Geologists study the composition, processes and history of the earth to discover how rocks were formed and what has happened to them since their formation.

By Diane Wadhwa
Posted 2011

Geologists analyze animal and plant fossils to study the evolution of life. By studying the earth’s past, they are able to interpret how past events may influence the future. Geologists also use their knowledge to find natural gas and oil within the earth’s surface and plan how to extract them from the earth. They locate rocks that contain important metals, and they plan the best method to remove the metals from the rocks.

In their study of the earth’s history, many geologists evaluate past climates and how they developed over many years. They then use this information to understand modern climate change. Geologists find ways to avoid landslides and sites that may experience earthquakes, floods and other dangerous events so that buildings are not erected on these sites. They prepare maps that show areas where these events have occurred in the past, knowing that they could happen again. This information is helpful in determining areas that need extra insurance protection, such as flood insurance. Geologists work at oil spill sites to remedy problems that are dangerous to wildlife and to the environment, and they predict when volcanoes may erupt.


  • Geologists often work at remote field sites.
  • Many geologists are employed by the government.
  • A master’s degree is required by most employers; a PhD is needed for most college teaching positions and for research.
  • Geologists with a master’s degree should have excellent job opportunities in the next decade.

Work Environment for Geologists

Geologists typically spend much of their time in the field where they identify and examine geological formations, and study data they have collected by remote sensing instruments. They construct field maps, conduct geological surveys and use instruments to measure the earth’s magnetic field and gravity. Geologists search for oil and gas by performing seismic studies which involve bouncing energy waves off buried layers of rock. They also use seismic signals from earthquakes to find its location and intensity. They spend time in their laboratories, examining the physical and chemical properties of specimens, and they study fossils.

Some geologists spend much of their time in their offices, but others divide their time between laboratory work, office and fieldwork. Geologists often travel to remote field sites by 4-wheel drive vehicles or helicopter and cover large areas on foot. Many work in foreign countries, sometimes in remote areas and under uncomfortable conditions. Traveling to meet with prospective investors or clients is often required as well. Geologists spend many long and irregular hours in their fieldwork.

Education, Training and Licensing

A few entry-level geologist positions require only a bachelor’s degree, but geologists usually need a master’s degree for most research positions in federal agencies, state geological surveys or in private industry. Most high-level research and college teaching positions require a PhD, but it is not usually required for other jobs.

Bachelor’s and graduate degrees are offered by many colleges and universities in the geosciences. Most programs emphasize geologic topics and methods, such as structural geology, paleontology, stratigraphy, petrology and mineralogy. A few jobs will hire those who study chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering, physics or computer science if their course work included geology.

Geologists are required to be licensed in 31 states, including Texas, Florida and California, according to the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists. A license is granted to candidates after completing their educational program and passing an examination. Geologists who are employed in states that do not grant licenses can obtain voluntary certifications.

Employment Figures, Projections, Outlook and Earnings

Geologists, along with geophysicists, held about 34,000 jobs in May 2014, according to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most geologists worked for engineering, architectural and related services, oil and gas extraction companies and scientific consulting services. Others were employed by state and federal government.

The BLS expects employment in this field to grow faster than the average for all occupations with 16% growth from 2012 to 2022. The need for environmental protection, energy and responsible land and water management will spur employment in this field.

BLS reports indicate that the median annual salary for geologists was $89,910 in May 2014. The middle 50% of geologists earned between $61,800 and $129,270, while the lowest 10% earned less than $46,400. The highest 10% had wages of more than $187,199.

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