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Careers: Geology/Engineering geology and geotechnical work


QUESTION: Hello Keith you have been a great help to me in some of my previous questions. Like you said I have researched and found that work in the environmental sector for geologist isn't the best. I have done a lot of research and talk to many professionals and it seems that engineering geology and geotechnical engineering is a good path. My major is geology but I have an emphasis on environmental and engineering geology so I am taking lots of math and engineering courses. I still am taking my core geology courses as well. What is your take on this do you think getting a masters degree in civil engineering would give me good job prospects. Looking at job postings it seems like there is a great demand for geotechnical specialist and engineers

ANSWER: Iredia:

I think you have hit on the perfect combination and here is why.

Geological engineers are kind of bastards.  They do not fit into the engineering world, and they do not fit into the Geology world.  They are part of both and really accepted by neither.   I don't know what professionals you spoke to, but most geotechnical work in basically that, grunt work.  The true engineers, those registered do the design work and geological engineers do not get the same respect unless they are registered by the state government.

I did expert witnessing and engineers are accepted as experts because they are registered.  I got a peer certification in mapping and remote sensing so I had equal standing.  Most geologists do not have that.  I had an embossing stamp and rubber stamp, the whole thing.

Now, the path you have chosen is good because you will have both, the PE rating, professional register engineer, plus the geological background that will allow you to avoid most of the bonehead mistakes civil engineers have made with regard to hazardous geological conditions.

I taught a class back in 1979 called Geology for Engineers where we taught basic geology to Civil Engineers and I made the do case study reports on engineering disasters due to civil engineers ignoring obvious geological hazards due to ignorance, one would hope, and not will full neglect.

Not sure where you live, but I'll use California as an example.  They require engineers and geologists to be registered in order to work on hazards such as the landslide prone coastline and areas with problems due to earthquakes.  This is in the public interest to keep unqualified people from working on these types of things, but even though an engineer is registered to work does not mean he knows any geology.  In California you would think he would, but I have seen corrective measures that cost a lot of money, that were of no more use that spitting into the wind. Those paying for it were probably assured their problems were over but patently they were not.  In Las Vegas, my brother in law bought a building sight, that was directly down stream from a arroyo, or coulee, that looking at aerial photos had clearly been diverted from his property into a drainage ditch.  My concern is that if they get a heavy rain, that the water an mud what we call surface or sheet flow, will just continue on its original course ignoring the civil engineers best hopes, and continue on its path that its taken for probably thousands of years which was right where his living room in now.  Time will tell.

I believe you will have more success with the MS in Civil Engineering.

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QUESTION: Ok thank you so much for your help. I live in the New England area so we dont have the same geologic hazards as those in California but one Structural Engineer told me they have a lot of geotechnical assessments they need to do because of the condition of the soils and hilly terrain. I am still not positive what direction I want to go in I do an internship with the USGS doing surface water hydrology work. I am wondering if you also have any idea about Environmental Engineer or Water Resources Engineer and doing that type of work doing water resources management. I am sorry for asking so many questions just you have very good insight of the real working world unlike many of my professors I have talked to.


Sorry, I didn't see the Connecticut on the heading of the original message.  I lived in Maine way up on the tip, back in the 1960's when I was a kid.

Okay, the reason I said the MS would be a good way to go is that geotechnical assessments is pretty much boring boring boring.   It is really grunt work, doing soil plasticity, expansive clay assessments, etc.  You don't want to be doing that the rest of your life.  Government work is okay, low pay, but you do get a pension.

I did 8 years of environmental consulting work back in the heyday of the cleanups of the 1990's.  I worked on hydrologic projects, RCRA and CERCLA cleanups, monitoring well sampling, UST tank pulls, you name it, I did it.  Most environmental companies are owned and operated by civil or environmental engineers.  Geologists and Engineering Geologists are treated like interchangeable parts.  ERM Inc the company I worked for was a bit different in that there was an equal balance of Engineers and Geologists as partners and a Geologist actually rose to become the CEO!  

