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Professionals comment on working in State Geological Surveys

Vicki Cowart, Colorado Geological Survey
William L. Fisher, University of Texas
Jonathan G. Price, Nevada Bureau of Mines & Geology
Walter Schmidt, Florida Geological Survey


Vicki Cowart
Colorado Geological Survey
Denver, Colorado

Each of the fifty states, and Puerto Rico, has a state geological survey. Although size, structure and responsibilities vary between states, all have some involvement and commitment to public education and outreach. This means that wherever you live, you may contact your state geological survey and find out more about the geology of your state. In most cases there will be individuals on staff willing to talk to you about the work they do and how they became a geologist.

State geological surveys have a wide range of responsibilities. Some are affiliated with universities and have large research efforts. Some are in the executive branch of government and have responsibilities for regulatory programs for their state's extractive industries, such as mining or oil and gas. Others have responsibility for understanding or monitoring water quality, and many are involved with coastal processes. Many work with the highway and building industry to ensure safe roads and communities.

Regardless of the specific focus of a state survey, all share a fundamental responsibility to inventory and understand the geologic resources and hazards of their state. They report this information through a wide range of public-information activities, including the production of reports and maps. Most publish material for the non-specialist. Geologists who work for state surveys must convey their results to the public and policy makers.

There are many different jobs for geologists within state geological surveys. In Colorado, for example, we have a strong focus on engineering and environmental geology. Geologists provide geologic-hazard reviews for local governments to help with land-use planning activities. we also provide geologic expertise to other state agencies for the purposes of highway construction and facilities siting. These activities are provided by engineering geologists.

Environmental geologists study water-quality issues, particularly as they relate to areas of mineralization in the mountains. Understanding, describing and categorizing mountain wetlands is an important part of the Colorado Survey's work.

We have geologists who focus on mineral and mineral-fuel resources, such as gold, coal, and oil and gas. Production of these resources is an important part of Colorado's economy, and our staff works with the industry and citizens to understand where the locations, quality and quantity of the resources, and the best (i.e., most economical and most environmentally sound) ways of producing the resource.

Like most state surveys, we produce geological maps of the state. Despite having over 100 years of history of mineral development, only about 20% of Colorado is covered by geological maps that are at a scale of 1 inch = 2000 feet, or better. This scale is the most useful for community planners and resource developers, and we have an active mapping program in areas of extreme growth as well as in areas where important resources are located. Only about 20% of the United States is mapped at this useful scale, so geological mapping programs can be found in most state surveys.

Like many people who choose to work for a state geological survey, I want to make sound scientific information available to public-policy decision-makers so that policies are appropriate and useful. With intense competition between land uses, it is important to understand the resources or hazards of a particular piece of land, and geologists can help provide this information.

Citizens' lives and livelihoods are greatly affected by geology. The problems worked on by state surveys allow geologists to apply their science in a pragmatic but important and far-reaching manner.

Most geologists working for state geological surveys have a broad background. Because state surveys tend to be relatively small with many issues and much area to cover, someone who can be comfortable with a wide range of topics is well-suited to work for a state survey. A solid background in a wide range of geologic studies is important.

Much of our work is dependent on our ability to discuss or present our results, so communication skills are very important. A successful geologist in a state survey must be able to do background research, do field work, write up the results and, very often, present those results to a group of citizens or decision makers who do not have a technical background.

The ability to work with people from many different backgrounds is important in a state survey, as is the ability to work within technical teams. Most surveys employ geologists at all ranges of education, from the bachelor's degree to the doctorate.

Being involved in many areas of concern in a state like Colorado is fascinating. In a single day I may review our study of a major debris flow or landslide, discuss a new water-quality program with industry representatives, make a presentation to a group of county commissioners, and be asked questions about the recent production history of a particular commodity by the governor's staff. It makes for a fast-paced and varied workday that is always interesting.

