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Education and Training: College

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Geophysicists study the physical aspects of the earth and its atmosphere and apply scientific principles in order to solve problems. They may also study other planets. Their work has many practical applications. Geophysicists work with architects in earthquake-prone areas. They also examine the effects of the atmosphere on radio and satellite communications. Almost half of the geophysicists in the country are employed by private companies in the mining, oil, and natural gas industries. The rest work for federal or state government agencies or teach in colleges and universities.

Some geophysicists examine the size and shape of land masses. Others study the slow movement of drifting continents. Geophysicists also study magnetic fields within and around the earth. Seismology—the study of earthquakes—is a branch of geophysics, as is volcanology—the study of the earth's interior. Some geophysicists study bodies of water and amounts of rainfall. Geophysicists use radar, dynamite, computers, and maps in the course of their work. Other intricate equipment includes magnetometers for studying magnetic fields and gravimeters for studying the earth's gravitational pull.

Geophysicists who work for mining, oil, and natural gas companies usually look for deposits of petroleum or minerals. They locate areas where there is a high probability of finding these deposits. For example, they measure and chart the sound waves created by explosions. The information they obtain from their tests and equipment readings helps them to determine the kinds and patterns of rock beneath the surface. Then they can advise company executives who decide whether to open a mine or drill a well. Readings taken from devices that measure magnetic forces also help geophysicists find out what is under the ground and sea.

Education and Training Requirements

To become a professional geophysicist, a bachelor's degree is necessary. Because geophysics is a broad science drawing from many fields, a bachelor's degree in geology, chemistry, mathematics, or engineering can qualify candidates for a beginning position or for graduate work in a branch of geophysics. Positions in research and exploratory geophysics often require at least a master's degree. Instructors of geophysics in four-year colleges usually need a doctoral degree.

Getting the Job

Students attending college may be able to get a summer job as an assistant to a geophysical team. This experience can lead to full-time work after graduation. The school placement office may list openings in the field. To obtain a job with a state or federal agency, candidates must apply to take the necessary civil service test. They should also apply directly to companies that employ geophysicists.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Top positions in industry and government are open to experienced geophysicists. Geophysicists who show leadership and imagination can become administrators. Advanced degrees and experience are needed to move up in the field of research. Geophysicists can be owners or partners in consulting firms.

The federal government expects the need for geophysicists to expand more slowly than the average through the year 2014. Many job openings will result from workers in the field who retire. Most jobs, however, may open as the number of environmental laws and regulations grow. Geophysicists who work in the mining, oil, and natural gas industries will see limited growth due to efficiencies in finding oil and gas.

Working Conditions

Geophysicists who work in offices and laboratories can expect safe, comfortable working conditions and forty-hour work-weeks. Those who are involved in exploration geophysics can expect a different set of working conditions. These scientists work in the field on assignments that take them all over the world. Their hours are irregular. They may endure physical hardship and be away from home for extended periods. Their work, however, can be very diverse and interesting.

Where to Go for More Information

American Geological Institute
4220 King St.
Alexandria, VA 22302-1502
(703) 379-2480

American Geophysical Union
2000 Florida Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20009-1277
(800) 966-2481

Society of Exploration Geophysicists
8801 South Yale
Tulsa, OK 74137-2740
(918) 497-5500

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries vary depending on education, work experience, and place of employment. The starting salary of geophysicists with a bachelor's degree averages $32,828 per year. The starting salary of those with a master's degree averages $47,981 per year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005 geophysicists working in managerial, supervisory, and non-supervisory positions for the federal government earned an average of $94,836 per year. Benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.