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Careers: Geology/Geophysics


QUESTION: Dear Mr. Patton,
I have a question about the differences between Geophysics and Geology. It's not about the college classes, but about the field of work. I can say that I'm more attracted by the Geophysics area, and the issues that I can study, than by the Geology area. I'm interested in studying all the physical properties of Earth more than just study rocks and their formation. But I'm concerned about the work after, because I really want to work on the outdoors, in the nature and travel also, and I saw that the Geophysics job will be mainly indoor, using computers, and the Geology job is more on the outdoors. So, am I correct? Which path should I choose? (I like computer science too.)
I really appreciate your help.


ANSWER: Chris:

Jobs are about supply and demand.

Geophysics due to its rigorous, compared to Geology, demands for mathematics aptitute, has fewer practitioners and so demanded higher salaries.

The order has always been, petroleum engineers, geophysicists, geologists.

The one exception is if you are a talented oil finder, you can surpass them all by getting overrides or a share of the profits if you work for a small company.  Large companies who are owned by shareholders don't give overrides, just promotions and pay increases, but within their corporate structure which is limiting.

Now, like everything there are categories.  There are subdisiplines in all fields.  You can be a processing geophysicist, and do it with a BS.  It is boring grinding work where you spend most of your time doing Quality assurance and data loading at a computer terminal.

You can be an exploration geophysicist doing interpretation and calculationing seismic attributes and actually look for oil using direct indicator seismic attributes.

Or you can go into solid earth geophysics and teach and do research but will need a PhD.  This is work involving indirect investigation of the mantle and crust and the like.

Geology on the other hand you have a few more options but in all honesty not many jobs exist where you wander the field continually any more.  Most places in the civilized world have been mapped.

Your job salary is directionally proportional to how much money you can make for your employer.  That is why the USGS and the state geological surveys pay so poorly.  They don't make money for anyone, they just spend it.  Same goes for universities.

So if you want a good paying job, you need a marketable skill that someone is willing to pay you for.

Now being young, you could sign up with a service company and help run seismic survesy in the wilds of where ever, but it is a dead end job, and pay is lousy unless you are the Sahib or Hefe in charge of a work crew of local workers.  I've done that in S. America and it is fun at first, but today it is dangerous.  You are subject to the hatred of the indiginous peoples or practitioners of the local religion who might just as well see you as a neo-colonialist working for a foreign yellow dog devil company exploiting them, or an Infidel who's head they would like to show on video, as much as they might see you as some noble scientist there to help them better their lives.

Been there, done that.

Go to for a sampling of jobs available a tall levels.

The truth is computers have pretty much taken over both fields in the petroleum sector.  I know, I now help develop the sofware at a major company.

There is still opportunity to work outdoors in the enviromental consulting field. The pay is low and the field work only lasts for about 4-5 years of your career before you have to become a desk bound project manager, due to the billing structure of the industry.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Mr. Patton,

What are the chances to get into the exploration geophysics area? I mean, if I graduate in geophysics, it will probably be in this area, because spend the day in a desk in front of a computer doing quality assurance is not my dream on an earth sciences career! When I chose this path, it was influenced by the outdoor work and the possibilities of knowing a lot of different places. (example: - it influenced me a lot.)
Teaching is not with me also.

Can you give me an idea about the salaries on the different geophysics areas, such as exploration, processing, etc?

One more thing, what are the possible paths in the Geology area?

Thank you.

ANSWER: Processing requires only a BS and that in turn draws a lower salary.  To be an oil industry professional, that is your own office and not sitting in a lab or room shared with a host of other processors, you have to have a Masters degree.  So plan on that.  The two extra years will mean hundreds of thousands of extra dollars over your career.

I am currently paying starting geologists in the $60-70K range out of school.  Oil companies are paying more right now since their is a boom going on in the states.  Geophysicists probably make on average $5-10K more in starting pay.,12.htm

The link above shows average salaries for various companies.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Mr. Patton,

Thanks for your help. Can I ask you one more question?

Which is the best option regarding the market and the possiblities of jobs: graduate in Geology and then do a master in Geophysics or graduate in Geophysics directly?

Thank you.


Most companies require a MS, so if you do a BS in Geophysics and and MS that would be fine, a BS in Geology with a focus on Geophysics and a MS in Geophysics would be better, you would have a more well rounded background.  A lot of professionals tend to be too specialized.  Some geophysicists do not understand enough about geology.

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Keith Patton


Career and educational options open for fledgling geoscience students. What courses you should take to prepare for the current job market.


24 years experience in Petroleum, Environmental Consulting and geological and geophysical computer software development.


Registered Geologist in Texas
Certified mapping scientitst in RS

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