State geological surveys are, to a large extent, dependent on the political climate and the current budget of a state. This means that job security within a survey may be cyclical, not unlike the job security of a geologist in a resource company. When times are good, many people believe that the impact of geology on citizens' lives is important. In downturns, when government budgets are tight, it is harder for people to understand that geology is a sound and important long-term investment that results in saving costs and lives. Public education about the importance of geology in our lives helps smooth out this cycle.

As populations increase, as clean water and environments become more important yet more difficult to obtain and as resources continue to be needed but the costs of producing those resources become less acceptable, state geological surveys can play an important role in both planning for and mitigating the results of growth and resource development. If we continue to educate citizens about the importance of understanding our Earth systems, state surveys should continue to be an exciting and rewarding place for geologists to practice their professions.

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William L. Fisher
University of Texas
Austin, Texas

A long-standing and unique element of the Nation's geological research community are the various state geological surveys. Less than 50 years after the United States gained its independence, the first state geological survey was established. By the time the Federal geological survey was established, more than 30 state geological surveys were already functioning. Their initial purpose, 150 years ago, was to survey mineral and land resources for a Nation expanding its borders, fueling its industries, and developing its lands. As the Nation expanded westward and sought the mineral and land wealth of the frontiers, other state surveys were established. Today, a state geological survey exists in each of the 50 states. They vary in size, in specific function, and in name, but their historic commonality lies in their responsibility to delineate and map natural and geological resources of the State and to promote a public understanding of these resources to allow prudent resource use.

Collectively, the state geological surveys of the Nation expend about $150 million per year and employ 1,390 full-time-equivalent geological scientists and 785 support professionals.

Historically, as today, state geological surveys, through their unique combination of public service and research, offer professional ranking and exciting employment of people at all degree levels. Among state surveys, the mix of graduate degrees varies according to the survey's tradition, scope, and areas of involvement. Recently, a need has arisen for staff holding advanced degrees, a change common within the entire profession. Many state surveys hire subject specialists, and many scientists at surveys have become world-renowned specialists because of their work on a unique geological feature in their state, but generally state surveys need people with well-rounded training. The broad-based activity and responsibilities of most state geological surveys offer exciting challenges to widely knowledgeable and flexible scientists.

The state geological surveys vary in size, from those with annual budgets of less than $100,000 to those with operating budgets of $16 million. The average size of state surveys is about 30 professionals, expending about $3.3 million annually. Most state surveys, even the larger ones, are not so large as to have a rigid bureaucracy; this organizational aspect has unique benefits and is appealing to many geological scientists.

All state geological surveys are public organizations within their respective states. More than one-third of the state surveys have affiliations with major state universities. This affiliation ranges from those surveys housed on university campuses but having official status as a state agency to those that are administrative and budgetary units of a university. Others function directly as state agencies, either independently or as a unit within a broader natural-resource administrative structure in the state. Although chiefly research entities, 11 of the state geological surveys have direct regulatory responsibilities in such areas as oil and gas, water, reclamation, and dam safety.

Published products of the state geological surveys represent their primary research activity. These reports include the following types: general books on geology, directories, and bibliographies; geological maps or reports containing geological maps; mineral resources, including metallic and nonmetallic minerals, oil and gas, and other energy resources, such as coal, uranium, and geothermal; water resources and water quality, including both surface and ground water; and geologic hazards, land use, and environmental-resource areas. Obviously, emphasis varies state by state, but state geologic research and service clearly encompass a wide diversity of activity.

Most state geological surveys are dedicated exclusively to the geology and natural resources of their state, as they are charged by their respective legislatures. Recently, however, several states have joined forces to form temporary working consortia to tackle regional resources.

