FAQs About Higher Education and Careers in the Geosciences


Q: What are the geosciences?

A:  Geoscience is the science of exploration, discovery, and Earth stewardship.  The geosciences address all issues relating to Earth Systems, including the solid Earth, oceans, and atmosphere.  The major applications of the geosciences are: exploration and responsible development of natural resources (oil, gas, coal, minerals, construction aggregate, water, soil), preservation of the natural environment, restoration from environmental damage, mitigation of geohazards such as earthquakes and landslides, and exploratory research like the Mars space mission and understanding El Niño. Want to know more?  Watch the AGI webinar.  

Q: What does it mean to be a geoscientist?

Geoscientists study the Earth and provide information to society for use in solving problems. Their work can range from theoretical to practical.  For example, they can help establish policies for resource management, environmental protection, public health, safety, and welfare. Geoscientists also discover and develop supplies of fossil fuels, groundwater, construction materials and mineral ores. They understand the processes that affect the quality of the natural environment.  They study and mitigate geohazards such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, and landslides.  They explore and discover new ideas about the natural world from the depths of the oceans and the core of the Earth to the outer reaches of space.

Q: What does a geoscientist do?

A: Most geoscientists say that they enjoy the challenge and diversity of their work and that there is no “typical” day.  Geoscientists work with people, data, information, ideas, and technology. They gather and interpret data, generate ideas, and communicate the results of their work in writing, illustrations and in oral presentations. Geoscientists often work in teams, reflecting the complexity of the problems they address. Information technology and the Internet have greatly increased the accessibility of data and the speed of communication among people worldwide, and has likewise affected the pace and diversity of the geosciences.

Many geoscientists split their time between working in offices, laboratories, classrooms, and outdoors. Doing research and investigations outdoors is commonly called fieldwork and can require extensive travel to remote locations and irregular working hours. Some geoscience sub-disciplines require extensive fieldwork, while others require none.

Q: What kind of education or certification do I need?

A: Most geoscientist jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. In several states, geoscientists may need a license to offer their services to the public. Careers in research or academia often require a master’s or doctorate degree.

Q: Where can I find out more about the geosciences and geoscientists?

A: The PROGRESS website is a great starting point.  Visit the websites of universities, corporations, national labs, and professional organizations for different types of geoscientists, and check out our page profiling geoscientists. You can learn much about their science online and then contact them via email to discuss your interests and their experiences. You may also wish to join a geoscience class or club and take a field trip for first-hand experience in the exciting world of the geosciences. Networks of women geoscientists or professional organizations are great places to meet and learn about all types of possible careers.

Q: What classes should I take in college to prepare me for a geoscience career?

A: The curriculum provided by a geoscience department provides the core for your education and professional preparation.  However, since the geosciences are physical sciences, it is advisable to take additional science courses outside of geology, as well as math, statistics, and business courses to help solidify your grounding.  Standard bachelor’s degrees require 30-35 hours of advanced geoscience course work.  Master’s degrees require an additional 30 hours of coursework.

Q: What other skills do I need?

A: There are additional technical and non-technical skills outside the strict geoscience education requirements that will enhance your development.  The most important skills are to learn how to learn, to experiment, to gain diverse early experiences, and discover how to think analytically and solve problems.  Because of the nature of geoscience and technology today, a strong basis in mathematics, statistics, and computers helps develop your analytical skills.

In science, effective communication is really important as is teamwork. The ability to express yourself orally and in writing is an essential skill.  Depending on the job, you may find a background in economics or computer programming useful.  

Q: I want to go to graduate school.  How do I get started?

A: Much of determining the appropriate graduate school is centered on your specific interests and finding an appropriate faculty adviser.  Most geoscience professional societies and colleges provide information about various graduate programs.  After identifying appropriate schools, you should visit the campus, talk with faculty members, and try to identify a specific faculty advisor.  Note that the graduate student – advisor relationship is important, and both the graduate student and the faculty advisor should have generally compatible professional interests and be willing to work together. More information is available on our Graduate School Preparation page.

Q:  How am I ever going to afford graduate school?

A: Most geoscience graduate students receive some type of financial support.  Many graduate programs will not offer admission unless they can provide the student with some sort of support.  The most common types of graduate student support are Graduate Teaching Assistantships (TA), Graduate Research Assistantships (RA), Graduate Fellowships, and student loans.  Most assistantships pay a subsistence level allowance, but normally include tuition remission and access to the university facilities necessary for your research.  Though one will not become rich on graduate student support, most people manage to complete graduate school in the geosciences without additional student loans.

Q: When do I begin my job search?

A: Your job search starts now, long before you plan to graduate and enter the workforce. It starts by building a network of contacts and gathering information about what it is like to work in your chosen field. Your “job search” is just one step in the overall process of choosing and building a career.

There are several avenues that you can use to look for your first job. Most jobs are found through personal contacts, not through response to ads. Develop and use your contacts. Your academic advisor knows your work well and should be aware of the general opportunities in your field. Contact alumni of your department who are practicing professionals. Tell them what you are looking for and listen to the information and advice they provide. Professional societies for women and by discipline often offer employment services to members. Check them out. Professional publications such as Geotimes, Science, and Nature include classified ads for geoscience employment in their print publications and on their websites. Use the resources of your university career centers. Also, do not forget to use the Internet, especially for seeking job opportunities in large organizations such as the federal government.

Above all, make every effort to gain firsthand experience in the field in which you are interested. You need ways to find out what it is like to work in your field. Part-time work at your university or at a private company, summer internships such as an REU, and teaching assistantships (even for undergrads) all offer opportunities to test different career options before you commit to employment or graduate school.

Q: What else should I know to pursue a career in the geosciences?

A: Know what is important to you. Examine your interests, what you do best and like best and make an informed choice about a career. Find out about career opportunities through your own process of research and discovery. Separate out what you assume to be true from what you know to be true. Challenge your own assumptions and well-meaning advice of others. It is your career.

Next, check out our page of listing geoscience sub-disciplines and more information about Geoscience careers.

Q&A adapted from the American Geosciences Institute and from the Occupational Outlook Handbook