Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Teaching for a new geology job market

Geotripper asks whether the sudden boom in geologist hiring is a good thing. We got into geology for the love of it; can one become a geologist just for the money?

I've got a slightly different question (but one that Geotripper alluded to at the end of his post): what would happen to our teaching if students suddenly started flocking to geology majors?

I've never seen boom days for geologists. I graduated from college in 1989. Nobody was recruiting geologists then. I went straight to grad school because I got an NSF fellowship, and it paid. The alternative, as far as I could tell, was flipping burgers. I went to job fairs in grad school, but there weren't many recruiters. My friends who did dissertations on basin analysis or copper porphyry systems had trouble finding jobs; the companies certainly weren't interested in young idealists who specialized in structures in metamorphic rocks. Most of my grad school cohort got jobs in academia or in government, or became computer geeks, or got MBAs, or disappeared from the geology radar.

I've had the fortune to teach in good undergrad departments. (My current department has more undergrad geology majors than any college in Colorado, including 20 graduates this year.) But even here, surrounded by spectacular mountains, our intro courses are mostly filled with students looking for general education science credit. I see 50 to 100 intro students a year; one or two of them go on to be geology majors. We constantly worry about our numbers of students. Will we recruit enough freshmen? Will we attract enough transfer students? How many sophomores are registered for Mineralogy?

If we suddenly had the numbers of students who want to major in something like Accounting, though, I wonder what I would do? I'm used to intro classes full of students whose interest in geology is marginal, at best. My sophomore mapping class, however, is a complete zoo when 30 students register for it. If we were flooded with sophomores, I would need to divide the class into at least two sections, which would make it more difficult to schedule everything (since I also teach Structure and Earth Systems, with labs, that semester). My goal in the mapping class is to make sure the students leave with the skills to do field work in the rest of their classes. Would I be able to give the students the individual, hands-on attention that they need? And if I had 30 students in Structure at the same time, would I be able to function? Would I be tempted to weed? (I probably wouldn't need to; students have to take chemistry, pre-calculus, and Mineralogy before they take Structure.)

Our students are being recruited right now. I know of offers comparable to the ones quoted by NPR and Bloomberg. I'm advising the seniors not to get used to high pay, and to take care of their debts and retirement planning ASAP. I wonder how I would react to freshman who were only in it for the money, though. I'm used to an entirely different market, one in which a geologist has to survive on love of the work. I might still be too much of an idealist for industry.


Mel said...

Kim, I'm interested to hear more about your sophmore mapping class. Do you have a syllabus I might look at? I'm wondering how it's different from the classes I have taken vs. field camps taught. Let me know.

Kim said...

Mel - send me an e-mail (shearsensibility at gmail dot com) and I'll send you a copy of the syllabus.

I should clarify: we have both a sophomore class that introduces students to mapping, and a field camp. The sophomore class is local, and gradually introduces various Brunton techniques and various mapping techniques. In the end, the students have made three small geologic maps and drawn two cross-sections, and should be able to (at a minimum) measure strike and dip, plot angles on a map, and convert scales with ease.

Field camp happens after petrology and structure and strat/sed, and involves more complex mapping problems and research problems. (Sometimes it travels; sometimes it stays local. They've seen the classic Durango mapping places already by time for field camp, so we have to look for new challenges for them.)

By the time they're done, they should be pretty good at field work.

Silver Fox said...

Kim, it may seem unlikely, but I don't know anyone who has stayed long in minerals exploration or mining if they didn't like geology - even back in earlier booms. [I really don't know about petroleum.] It just meant that people who love geology could get a job and get out and do some mapping, or hiking, or traveling, and many other things (some of it being either tedious or hard work - like many jobs, there isn't anything perfect).

Maybe some will try geology for the money, but will they have the right orientation to really make it as any kind of geologist? It just seems unlikely to me. The people doing the hiring will not be impressed by that - they/we (all of us) will want someone with passion.

I got out of grad school at the end of the copper boom, during a short lived moly and shorter lived uranium "boom" and before the 1980's gold boom started. And a a time when some companies absolutely did not hire women. I was fortunate, somehow.

I think it would (will?) be different (not fun) to teach students who have gravitated into geology because of the money. Will it be harder than teaching students who aren't interested at all? Different, maybe annoying.

Anyway, I think/hope it will even out somehow. And I think you will be turning out great geologists, for whatever endeavors they want to get into. In the mining industry, we have actually been afraid there would be no one for us to train before we all retired. I'm glad there will be some new geologists. I'm glad you are teaching some of them.

And hey, I think there's always room and need for idealists.

Arr Cee said...

I'm a 1st year earth science student, and I've noticed that my department as a whole is very careers-oriented: they're constantly making reference to the amount, and variety, of employment available in the local area (Glasgow) and abroad. Many of my fellow science students, regardless of subject, seem to be studying to gain a degree that will get thema good job, rather than for the fun of studying the subject itself.

Kim said...

Silver fox - I know that people don't stay with minerals exploration or with petroleum unless they love it. (In fact, from what I've seen, a lot of people who love it have switched careers because they couldn't make a living.) It's the undergrads that I'm really curious about. I'm used to trying really, really hard to recruit students to geology, and failing far more than I succeed. A world of rich geologists will be a very different place from the one I've inhabited my entire professional life.