In the broad array of public-sector geological research, there exist varying approaches and emphases of ways to understand better the Earth, its resources, and its environment. State geological surveys, either as state agencies or research units of universities, are among the more publicly visible elements of the national research community. State surveys and their staffs commonly interact directly with the public and public officials. They receive funding by direct appropriation, and many state surveys defend their budgets before legislative committees. Other funds come to state surveys from the mission agencies of state and federal government and from industry and private foundations. State geological surveys generally stand closer to the public-policy process than do many of their colleagues in academia or in federal governmental agencies. Thus, all proposed and conducted research must, of necessity, have public relevance. Such necessity may be seen as constraint by some researchers, but if public relevance is properly structured, such relevance is positive and helpful and not compromising of research integrity. At any rate, this unique linkage of science and public policy serves to maintain a substantial element of the geological community in direct cognizance of public policy and process; that is basically why the reach and impact of state geological surveys now and historically have exceeded their collective size and fiscal investments. The essential challenge to the state geological surveys is to keep science credible, unbiased, exciting, and advancing, while maintaining policy relevancy. Most state surveys meet this challenge well and thus attract and retain dedicated scientists and support staff.

By any measure, state geological surveys are unique and challenging places to work. With 34 years of association with a state geological survey, I find it hard to imagine that I could have found more professionally rewarding and scientifically challenging work anyplace else.

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Jonathan G. Price
Nevada Bureau of Mines & Geology
Reno, Nevada

State geological surveys and other state agencies provide challenging, rewarding, and exciting opportunities for geoscientists. Each state has an organization that functions as a state geological survey, generally with a legislative charge to study and report on mineral, energy, and water resources; natural hazards; and the environment as they affect the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the state.

State geological surveys generally focus on intrastate issues but commonly collaborate with neighboring states, the U.S. Geological Survey, or other federal agencies on issues of regional scope. Most state surveys formed prior to the establishment of the federal survey.

Individual state geological surveys vary in size from one-person organizations to groups with over 100. Collectively we employ approximately 1,400 geoscientists and 900 support staff; we annually expend approximately $140 million, of which 55 percent comes from direct state appropriations. Overall employment has been fairly steady, although state surveys are increasingly relying on sources of funding outside direct legislative appropriations from tax revenues. Outside funds come from a mix of federal, state, and local government and industry or private sources.

Some state geological surveys, other state agencies (in departments of conservation, natural resources, environment, and business), and many large local governments employ geologists in various aspects of regulatory work - primarily land and resource planning and environmental permitting.

Starting salaries in state government vary widely from state to state and by level of training but are generally in the $24,000 to $48,000 range. State governments hire geologists with work experience as well as new graduates. Experience in engineering, environmental, water-resource, mineral-resource, or energy-resource industries can be an asset for the geologist interested in working in state government.

State geological surveys collect the basic data needed to assess mineral, energy, and water-resource endowments and the impacts of their exploitation. Industry uses our geologic maps, geophysical maps, and other data and studies to discover the metallic resources, raw construction materials and other industrial minerals, petroleum, natural gas, coal, geothermal energy, and ground-water resources needed by society. Industry also uses our maps and reports to minimize environmental impacts during resource extraction.

State geological surveys evaluate and report on geologic hazards, such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, avalanches, subsidence, and coastal erosion. We also study environmental impacts of human activities on the Earth as well as natural contamination of soils, water, and air (such as lead, arsenic, and radon). Our maps and reports are frequently put to use in land-use planning, urban development, and emergency management.

Flexibility is the key to a successful career in state government and in the geosciences in general. Flexibility can be developed through a well-balanced undergraduate and graduate education with a strong emphasis on science and mathematics. It can be maintained through continuing education and involvement in professional activities.

As an employer, I look for bright, innovative scientists with good observational skills in the field and excellent oral and written communication skills. Many of our geologists are accomplished geologic mappers. Our survey, which is a research and public-service unit of the state university, generally requires a Ph.D. degree for senior-level, research-oriented, project-leadership positions. Geologists and geographers with B.S. degrees generally work in support positions as technicians in our geographic-information-system and geochemical laboratories, on our cartographic team, or in our information office. Some opportunities exist for B.S.-degree positions in other state agencies, but the M.S. degree is generally considered to be necessary for positions of responsibility.

Be careful that you complete your degree in a timely manner. For example, I would be reluctant to hire anyone who took more than three years to complete an M.S. degree or who spent more than six years beyond the B.S. to complete a Ph.D. degree. The higher degrees typically demonstrate the ability to conduct significant, independent work and bring a project to completion. Most state survey projects must be completed, including final reporting, within one to three years.