So my opinion is if you have a MS in Civil Engineering with a geological engineering background that will give you a lot more credibility and more options career wise.  You can do regular civil engineering stuff, and will have the geology chops to work on projects that are environmental and or deal with geological hazards, such as soil creep and slumping, as you imply due to the hilly terrain.  I imagine the USGS work will entail dealing with erosion due to increased runoff due to development, or channelization of water courses.

If you go into environmental engineering the pay is not as good as say in the petroleum industry, but you would be with the engineering degree, more "acceptable" to most companies to a partnership at some point.  Partnership is the only way to make any serious money.  ERM for instance is like a law firm, at some point they offer promising members of the staff a partnership, and they have to buy in, I think it was $100,000.  They give annual bonuses and make sure the "partner" prospects get large bonuses in order to pay the $100k off in two or three years.  It is kind of an good ole boy system.  Everybody got a bonus, but the owners the partners got 10X what the rank and file got, and they got a monthly payout or share of the previous months profits.  It was strictly cash and carry...everything was billed through to the client, so at the end of the month, what ever was left after paying expenses, except what went into the bonus pool and contingency fund, was paid out to the partners. Most of the partners I know have long since retired or left and started up their own companies.  They cannot keep any stock, so when they leave, the other partners have to buy it back, or they bring in new partners in order to pay off the old ones.

Anyway my point is being an engineer will improve the likelihood you could become a partner at many companies.  I mentored a young civil engineer before I left, and he rose to become a partner and the Houston office manager.  I don't know how good a job he did, because the company had layoffs for the first time in history under his watch.  Which is another thing, the amount of environmental work has dwindled dramatically due to the fact we cleaned up all the old messes in the 90's with the superfund, and the RCRA laws put in place in the 1980's have prevented in large part the formation of any new ones.  The BP Deep Water Horizon blowout was one of those occurrences that was like hitting the lottery for the environmental firms.  ERM was able to call back a lot of their layoffs and put them to work for another year or two milking it for all it was worth.

Dirty little secret is the industry is all about billing rates.  As a $60 an hour geologist I was expected to be 100% billable.  That meant all 40 hours of my week had to be billable to a project number that was billed to a client.  There was ZERO overhead or dead time.  In fact I commonly billed out 55-60 hours a week when I was in the field.  All travel was on MY time, not the clients, so if I had to be in Charleston, S.C. on Monday, I had to leave on Sunday on my time.  Well my managing partner, who was responsible for finding us work, didn't have any so he loaned us to the CEO who still did some Superfund project work.  He sent up to a Unocal refinery they were closing in Beaumont Tx and we picked up trash in a sludge impoundment and spent a week running weedeaters cutting weeds at $60 an hour.  The paying companies don't usually ask what the geologists and engineers are  In my case there were two of us, so Unocal was paying $120 an hour for us to cut weeds.  I have worked with environmental engineers at Diamond Shamrock, now Valero, who could not find their ass with both hands.  They brought me in to do their quarterly ground water reports, there were six engineers on the staff and the only thing I know they did was play Doom on the company network, each one closed up in their office using the speaker phone to communicate via conference call.  I ended up doing a lot of work they by rights should have done...that is what keeps the consulting business going, incompetence in the larger client companies.  The engineers on their staff are supposed to be doing "oversight" but I don't think any of them ever came over to check my work or to even bother to learn what I was brought in to do for them.

So, bottom line, check the current job postings in those areas you are considering.  Check out the job posting in Ground Water journal to see what the water and hydrologic opportunities are.  Check out the various employment search engines on line too, just to get an idea of what is available now and the range of salaries so you won't be surprised and also look at where the majority of the jobs are.

I have a long standing female friend, Jennifer Ditzler, she is in N. Carolina I believe and is on Facebook.  She is an engineer at Arcadis an environmental engineering company.  I mentored her when she was a summer intern back in the 90's.  I might be able to hook you up and she could give you some insight from the female perspective.  Let me know.


As your pay went up, it meant the fewer and fewer projects could support my higher billing rate.

Careers: 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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