California State University
San Bernardino, California
The field of geoscience has many opportunities for individuals seeking careers in an academic setting. These include faculty positions at universities, colleges, and at the high-school level, as well as research and technical support positions at larger research universities. To be a professor at a university or four-year college requires a doctoral degree; community colleges generally employ faculty with doctoral or, sometimes, with master's degrees. High-school teaching requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree and some sort of state teaching credential. Professors at the university and four-year college level divide most of their time between teaching, advising and mentoring students, and doing research. Professors at smaller colleges are required to devote more of their time to teaching and advising students, leaving less time to pursue research activities. Community-college professors devote almost all of their time to teaching and working with students. Geoscientists involved in research are usually expected to augment the research funding they get from their universities by seeking support through grants and contracts. Funding of this type usually comes from federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Defense (DOE), as well as from state agencies and private foundations. Larger universities also hire scientists with doctoral degrees to work on research projects, as well as geoscientists with master's and bachelor's degrees as technical and laboratory support personnel.
Students planning on a career in the geosciences are encouraged to pursue a college-preparatory curriculum in high school: one which will provide them with a solid background in the basic sciences and mathematics, as well as strong verbal, written, and communication skills. At the pre-college level, a student would do well to take introductory science courses in geology, biology, chemistry and physics and mathematics courses that at least include algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Although these mathematics courses can be taken at the college level, as is true for the basic science courses, a good foundation in these subjects at the pre-college level will make the transition to college-level work easier. Most colleges and universities have "geoscience" departments that offer curricula leading to a bachelor's degree. Depending on the institution, a department's title could vary from Department of Geoscience, Geology, Geology and Geophysics, Earth Sciences, Earth and Planetary Sciences, or Environmental Sciences. The curricula in all these programs will usually include both required and elective courses in the life, physical and mathematical sciences, and the geosciences. A typical geoscience curriculum will generally include a year of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics (through calculus), and some kind of programming or computer-science course. The geoscience portion of the curriculum will usually include courses in physical and historical geology, mineralogy, petrology, paleontology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, structural geology and, depending on the university, electives in such topics as geochemistry, geophysics, hydrology, and engineering geology. Almost all geoscience programs require a six-week summer field course, which is usually taken sometime after the junior year. Many geoscientists consider the field course to be one of the most important courses an undergraduate student will take. Graduate work leading to the master's degree or the doctoral degree usually requires a broad range of coursework both in the geosciences and the basic sciences, and an individual research project culminating in a thesis (at the master's level) or a doctoral dissertation.
Employment opportunities for geoscientists in academia are, as in other disciplines, cyclic and partially dependent on the opportunities available in the private sector and in state and federal agencies. For example, the downturn in the oil business, the largest employer of geoscientists in the 70s and 80s, reduced the number of students seeking careers in the geosciences and the size of geoscience departments. With the leveling off of this downturn in the 90s, the country's increasing awareness of environmental problems, and with a large number of faculty recruited in the 50s and 60s looking toward retirement, the prognosis for employment in the geosciences as we approach the 21st century is very good. Nevertheless, in spite of this positive outlook for geoscientists in general, students planning on a career in academia are encouraged to examine very carefully those areas that they may be interested in, e.g., petroleum geology, hydrology, environmental science, and engineering geology, etc. and to plan their courses of study accordingly.
A survey of geoscientists inquiring as to how they happened to have chosen
the geosciences as a profession would undoubtedly reveal a variety of career
pathways. Some undoubtedly started out as avid fossil and/or rock collectors.
Others were probably inspired somewhere along the way by a K-12 teacher or by
a geoscientist friend, while others "stumbled" into the geosciences
when they had to take a required laboratory science course in college. Whatever
the pathway, I am sure that a major part of the attraction was the excitement
a scientist experiences when seeking answers to unsolved scientific problems.
In the geosciences, examples of such intriguing problems include searching for
ore deposits or oil and gas fields in exotic parts of the globe, researching
the causes of earthquakes or of volcanic eruptions, searching for clues to the
question of global warming, or looking for evidence of life on other planets.
These are just a few of the unsolved mysteries that assuredly will continue
to intrigue and attract new budding geoscientists.