(BTW, are you part of the AWG mentoring network? It sounds like your experience would be incredibly valuable for students starting out in industry.)

coconino said...

Geology has one of the most intensive course loads in the sciences (all the geology, plus the bio, the chem, the physics, and the math) so I can't imagine that once a student gets to a junior or senior level, they are in it only for the money. You have to love the field work, have an eye for landforms and unusual detail (gee, all of a sudden right there, the biota changes with no apparent change in sun angle or differing micro-climate...hmmm). If you don't get a thrill from all of that, you won't finish the degree in the first place.

Emi said...

Can somebody please tell me why i'm having such a hard time finding a job then?
i'm not picky.
i'll do petroleum, mining, environmental, paleo, etc etc.
i want a job in socal, portland, seattle, colorado, or vancouver.
i'm at the top of my graduating class this summer.

but every single job wants a minimum of 1 or 3 or 5 years experience in the field.... wtf?!??

Anonymous said...

I am in the same boat as Emily, I am graduating and want to do work before grad school but nothing is offered for entry-level that doesn't require 2-5 years of experience. It is becoming extremely frustrating.

McMoots said...

Emily, if you're looking at SoCal, my old company frequently hires new graduates. I don't know if they're currently looking but it might be worth cold-calling 'em to ask.

Anonymous said...

Very, very interesting; I'm a geology graduate with a bachelors degree and found it difficult to find a job. I'm happy to say I found one, but it's hard to get a job with only a bachelor's degree! Still... it's well worth it. I love science, and I think someone trying to break into this field for the money is at a severe disadvantage.

jmorgan said...

I am graduating this semester from a major university. The class before mine was about 20 students, my class is about 40 students, the next class is about 60 students. My school went from offering field camp every other year, to this year where were are managing a camp.

I got it in for the love, but I do know students that are in it for the money and thats it. They make the grades for the most part, a few fail a couple classes. To be honest I do not see them lasting or becoming a real geologist. I have been a geotech now for 2 years but still think I might have a hard time getting a job I would like. Everyone wants a masters, a BS is fine for a geotech position but really to be anything more you have to have a masters. I plan on starting mine next year. My school has an accelerated Petroleum Geology Masters which is a 1 year program, 1 class a month and does not have a thesis requirement. I believe they started it to help fill the demand for geologist. Also you can only have like 6 hours of c's I believe to graduate with a masters so if someone is not really interested in geology they will have a hard time getting a masters.

Natalie said...

I have a BA in sociology but have been out of school for four years now and am considering going back for a BS in geology. Hearing all the hype lately about the field has actually dissuaded me somewhat as I am not interested in fad academics. Geology is a subject that I find facinating and thrilling so as a student it would be disheartening to take classes with students that are in it for the so-called big bucks at the end. Interesting discussion, and I love this blog! Thanks so much for all the information.

Will Waterstrat said...

I have both a B.S. and a Master's in geology, and I had a hard time finding a job too. I'm currently working for an environmental firm. It pays a lot better than grad school (and a lot less than an oil job), but it certainly isn't ideal, and hardly qualifies as 'geology'. At least not the kind of geology I like. It seems like a lot of us get into the subject for a love of the natural world, being outside, and roaming around. Where are the jobs that let you do that?

Ignatius J. Reilly said...

I teach geology in the SF Bay region, and I must say that very few majors expect to make outrageous salaries...but on the other hand, almost all graduating majors I know have found work in the field even at the BS level. Mostly at environmental consulting firms.

Which brings me Will's comment that such work "hardly qualifies as 'geology.'"

I beg to differ. In 2008, no one is going to pay you to identify minerals. No one is going to pay you to make a bedrock geology map. Those days died with, peace be with him, Tom Dibblee.

And as a consequence of the changes in how geologists work, I have seen undergrad programs shift away from an overemphasis on hard-rock geology to greater curriculum in environmental issues and hydro.

I think it probably does a disservice to all students to think in terms of training them to "make money" anyway. That's not our job as educators. Animals are trained; people are educated.

Kim said...

In 2008, no one is going to pay you to identify minerals.

That's what I thought two years ago. Then mining came back, and our students were hired for large amounts of money to log core, because they could identify minerals. Our sophomores are getting multiple offers for summer jobs in the mining industry, because they can identify minerals.

Water and soil aren't going to go away. They are critically important for life. But rocks and minerals are also still valuable... if you're willing to work in mining.

Anonymous said...

I am a Russian bed rock mapping geologist with more than 20 years of experience in mapping and teaching of mapping geology. I have found that lot of North America mining companies would like to hire 1-4st grade geologists for core logg and core split/saw only. They do not need in mapping geologists. Moreover I have found that lot of geological maps here look same as Russian maps. But there is one point here - all these maps were created in 1936-1950 and after just zoomed by government. You have a large gap between two generations of mapping geologists. Russia will have the same problem in future. We lost the old generation mapping geologists in 1989-1995. Lot of my friends emigrated and they found jobs in different mining companies in different countries. It is difficult to find a job here. And it needs in time and patience to find the first job for any student. All of you above right - there is no geologist without a love to geology, rocks, and traverses. There is a time of "software geology" which makes any field experienced mapping geologist the rarity. I have look your comments and found that we have the same problem and it does not matter what kind of country we live - geology is very intresting profession, but it is the first footstep of economy, so all of us depend from market.