Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Geoscientist (Interview)


First of all I want to give you a sincere thank you for giving me some
Time out of your busy schedule to do this. Out off all the university
professors I emailed you are the only one that responded. This is truly
an honor to get a response from the USGS who I hopefully will work for
in the future. The first question I have is:

1. Can you describe a typical day on the job?
I'm probably somewhat atypical, but I'll try to answer as best as I can. Of course it depends on what day and what year it is. From 2002-2007 I served as Chief Scientist for Volcano Hazards for the US Geological Survey, and any given day was 10 - 18 hours long. Most of it involved management and paperwork, occasional exhilarating visits to Mount St Helens, Kamchatka, and Chile, and long, very arduous trips to Hawai'i and other centers that I supervised. There was no beach time in Hawai'i, by the way; I was one of the few people who did not look forward to going to Hawai'i.  

When I completed my 5-year Chief Scientist assignment I reassigned myself to be a research geophysicist. Now that I'm not stuck with 10-hour-per-day bureaucracy, what I do depends on whether I am in the office or in the field:

A. In the office: I generally work on analyzing or processing data and w
riting/editing manuscripts, preparing scientific presentations, using c

ommercial and technical software packages. I am also an associate editor of t

he science journal "Exploration Geophysics", which takes some time each week to r
oute, rate, and process manuscripts submitted for possible publication.

B. In the field: an example might be a week spent inside Mount St Helens' crater - usually but not always working out of a helicopter
- where I either helped conduct a s

elf-potential survey, or conducted my own controlled-source a

udio-magnetotelluric soundings to map where groundwater (and which kind) m
ight be found down to depths of  up to 900 meters. I have also worked a lot in 
Alaska and in northern Sonora, Mexico, operating primarily in Spanish. I was the USGS science mission chief in 
Venezuela for three years, and spent a lot of time in the deep Amazonas jungle: an incredibly g
orgeous and awesome place, but also incredibly dangerous. I was the deputy USGS s
cience mission chief in Saudi Arabia, frequently working on the Iraqi or 
Yemeni border, mapping phosphate or gold resources, or searching for g
roundwater. My kids had to complete high school in a boarding school in 
Switzerland. As a result one speaks Mandarin (he was a Mormon missionary

in Taiwan) and the others all speak French, Spanish, and Arabic to varying degrees. One also speaks Czech and Slovak.

2. In the geology field what do you enjoy the most and what do you
Enjoy the least?

Most: Being a physical detective. Being the first to image some feature under the ground, or first to calculate an estimation of undiscovered mineral resources. Getting out into remote field locations that are always beautiful, awe-inspiring, and occasionally terrifying (Alaska, the Venezuelan jungle). These are a huge improvement over a desk-job, but you will get physically eaten up in an all-field-work existence. 
Least: Helicopters. Bureaucratic paperwork. Example: being required to take an on-line driver safety course. Go figure.

3. In the research that I have done i would like to go into the oil
industry. Do you consider this a good choice and if not what would you

"Oil patch" as we call it is characterized by lots of money, and access to f
antastic physical resources. You would live in a few locations: generally Texas, 

Louisiana, Denver, Alberta, or the northern plains of the US. Increasingly you may find oil-hunters working in Pennsylvania and surrounding states in the US - fracking the Marcellus Shale for gas. A downside is that you are doing m

ost of your work on an oil-rig or in an office. 
There is also a smaller field of mining geology/geophysics, which has the upside of great field e
xperiences and the downside of a highly-fluctuating market (and therefore u
nreliable long-term employment with the same company). 
In between the two is what I would call "environmental geology": g
eo-engineering, waste-management, hydrology, etc. For a year I served as president of the 
Environmental and Engineering Geophysical Society, and the m
embership included people worried about bridge foundations and non-intrusive archaeological s
ite mapping - and about 20 FBI agents interested in "forensic geophysics" 
(finding bodies under concrete slabs, etc). There is also a significant s
ub-industry of geophysics that focuses on mapping unexploded ordnance: 
Finding IED's and land-mines. This seems risky, but it generally is not: that's why you use geophysical gear to find them.

4. A foreign language is required for the BS degree at Ohio State
University. What language do you recommend I take so that I could
possibly have an advantage over others entering the field?

For your generation - if it's available - I would seriously consider Mandarin. The grammar is relatively easy, but the tones and character-memorization make 

it as hard as Arabic. I speak French, Spanish, some Arabic, and a smattering 

Of Russian and Mandarin. The language that you will use the most often if you a
re in the united states is Spanish. I use this all the time.     

5. I am currently a 33 year old man who is a front end manager at a
Grocery store. This past year I realized that this isn't what I want to
be known for. I have always had a great passion for learning about the
Earth and the science of it all. However I do not want to be in college
forever. In your experience is a BS degree enough to get me in the
industry and and make enough money to pay the bills? I guess what I am
Wondering is do you think I will be able to find work with a BS degree?

A Masters degree is probably a safer bet, but it is taking longer than just two additional years to get an MS these days. A PhD is helpful for a higher s

tarting salary, but you can also over-qualify yourself with one. You must b

alance supporting a family while in school, and can you recoup your costs l
ater with a higher salary? I can't tell you off-hand what income is for a BS i
n geology these days, but would guess somewhere between $30,000 and $60,000. 
It depends a lot on where you work - for the oil industry, you'd see a substantially higher i

6. Is there much travel involved in the geology field? If so what is
The best and worst places you have gone.

If you are a field geologist - most anyone starting out in the industry - you will travel a *lot*. I switched from physics (home e

very night from a lab) to geosciences (sometimes gone for 3 weeks at a time), a

nd it took my wife time to adjust to this (me too!). 
I have always been somewhat adventurous, so have welcomed opportunities to do f
oreign travel. This always involves a lot of adjusting - to cultures and to d
ifferent safety levels, and has greater highs but also greater lows (I nearly d
ied several times in the jungle, for instance). It was good for my kids -- it b
roadened them out quite a bit. One is a professor right now in Australia, for i
nstance, and another speaks French most of every day living in Quebec. 
Visiting places like Venezuela and Kamchatka and the Aleutians and southern 
Chile and Greece and Saudi Arabia have their upsides - they are always i
nteresting - but their down-sides can be really "down" - and personally quite d
angerous sometimes.

7. What do you think employers look for in a great geologist.

Someone with a breadth of experience in geology, unfortunately - a classic Catch-22 situation. They want someone who is willing to work hard and go to d

ifficult places. Someone with maturity they can count on - I'd say you have an edge there.

8. What is it about your work that poses the most difficulties?

Paperwork, bureaucracy, and lack of financial resources to do much field work. It's hard to be a geoscientist if you cannot collect new data. W
hen I started with t

he USGS my operating expenses far exceeded my salary; now it's just the o


Again thank you for this interview. I know that this is just for a
Basic english class, but since it involves you would you like a copy of
The final draft that i will be turning in to my professor at Columbus
State community college in a couple weeks?
Cory B

Id be happy and honored to see it. 


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