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National Science Foundation
The life of an academic geoscientist typically includes teaching and research in varying proportions. A person with a bachelor's or master's degree may be employed as a research assistant to a professor, such as working in the laboratory or with computer analyses. Someone with a Ph.D. is usually a university professor whose time is divided between teaching and advising students (mostly during the school year) and research (often including field work in summer, although laboratory work and writing of reports can be done at any time). Small departments usually have a higher teaching load than large ones, with less time for research. Research usually requires financial support for supplies, laboratory analyses, and perhaps salaries for students or technicians; the scientist must apply for this support in the form of research grants or contracts. The research may concentrate on relatively abstract fundamental relationships, such as an analysis of hydrodynamic forces operating on different kinds of sediments, or on specific questions that have an immediate application, such as an estimate of how fast a certain harbor is likely to become filled with sediment.
Preparation for such a career naturally includes taking classes in science and mathematics throughout high school and college. Mathematics preparation should eventually include a year of calculus and some experience in computer programming, both of which can be done in the college undergraduate years. In high school one should have taken algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Science training should include at least one year each of physics and chemistry at the college level; these courses will be much easier if the student has already taken these subjects in high school. Most universities and colleges of moderate size offer a major in geosciences or environmental sciences, with required and optional courses. A typical major might include basic classes in sedimentology, paleontology, mineralogy, petrology, structural geology, geochemistry, and general geophysics with options in economic geology, hydrology, seismology, engineering geology, and oceanography. There is often a field course one summer, lasting several weeks.
Work in an academic setting requires at least a bachelor's degree, and preferably a master's. With this training one could become a research assistant or teach at the high-school level. Salary and responsibilities, of course, will be greater for a person with more training. There are relatively few jobs for assistants, since professors rarely have more than one assistant and many have none. High-school teaching will often include classes in other sciences such as chemistry, and there is a great need for trained scientists in these areas. The availability of professorships is difficult to predict because it fluctuates depending on several things; one is a natural aging cyclemany universities expanded in the 1950s and 1960s and the professors hired then are now retiring, a situation that should lead to more job openings. On the other hand, if graduating students cannot find jobs because the major employers (oil companies and environmental consultants) are in an economic slump, the number of teaching positions may be reduced. Many universities are now trying to change the nature of their geoscience departments, with more emphasis on areas such as hydrology and environmental geochemistry or engineering, and less emphasis on traditional areas like field mapping and paleontology. If you are interested in a university career, it would be wise to get your training in the former fields.
People often become interested in geosciences because they enjoy hiking and camping, or like to collect rocks and fossils. One of the best things about being a geologist is that although one works in an office or laboratory for much of the time, one can also be outdoors, far from cities, in spectacular natural settings, or enjoying a pleasant afternoon in the country. An academic career allows one the flexible time to take such trips and the freedom to choose the projects one finds interesting.
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James V. Taranik
Desert Research Institute
Arthur Brant Chair of Geology and Geophysics
Today, geoscientists entering the workforce can look forward to many career choices as they advance professionally. Geoscientists who were trained in a specific scientific discipline and were employed throughout their entire career in a single organization are becoming the exception rather than the rule. Analysts of national trends in employment tell us that persons entering today's national workforce will change employment as many as five or more times during their professional careers. Many scientists, engineers and technologists are now making major changes between different disciplinary fields as well. Today, a good education at the undergraduate and graduate levels must provide basic core skills that will enable graduates to move readily into different career paths and even into different professional fields.
The multidisciplinary nature of the geosciences today requires a sound preparation in mathematics (through calculus), chemistry (through physical and organic chemistry), and physics (through intermediate university physics). While there are good entry-level career opportunities in industry with a bachelor's degree, a master's degree that provides some diversity of background is highly recommended for longer-term career stability in the geosciences. I advise undergraduates in the geosciences to take academically challenging majors that will provide a sound background in the basic sciences and mathematics. The undergraduate curriculum is often identical for the first three semesters in hydrogeology, geophysics and engineering geology, thus allowing students to move more readily into a different discipline at the master's degree level. At the doctorate level there has always been tension between specialization and generalization. Today, the trend appears to be more away from narrowly focused programs of study. More geoscientists are being recruited to academia who are able to teach a diverse curriculum at the undergraduate level while conducting multidisciplinary research at the graduate level. Successful careers in research organizations and academic research institutions require the abilities to formulate scientific questions, write successful proposals, lead teams of scientists in the conduct of research, and publish the results in the refereed scientific literature. While master's-level work trains scientists and engineers in how research is managed, doctorate-level programs provide the intellectual development needed for successful research leadership.
