Geology is the study of the Earth: its structures, processes, and materials. Just as the Earth is quite large and composed of many things, geology is a broad discipline and a varied one. Those who go into it today generally end up in one of three areas—research, applied fields, or teaching—or they may pass through a combination of these during the course of their career.
Studying the Earth doesn’t often lead to paradigm shifts in human culture and knowledge, but geologists have been responsible for two such massive changes in our world view.
In the late 19th century, it was evidence obtained from detailed field mapping of geologic structures, as well as discoveries in paleontology, that led to a recognition of the Earth’s true age and of the evolution and extinction of species over time. The new, non-biblical explanation for the presence of mountains and ocean basins was that the Earth has been cooling ever since its formation and has contracted, causing these “wrinkles” on its surface. However, this notion was overturned when another revolution in scientific thought happened in the mid-20th century after marine geology and other geoscientific research confirmed plate tectonics as the force behind most Earth processes, including mountain building and seafloor spreading.
Since these breakthroughs, geological research has expanded into many areas, ranging from paleontology to geophysics. There are also opportunities for study in such areas as hazard reduction, geologic mapping, marine and coastal geology, natural resource identification and management, and planetary geology.
To become a research geologist, a master’s degree or Ph.D. is usually required. In addition to the necessary science background, the career also requires knowing how to use a computer, strong interpersonal skills, proficiency in writing and speaking, and the physical ability to do field work.
♦ Practical applications
This is what most laypeople think of as geology. In a sense, all geology is practical, but its best-known application is in the search for and development of natural resources. Anything that can’t be grown through agriculture or produced in a laboratory has to be mined, and today that includes everything from energy sources through precious metals and gem stones to other economically valuable minerals and construction materials like limestone, sand and gravel.
Geologists may work for energy and natural resource companies, environmental consulting firms, government agencies, or as individual consultants. They locate oil/gas, uranium, gem stone or mineral deposits; conduct geological hazard analysis; or handle environmental matters in areas such as ground water and soil mapping and protection, waste disposal, urban development issues, and the management of coastal estuaries and river wetland zones. Individual consultants usually work in the resource exploration field, but there are some exceptions, for example, the forensic geologists who analyze soil samples for law enforcement agencies.
Entry-level positions in most of these fields require a bachelor’s degree in geology, although advanced degrees or the equivalent experience in a subspecialty will be necessary for supervisory or consulting positions. Familiarity with computers is helpful, as is being in good physical condition to withstand field work in a variety of weather conditions and climates, while additional biology and environmental studies background will also enhance chances for a job in ecology-related geological fields.
This usually involves teaching college or university classes, but it can also include jobs like museum curatorships.
Advanced degrees are necessary for university-level teaching positions everywhere. In some countries, a special teaching certificate will also be required. Depending on the institution and position, research experience and a publication record may be expected as well. In the United States, teaching geology at the community college level usually requires a master’s degree in the field, although many teachers here are either in doctorate programs or already have their PhD.
A geologist today may choose to go into the rarefied world of research, or to get out there and interact with people in the business world and try to solve all the practical puzzles our planet has to offer, or to stay put in academia and help to grow a new generation of geologists. These three areas overlap quite a bit, but then, so do all of Earth's processes and formations out in the real world.
Geology.com (n.d.). “What is Geology? What does a Geologist Do?” Retrieved February 27, 2011, from http://geology.com/articles/what-is-geology.shtml
Wikipedia (n.d.). “Geology.” Retrieved February 27, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geology
Geological Survey of Ireland. “What geologists do” Retrieved February 27, 2011, from http://www.gsi.ie/Education/Geology+for+Everyone/What+geologists+do.htm
Raymond C. Murray (January 2005). “Collecting Crime Evidence From Earth.” Retrieved February 27, 2011, from http://www.forensicgeology.net/science.htm