How to Become a Geologist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for geologists. Get the facts about the education, salary, licensing requirements and job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Environmental Science degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Geologist Do?

A geologist is a scientist who studies the physical attributes of the earth. These professionals specifically focus on the materials, processes and history of Earth. Some geologists may specialize in stratified rock or minerals. In general, geologists will travel to various locations to collect samples and conduct surveys. After running and analyzing lab tests on their samples, they will combine their findings with information from other resources, like aerial photographs, to make maps and charts. Geologists will also report their findings in scientific articles and present them to their colleagues. The following chart provides an overview about a career in geology.

Degree Required Bachelor's or master's degree
Field of Study Geosciences; or physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering, or computer science if they include geosciences coursework
Key Responsibilities Conduct surveys; collect samples; analyze aerial and geological data and samples; prepare and review scientific reports and research
Licensing Some states may require geologists who do certain work to be licensed
Job Growth (2014-2024) 10%*
Median Salary (2015) $89,700*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Is a Geologist?

Geologists examine the composition and structure of rocks, the processes that led to rock formation and how these processes have evolved over time. Geologists also examine plant and animal fossils for clues to the evolution of life.

A geologist's duties may include leading field studies, surveys and drilling programs, as well as collecting soil, mineral, rock or fossil samples. If you're a geologist, you may analyze chemical and physical data from bore holes, aerial photos and wells. You may also use seismographs, torsion balances and magnetometers to measure the earth's gravity and magnetic field. These processes allow you to compile field and lab data to prepare geologic charts, diagrams and maps. You may also spend time reviewing professional journals and technical reports to stay up-to-date with current research.

Step 1: Prepare in High School

While high schools don't usually offer dedicated geology courses, many schools have closely relevant courses in Earth science or environmental science. Traditional subject areas such as biology, chemistry and physics will also prepare you for the specialty. You may take computer courses to prepare for sample analysis and information processing duties when you're a geologist. Participation in outdoor or environmental clubs may familiarize you with how to function in natural or wilderness settings.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degree programs in geology integrate concepts from biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics that apply specifically to the study of the earth. Your likely course load will include meteorology, mineralogy, tectonics, stratiography and hydrology. Most programs also have you participate in one or more field study courses. Some require you to complete a senior thesis project. A bachelor's degree is typically earned in four years.

Step 3: Earn a Master's Degree

Most government agencies and private companies that hire geologists for field research prefer those who have a master's degree. In a master's degree program, you choose a specialty and conduct an advanced study of material introduced at the bachelor's level, with the aim of developing your competence in research and resource assessment. Possible specialties include environmental geology, engineering geology or geochemistry. Programs may be offered with a thesis option and non-thesis option. Master's degrees are typically earned in two years.

Step 4: Gain Employment

Architectural and engineering services firms, local, state and federal agencies, consulting firms and construction, petroleum and mining companies are your possible employers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) noted that approximately 36,400 geoscientists were employed as of 2014 (www.bls.gov). However, specific figures for geologists were not available. The BLS reported that employment was projected to grow 10% from 2014-2024, primarily due to the private sector's need for technical expertise in environmental remediation and in finding and extracting dwindling petroleum and mineral resources.

Step 5: Obtain a License

If you offer services that directly benefit the public, you might need a state license. According to the National Association of State Boards of Geology, 31 states had licensing requirements for geologists as of 2016. Common requirements for licensure include a bachelor's degree, 3-5 years of field experience and passage of a licensing exam. Experience requirements tend to be lower if you have a master's or doctoral degree.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Environmental engineers and hydrologists are a couple of related careers that require a bachelor's degree, and anthropologists and archaeologists are similar jobs that require a master's degree. Environmental engineers work to solve environmental problems using different sciences, including chemistry, biology and more. Hydrologists are often involved in problems concerning water availability or quality, since they study how water moves. Anthropologists and archaeologists study the development and behavior of the human race. They may study cultures, archaeological remains and more around the world.

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