Geo-Job: On how to be a Geophysicist

I’ve written before about how I love field geophysics, and find the job to be a mix of James Bond villain meets MacGyver. The post has spawned some questions, with emails to me from proto-geophysicists asking how to get from being a student to out in the field. This is a late-entry to the Geo-Jobs Accretionary Wedge #61. (If you’re also running late, I’m still taking entries until 10pm PST tonight, when I assemble the master-post of links.)

Career Trajectory
Most geophysicists start off as a field technicians . The first big promotion is to field geophysicist, crew chief for entire surveys. After a few years of field experience, many geophysicists move on to field processing, or office-work where they interpret the field data. Eventually this leads to some sort of senior geoscientist position, which I have no experience with (yet!).

Entry-Level Jobs
New geophysicists almost always start out as a field technicians. Field technicians are the skilled crew that go with a field geophysicist — the people who help transport, set up, and run the equipment. The job is effectively being an assistant to a field geophysicist. A good crew chief will treat it as an apprenticeship period, and teach their technicians how to field-repair equipment, do data quality control, what to consider when setting up the survey, and other practical aspects of all the theory learned in school. To be a technician does not require a geophysics degree, just willingness and scientific competency. A few courses in introductory geology (to identify the basic rock types), mechanical aptitude (preferably mixed with a bit of hands-on electrical tinkering or labwork), and enough outdoor experience that your crew chief doesn’t need to teach you how not to be eaten by a bear or which leaves make terrible toilet paper are all assets. In many ways, it is similar to being an assistant geologist, but lugging around heavy batteries instead of rocks, and working with electricity instead of hammers.

Academics
Geophysics is a controlled profession in Canada, that requires specific academic qualifications. Check with your local professional association or geologic survey to find out your requirements. In my region, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists – British Columbia is responsible for setting out the requirements of being a practicing geophysicist. In addition to academic requirements, the association also requires a specific period of time working under direct supervision of a fully-licensed geoscientist (experience qualifications), taking a law and ethics course, getting a good character reference, and demonstrated competence in the primary official language of the province.

The value of attending graduate school is more tricky to quantify. A lot of geoscience is fastest and easiest to learn in the field, not at school, so going to graduate school is expensive, time-consuming, and less efficient learning. Even worse, it only counts to a limited degree towards the experience qualification for APEG. For the most part, it appears only consulting companies want graduate degrees for
their employers, and then only for project-management positions. Other geoscience companies and government agencies are less inclined towards graduate degrees even in the asset qualifications of job descriptions, instead preferring more time spent with direct experience. It also appears that companies that do value graduate degrees will be willing to work with their employees to work out a part-time work/study schedule, allowing for full-time studies during the off-season in return for full-time work during the peak field and report seasons.

Geophysics vs. the other field geo-jobs
A field geophysicist typically works more with electronics and heavy equipment in the field, and processes the data through inversion mathematics and noise filtering. It requires a solid understanding of math, wave propagation (mechanical or E&M), and how the physical properties relate to the geological materials. It does not require an in-depth understanding of geology, although it is helpful during interpretation. Most other geoscientists seem to consider geophysics a bit of a black-art voodoo, not understanding how various signals can be interpreted to reveal subsurface structure. The VIEPS (a collation of universities in Victoria, Australia) offers an amazing short-course on the topic (although it’s less awesome when you’re a geophysicist trying to learn geology).

A field geologist typically works directly with the rocks (with heavy backpacks to carry them out of the field), and processes the data through more qualitative means. It requires a strong understanding of geology, formation processes, and chemistry.

A field environmental scientist surveys the current conditions: water flow, trees, wildlife. It is more of an observational science, with some fluid mechanics for hydrology & pollution.

A field geological engineer is less into the great outdoors, and more confined to post-discovery monitoring. (For example, going out to camps and supervising the drilling, or the constructing of the mine.)

Taking a few classes in each discipline will help you understand which ones you like best, as would participating in summer internships or field schools. The VIEPS short-course program is open to honours and graduate students (and professionals), while many universities offer field schools (some even open to students at other universities). Geoscience is a local discipline, where you learn about the rocks where you are, so managing to take a few field adventures in locations far from home can greatly broaden your experiences.

Work-Life Balance
This is tricky. Geophysics is a field profession for the first several years at least. Some companies do regular structured shifts, but geophysics usually seems to be, “Go out until the project is done.” I’ve had jobs that were scheduled for 7 days that lasted 60, which can be a bit rough if someone is waiting at home. The only reason I can have my prickly pet or substantial container garden is because I have someone at home to care for them while I’m away. It isn’t easy to make plans with friends when you’re never certain if a job’s start-date might be moved forward, and one year I was away so often I wondered why I rented an apartment instead of a storage locker.

Sexism is alive and well in the backcountry. I have no real words of wisdom or advice on this except that pink has some practical advantages.

Fieldwork is also hard on the body. Between carrying heavy gear over rough terrain, the inevitable slips and falls, and wear-and-tear on my joints, I can feel pretty creaky. But I’ve also packed heavy backpacks over enough ground under my own power to blow away fitness recommendations and gym-monkeys. “I’m stronger than I look,” becomes a reoccurring refrain for the more slightly-built geophysicist, and scaling the office tower stairs during an elevator malfunction is no longer a daunting task.

As a geophysicist, I’ve travelled to some beautiful places, strolled on British Columbia’s glaciers and explored the countryside of Tanzania. I’ve had some amazing helicopter tours, and had lunch in front of awe-inspiring vistas.

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