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Geology/hydrogeology question



I'm an undergraduate geology student right now. I'm considering a career in hydrogeology. I don't know many people who work in hydrogeology, but I do know people in environmental consulting firms, and I've heard many hydrogeologists work in such firms. How is the work/life balance for most hydrogeologists? Some of the people I know in consulting firms work crazy schedules, often forgoing weekends, etc. Is this typical for hydrogeologists?


I worked as an environmental consultant for 8 years with ERM-Southwest in Houston, TX.  Due to reorganization and restructuring it is now merged with the corporate entity and is known as ERM, Ltd based in the UK.  They did this as most of their growth was overseas in the former eastern block.

You have to understand how the enviromental consulting industry works.  Environmental costs are overhead.  So companies do not want to have large staffs on thier payroll so they outsource the work to consultants.  They may have a few environmental engineers on their staffs to do "oversight" that is to select consultants and to approve their work.  They are essentially worthless.  I had a hunting buddy at Phillips Pet in the 80's he was a petroleum engineer.  Faced with layoff he was offered a job in their newly formed Enviromental department guessed it...oversight.  He knew NOTHING about it.  I worked at Diamond Shamrock, now Vallero, in their main corporate offices on a contract.  They had 5 Env. Engineers and guess who did all their quarterly ground water reports for the previous 2 years?  Yeah, me...all they did was sit and play Doom on their corporate network.  Worthless.

If you get hired as a hydrogeologist you may be hired to do specialty work, that is serve as an inhouse consultant doing modeling on different projects.  I only worked with one bonfied hydrologist, the rest of us were geologists.  He did some special projects work but he also did grunt work like the rest of us.

Okay, this is the drill at aconsulting firm.  You get hired, it does not matter if you are a hydrologist or geologist.  They require that you learn the ropes.  You do a lot of field work, learning all the typical tasks:  logging borings or core samples, installing monitoring wells, supervising a drill rig crew, collecting samples, water and soil.  Conducting site assessments, maybe doing a few drawdown tests, supervising underground storage tank pulls, learn the various regulations for UST, CERCLA and RCRA.

You'll do that for a few years and if you exhibit leadership and responsibility, you will eventually make it to project manager.  Now understand this.  You can do one of two things, you can become a PM or carve out a specialty niche for yourself.  If you become a PM you will be managing others on multiple projects from you desk.  Now you know why you did all the field work.  You will now KNOW all the problems that can arise and can deal with your people advising them by phone.

If you don't rise to PM your days are numbered.  WhY?  Because the industry is billing rate based.  You start making a salary of X and with time it goes to Z.  Your billing rate increases too.  So you start with a billing rate of X and it rises to Z.  The PM has to bill you out on his project budgets.  If your rate gets too high, no PM will want you to work on his projects, since your rate can bust his budget.  He can get a newbie, new hire at $40 an hour versus you who will cost him $65 or $70 an hour to do the same brainless grunt work.

See the pattern?  Now if you are a staff specialist hydrologist, in my case I was a remote sensing expert AND a PM.  I billed out at $150 an hour for litigation work.  If you are a hydrology specialist, you can work on a few projects doing modeling and not bust their budgets, since they will have budgeted for that in addition to some grunts to install wells and pull samples.  

The trouble is, few projects require hydrologist as specialists.  I encountered maybe three in 8 years.  So that hydrogeologist and I spent two weeks in Beaumont at an old refinery picking up metal and wood debris behind a tractor.  We spent the second week weed eating around the sludge farm berm.  We got billed out at $55 a hour for doing illegal immigrant work.  That is the way the industry works.  The firm billed us out as geologist and the crackerjack oversight engineer at Unocal, in this case, never questioned why two geologists were needed on site for two weeks or what we were doing.  This was a project run by the owner and principal partner of the firm, so no quesitons were asked.  

Our company was pretty hard nosed.  We billed out at least 50 hours a week.  Period.  If you didn't the Principal partner called you and found work for you.  In the instance above, my supervisor, who was responsible for finding work for his staff and keeping them busy, didn't have the work, so he loanedus out to his boss and off we went.  I was also loaned out to other offices in California, South Carolina, and Mexico and went there to work on assessment and litigation projects.  Its all about billing hours, it does not matter where.

Now our business model was very profitable and was adopted by the whole corporation.  I went to California to work and showed up in a suit, they thought I was a salesman.  When they found out I was the hired gun photo interpreter sent in from Houston, they asked us if it was true?  I said, "What?  That the round outlines in our rear pockets are actually condoms and not cans of dipping tobacco?"  Seriously they wanted to know if all the things the heard about our offices were true.  They called us the "sweat shop".  Well they eventually found out when all the independently operated offices were merged back into one entity and adopted our business model.

For instance, the term overhead was unheard of.  Everything, long distance calls, paper copies, word processing, vehicle use, and computer use was billed directly through to the client.  You used a project code for everything to track costs.  Very profitable.

Annual bonuses were given based on a secret formula that no one was to know about but I learned the dirty truth about.  It was based on overtime minus sick time, times some constant determined by your position in the company.

So in essence we got no paid sick time off, you worked it off by overtime.  We didn't know this of course and it is probably illegal.   Bonues could range from $20K to $2000 to zero.  If you got a zero bonus, it was time to leave.  The high end was reserved for partners so they could pay off their buy in quickly.  I had on average 3-5 weeks of overtime a year.  You bonus never even came close to your weekly salary much less time and a half.  Partners got very wealthy on the sweat of employees who never knew they were being exploited.

I finally left when one year I had 5 weeks of overtime, and got $2000 as a bonus.  What had happened is I had done work, on a project that I had gotten approval for, probably 2 weeks worth on a project that had been put on hold.  My boss said do the work, in anticipation of the project being revived, it wasn't so the partners made me eat the time, by subtracting it from my overtime hours, hence reducing my bonus.

Now I can't say all firms run this way, but it has become a very competitive industry.  They were having layoffs and furloughs at that firm just before the BP blowout a few years back.  To them it was the lottery.  I am sure there were a lot of geologists and other professionals raking oil saturated hay from the beaches and being billed out at $65 an hour.  I can see it now, it was like christmas for the consulting firms.

Now having said all this, there are more than a few jobs for hydrologists out there.  They are spread out over regularory agencies and consulting firms:

I have no idea about the pay scales but normaly government jobs are below industry pay levels.  


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Keith Patton


I can answer questions concerning physical and historical geology, environmental geology/hydrology, environmental consulting, remote sensing/aerial photo interpretation, G&G computer applications, petroleum exploration, drilling, geochemistry, geochemical and microbiological prospecting, 3D reservoir modeling, computer mapping and drilling.I am not a geophysicist.


I have 24 years experience split between the petroleum and environmental industries. I have served as an expert witness in remote sensing, developmental geologist, exploration geologist, enviromental project manager, and subject matter expert in geology and geophysical software development.

American Association of Petroleum Geologists
American Association of Photogrammetrists and Remote Sensing

Bachelor and Master of Science
Registered Geologist in State of Texas

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