Maintaining flexibility is vital to a career in geology, because there are no guarantees of employment anywhere, not even in state government. I advise students to develop skills in writing, speaking, and working in teams. This can be accomplished through coursework and summer employment. Proving to a potential employer that you have mastered at least one foreign language can open many doors, even with state geological surveys, some of which are applying the skills of their staffs to international problems in resources, the environment, and hazards.

A solid background in mathematics and science is essential to be able to be retrained as job opportunities shift. This generally means a firm understanding of calculus and statistics, physics, chemistry (preferably including physical and organic chemistry), and biology. For example, many geologists and environmental scientists are limited in their opportunities because they did not learn in college or did not thereafter hone the mathematical skills that would allow them to be attractive to employers facing new challenges. Computer modeling, which is becoming essential to solving problems in geochemistry, geophysics, hydrology, and remote sensing, requires in-depth understanding of mathematics.

Courses in earth science most needed by employees in state geological surveys are ones that develop excellent observational skills in the field and in the laboratory. These include mineralogy, petrology, structural geology, geologic mapping (summer field course), stratigraphy, geomorphology, and paleontology. Geochemistry, geophysics, sedimentology, hydrogeology, and soil science are important as well. If possible, expose yourself to as much breadth in the geosciences and in all sciences as you can, through coursework, attending lectures, and reading.

Colleges offer a wide variety of courses that are useful to geologists. You may want to consider courses in such fields as civics, public policy, history, anthropology, foreign cultures, international relations, economics, marketing, education, and nearly any aspect of engineering. Computer skills, including programming, are essential.

State geological surveys expect their geologists to stay current specifically in their fields of expertise and broadly in developments in science and technology. Involvement in professional societies, attending scientific conferences, completing formal continuing-education courses, reading the geological and general scientific literature, and publishing in peer-reviewed journals help to keep you educated. Such involvement and volunteer activity in civic organizations help develop the interpersonal and communication skills that are necessary for a team approach to solving geological-societal problems.

Have fun! Choose a career that you will enjoy, and attain the flexibility necessary to move from one area to another as opportunities arise. Geology is an exciting science, directly relevant to society. Opportunities abound in state government and elsewhere. The flexibility that you develop throughout your education and that you maintain throughout your career is your best job security.

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Walter Schmidt
Florida Geological Survey
Tallahassee, Florida

Each and every state and Puerto Rico has a State Geological Survey headed by an executive officer who also holds the title of "State Geologist." The responsibilities of the various state geological surveys differ from state to state, depending on the enabling legislation and the traditions under which each survey evolved. Some state geological surveys are administratively within a department of natural resources or environmental protection; others are part of a major university with extension or outreach and service mandates. The common thread between all state surveys is that they function as a basic information source for their state governments, and for industry, academia, consultants, and the general public. Some surveys have regulatory responsibilities for oil and gas exploration and production, for water-resources protection and consumption, for dam construction and inspection, and for mine permitting and land reclamation.

The first state geological survey was established in 1823 in North Carolina. By 1840, there were 15 state surveys, and by 1879, when the Federal geological survey was created, there were more than 30 state geological surveys already in operation. Most of these early surveys were charged with the study and discovery of mineral, land, and water resources in their state or territory. This initial mandate would dominate the activities of the early state surveys, because the country needed minerals and other resources to develop its lands and feed its industries.

In recent decades the basic mission of the state geological surveys has expanded in response to changing public needs and the support needs of governmental agencies. Today, work products generated by the state surveys include many more environmental, earth-system interpretations and ecosystem-understanding studies, in addition to the basic geological and mineral-resources reports. These are in direct support of the many environmental clean-up and protection regulations that have been promulgated, and the increased environmental awareness of the public and our elected officials for the conservation of our natural resources. After all, who better to contribute to the basic understanding and conservation of our natural and mineral resources, the protection of our environment, and the basic understanding of our Earth systems (where all our ecosystems exist) than earth scientists!

