Both, however, commonly apply their skills to the search for natural resources and to solve environmental problems.

Geologists and geophysicists often specialize.

Geological oceanographers study and map the ocean floor. They collect information using remote sensing devices aboard surface ships or underwater research craft.

Physical oceanographers study the physical aspects of oceans such as currents and the interaction of the surface of the sea with the atmosphere. Chemical oceanographers study the chemical composition, dissolved elements, and nutrients of oceans. Although biological scientists who study ocean life are also called oceanographers (as well as marine biologists), the work they do and the training they need are related to biology rather than geology or geophysics. (See the statement on biological scientists elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Hydrologists study the distribution, circulation, and physical properties of underground and surface waters. They study the form and intensity of precipitation, its rate of infiltration into the soil, and its Return to the ocean and atmosphere. Petroleum geologists explore for oil and gas by studying and mapping the subsurface of the ocean or land. They use sophisticated geophysical instrumentation, well log data, and computers to collect information.

Mineralogists analyze and classify minerals and precious stones according to composition and structure.

Paleontologists study fossils found in geological formations to trace the evolution of plant and animal life and the geologic history of the earth. Seismologists interpret data from seismographs and other geophysical instruments to detect earthquakes and locate earthquake-related faults. Stratigraphers help to locate minerals by studying the distribution and arrangement of sedimentary rock layers and by examining the fossil and mineral content of such layers.

Geologists and geophysicists often apply their knowledge of the physical aspects of the earth to solve or prevent environmental problems.

Working Conditions

Some geoscientists spend the majority of their time in an office, others divide their time between fieldwork and office or laboratory work. Geologists often travel to remote field sites by helicopter or four-wheel drive vehicles and cover large areas by foot. Exploration geologists and geophysicists often work overseas or in remote areas, and job relocation is not unusual. Geological and physical oceanographers may spend considerable time at sea.


Geologists and geophysicists held about 48,000 jobs in 1992. In addition, thousands of persons held geology, geophysics, and oceanography faculty positions in colleges and universities. (See the statement on college and university faculty elsewhere in the Handbook.) out 1 in 4 were employed in oil and gas companies or oil and gas field service firms. Many other geologists worked for consulting firms and business services, especially engineering services, which often provide services to oil and gas companies. About 1 geologist in 10 was self-employed; most of these were consultants to industry or government.

The Federal Government employed about 6,400 geologists, geophysicists, oceanographers, and hydrologists in 1992. Over one-half worked for the Department of the Interior in the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the Minerals Management Service, the Bureau of Mines, and the Bureau of Reclamation. Others worked for the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Some worked for State agencies such as State geological surveys and State departments of conservation. Geologists and geophysicists also worked for nonprofit research institutions. Some were employed by American firms overseas for varying periods of time.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

A bachelor's degree in geology or geophysics is adequate for entry into some lower level geology jobs, but better jobs with good advancement potential usually require at least a master's degree in geology or geophysics. Persons with strong backgrounds in physics, chemistry, mathematics, or computer science also may qualify for some geophysics or geology jobs. A Ph.D. degree is essential for most college or university teaching positions, and is important for work in Federal agencies that involves basic research.

Over 500 colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree in geology, geophysics, oceanography, or other geoscience. Other programs offering related training for beginning geological scientists include geophysical technology, geophysical engineering, geophysical prospecting, engineering geology, petroleum geology, and geochemistry. In addition, more than 300 universities award advanced degrees in geology or geophysics.

Geologists and geophysicists need to be able to work as part of a team. Computer modeling, data processing, and effective oral and written communication skills are important, as well as the ability to think independently and creatively. Those involved in fieldwork must have physical stamina.

Traditional geoscience courses emphasizing classical geologic methods and concepts (such as mineralogy, paleontology, stratigraphy, and structural geology) are important for all geoscientists. However, those students interested in working in the environmental or regulatory fields should take courses in hydrology, hazardous waste management, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics, and geologic logging.

Geologists and geophysicists often begin their careers in field exploration or as research assistants in laboratories. They are given more difficult assignments as they gain experience. Eventually they may be promoted to project leader, program manager, or other management and research positions.

Job Outlook

Employment of geologists and geophysicists is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Many jobs for geologists and geophysicists are in or related to the petroleum industry, especially the exploration for oil and gas. This industry is subject to cyclical fluctuations. Low oil prices, higher production costs, improvements in energy efficiency, and restrictions on potential drilling sites have caused exploration activities to be curtailed in the United States. If these conditions continue, there will be few openings in the petroleum industry for geoscientists working in the United States.

As a result of generally poor job prospects in the past few years, the number of students enrolling in geology and geophysics has dropped considerably. Although enrollments are rising again, the number of students trained in petroleum geology is likely to be so low that even a small increase in openings in the oil industry will be greater than the number of petroleum geologists and geophysicists available to fill them, creating good employment opportunities if exploration activities increase.

Despite the generally poor job prospects encountered by geo-scientists in recent years in the petroleum industry, the demand for these professionals in environmental protection and reclamation has been growing rapidly. Geologists and geophysicists will be needed to help clean up contaminated sites in the United States, and to help private companies and government comply with more numerous and complex environmental regulations. In particular, jobs requiring training in engineering geology, hydrology and geochemistry should be in demand. However, if the number of geo-scientists who obtain training in these areas increases very rapidly, they may experience competition despite the increasing number of jobs available.


Surveys by the College Placement Council indicate that graduates with bachelor's degrees in the geological sciences received an average starting offer of $25,704 a year in 1992.

According to a 1991 American Geological Institute survey, the average starting salaries for inexperienced geoscientists were about $23,100 for those with a bachelor's degree, $28,100 for those with a master's degree, and $33,600 for those with a Ph.D. However, the starting salaries can vary widely depending on the employing industry. For example, the oil and gas industry offered an average starting salary of $36,250 for bachelor's degree holders, while in research institutions, colleges, and universities, new hires with a bachelor's degree averaged about $21,000.

Although the petroleum, mineral, and mining industries offer higher salaries, the competition in these areas is normally intense, and the job security less than in other areas.

In 1993, the Federal Government's average salary for geologists in managerial, supervisory, and nonsupervisory positions was $51,800; for geophysicists, $57,929; for hydrologists, $47,793; and for oceanographers, $54,552.

Related Occupations

Many geologists and geophysicists work in the petroleum and natural gas industry. This industry also employs many other workers in the scientific and technical aspects of petroleum and natural gas exploration and extraction, including engineering technicians, science technicians, petroleum engineers, and surveyors. Also, some life scientists, physicists, chemists, and meteorologists, as well as mathematicians, computer scientists, soil scientists, and mapping scientists, do related work in both petroleum and natural gas exploration and extraction and in environment-related activities.

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Reprinted with Permission of U. S. Department of Labor

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