The geoscience-employment marketplace is rapidly changing today, and the ability to solve problems and effectively communicate orally and in writing are skills that are important to successful career advancement. Courses in public speaking, debate, and effective writing will engender skills that undergraduates should acquire if they wish to have career-advancement potential above the technical level. While the ability to conceptualize and solve problems is a skill that is more difficult to acquire, courses in logic and philosophy can be helpful in improving analytical skills. Computer skills are particularly important because today many geoscience problems are analyzed and modeled in computers. Geoscientists are taking portable computers to the field and are analyzing geographically referenced data and information as a routine part of their investigations.
Geographical and institutional diversity in graduate training is highly recommended for geoscientists. The opportunity to learn about different geological terrains coupled with the exposure to different educational methods and philosophies is a very important dimension of graduate education and the postdoctorate experience in the geosciences. Field experience is critical to understanding the uncertainties of geoscience data collection, how field data is analyzed to develop geological information, and how geological information is used with other types of geoscience information to develop models for applications.
Perhaps one of the major shortcomings in the preparation of geoscientists for careers in higher education is the lack of adequate preparation for teaching in a classroom and laboratory setting. Today there is an appropriately renewed focus on improving the quality of undergraduate education. Geoscientists beginning their academic careers should expect to receive initial assignments to the beginning undergraduate curriculum. Because of the emphasis on research in graduate study, there is often little time allocated to improving teaching skills important in the classroom. This inherent shortcoming of graduate education can be overcome by seeking opportunities to teach and to direct undergraduate laboratories and field problems. Another solution is to take courses in the science of teaching.
I became interested in the geosciences relatively early in life. My interest was created by a grandparent and a great aunt who were teachers of natural science, and by a teacher in the seventh grade who was an amateur mineral collector. I formed a Geology Club in La Habra High School that took trips to interesting geological sites. In high school I took all the mathematics and science classes that the curriculum allowed, and this facilitated my undergraduate program of study in geology at Stanford University. From Stanford I went to the Colorado School of Mines, where I initially enrolled in the geophysics program in 1964.
My studies at CSM were interrupted by a call to active duty as an officer in the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the second year of my service, I was appointed staff geologist to Headquarters, U. S. Army Engineer Command, Vietnam. As the geologist for the Engineer Command Headquarters, I conducted foundation-engineering studies of roads, airports and port facilities throughout the Army's operational areas in Vietnam.
I returned to Colorado School of Mines in 1967 to complete my graduate studies, this time in geology. My dissertation topic focused on the Pennsylvanian-Permian stratigraphic and structural evolution of Breckenridge, Colorado. My first posting after leaving Colorado School of Mines was in 1971 to the Iowa Geological Survey and the University of Iowa. I was hired to set up a remote-sensing laboratory for the State of Iowa and, as an adjunct professor at the university, I also developed some of the first courses in aerospace remote sensing.
In 1975, I went to the U. S. Geological Survey's Earth Resources Observation Systems Data Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There, I conducted research in how to apply land-satellite (Landsat) data to geoscience problems, and I also trained scientists from foreign countries and government agencies on how to utilize the data. Then I left the USGS in 1979 to lead the development of NASA's geology and geophysics programs as Chief of the Non-Renewable Resources Branch in the Office of Space and Terrestrial Applications, Washington, DC. While at NASA I served as Headquarters Program Scientist for OSTA-1, the first scientific payload of instruments to be flown on the Space Shuttle.
In 1982 I became Dean of the Mackay School of Mines at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was also appointed Professor of Geology and Geophysics in the Department of Geological Sciences. In 1986, I also joined the Board of Directors of Newmont Gold Company, and today I chair the Board's Environmental Committee. In 1987 I became President of the Desert Research Institute, a major division of the University and Community College System of Nevada with over 400 faculty and staff who conduct environmental research throughout the world.
As I developed in my career as a geoscientist, I discovered that I greatly enjoyed working with students in the classroom and in their research programs. One of the joys of collaboration with graduate students is the opportunity to join with them in publishing the results of scientific investigations and promoting their own professional successes. My career was enhanced by my mentors, who counseled me on career opportunities and opened doors for me. I am looking forward to spending more time with students in the future through the Arthur Brant Chair and mentoring the next generation of geoscientists.
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