The state geological surveys serve both the public and private sectors. They prepare geologic maps; showing the distribution of rock formations; mineral-resource maps identifying the locations of potentially economic mineral deposits; geologic-hazards maps locating coastal erosion, slope-failure potential, sinkhole areas, etc.; and a seemingly endless variety of other maps useful to environmental managers, planners, regulators, and land-use decision makers. State survey staff also serve in an advisory capacity to government groups; conduct projects aiding earth-science education in the public schools; maintain repositories of subsurface and surface rock and sediment samples and associated data; assist in siting of public and private institutional and industrial facilities; and provide a host of other services to the public and private sectors.

State surveys routinely make the results of their work available to the public in various ways. Typically, a survey will publish the results of their staff work in one of their series of professional publications series such as professional bulletins, reports of investigations, information circulars, special reports, maps, leaflets, posters, etc. In recent years, the surveys have combined to publish about 700 professional reports per year. This number is matched by staff papers published in outside professional journals. Clearly the geological professionals have outstanding opportunities to enhance their professional career with the state geological surveys. In addition to presenting papers at professional meetings and conferences, many staff research results are being designed for dissemination on the Internet through state survey "home pages" on the World Wide Web. Other larger illustrations and limited-demand reports are often printed "on demand" from survey plotters.

In fiscal year 1995-96 the fifty state geological surveys collectively employed about 2,000 full-time staff and an additional 300 part-time employees. Total budget income exceeded $150 million with a little over half of this being direct appropriations from their respective state legislatures, the remaining being contract and grant work. Most of the state-survey outside expenditures for non-regulatory purposes involve projects in cooperation with the USGS, the USDOE, the MMS, and the USEPA. Most regulatory expenditures are accounted for by oil and gas activities, water-related regulation, and reclamation.

Typically, employment with a state geological survey offers an exciting opportunity to combine public service and the overall feeling of making a contribution to the good of society, along with the basic research desires of all scientists. During the last twenty years, advanced degrees have become a necessity; however, most surveys still employ people at all degree levels. Verbal, written and computer skills are always expected. Often, state geological surveys offer graduate-student assistantships or internships to work along with their professional staff. It's a great place to gain experience and to meet many professionals within your chosen field. There are many specialists employed, and many scientists are tops in their field. Generally, however, state surveys need people who are well-rounded and multidisciplined, and who can use their broad-based training to help solve problems. I find this "jack-of-all-trades" opportunity to be an exciting career choice because of the constant and changing challenges. The personal satisfaction of making a contribution to the well-being of society is a constant energy recharge. Being a "people person" is also a plus because of the need to communicate your research to a wide range of people, from scientific colleagues, to legislators, to boy scouts, and the lay public. State geological surveys clearly are on the front lines of infusing more earth science into public policy to result in more informed decisions regarding state laws and administrative rules. The scientific community as a whole must become more involved in the political process, and state geological surveys are doing their part.

The employment outlook for geologists historically has fluctuated greatly following the national and international economy and associated industry activity. In general, however, state geological-survey staffing has been more stable with long-term slow growth being the norm. Geological surveys must compete for limited public dollars with law enforcement, public-health and welfare agencies, education, and other highly visible and recognizable programs. As a result, state geological surveys are not expected to see any growth spurts in the near-future. However, I also believe there will continue to be a basic need for our services, resulting in continuing opportunities. There will always be a need for raw materials and minerals with which we build our society infrastructure and construct all our everyday living conveniences. We will always need clean water to drink, which will require water-resources protection and understanding, and if we are ever to approach "sustainable development" and be able to manage ecosystems, these concepts and ideas must be based on sound earth-system understanding and solid-earth geology or they are doomed to fail.

State geological surveys are exciting, challenging places for geoscientists to mold their careers. Typically, salary compensation is less than with the federal government, local government, and industry. However, the cross-disciplinary expertise developed, and the sense of serving the public good I find to be professionally and personally rewarding.

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