Geochemists study the composition, structure, processes, and other physical aspects of the Earth. They examine the distribution of chemical elements in rocks and minerals, as well as the movement of these elements into soil and water systems.
There is a wealth of information buried in the liquids, gases, and mineral deposits of rock. The geochemist’s job is to understand this information and make informed decisions on a range of industrial and scientific research applications. Understanding the chemical composition of rocks tells oil companies where to drill for oil; enables scientists to put together broad-based theories about the way the Earth is changing; helps environmental management companies decide how to dispose of a toxic or hazardous substance; and steers mining companies toward use of natural resources with a minimum environmental impact.
In the past, people entered from a variety of fields. More recently, a degree in geosciences is preferred (currently offered by approximately 20 U.S. colleges), although degrees in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering, or computer science are still acceptable, especially if they include coursework in geology. Other valuable courses include mineralogy, petrology, and structural geology, as well as other physical sciences, mathematics, engineering, and computer science. Geochemists stress the importance of a firm grounding in a basic chemical discipline and especially analytical chemistry, which is vital for this kind of work. Training outside geochemistry is increasingly beneficial, as the field has become more interdisciplinary. Environmentally-related areas such as toxicology, hydrology, and sedimentology can also help prepare you for a job in environmental geochemistry.
While an undergraduate degree in chemistry was sufficient in the past, an advanced degree in geochemistry (especially a master’s degree) is now expected for most positions. If you want to go into research, a Ph.D. and postdoctoral work are required. However, some careers in industry or environmental management, or governmental policy, may not require an advanced degree.
Geochemists balance their time between the lab, the field and the office. They spend a lot of time in the field, gathering data and analyzing samples on site; therefore, this is a field for people who like to work outdoors. Travel can be extensive and the hours irregular, particularly since much of the new exploration work is happening overseas. Government jobs in geochemistry follow a relatively regular schedule, but in industry, and especially in environmental management, hours will be long and some scientists may be on call during weekends to respond to emergencies.
The government has traditionally employed a large number of geochemists, particularly the geochemistry branch of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The working atmosphere at the USGS stands somewhere between academia and a government agency. Geochemists there say they have a lot of latitude in their research and, unlike industry geochemists, are not tied to a customer’s requirements or financial constraints. The agency’s focus has turned from pure research to applied research—most of it in the environmental area.
The job market for geochemists is highly dependent on oil and gas prices. When prices are high, more geoscientists are hired to help find deposits and explore deposits. Employment is predicted to grow faster than average over the next decade, which is fueled by the competing desires for energy and responsible resource and land management. Most of the demand will be for consultants working for scientific, technical, and management consulting firms, as budget constraints restrict state and federal government hiring. Competition for Ph.D. level positions in academia will be high.
Geochemists describe themselves as people with a propensity for solving puzzles and with a natural curiosity about the Earth and its composition. “Often, we don’t know what kind of material we are starting with,” says Oliver Zafiriou, senior scientist in the department of chemistry and geochemistry at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “There is often a difference between geochemistry and pure chemistry. You have to accept what the situation hands to you, simplify it, and find out what parts can be dealt with according to your expertise.” This also means that you work in a team of people with different areas of expertise in order to solve the whole puzzle.
Because geochemists spend a significant amount of time in the field, this is also a career for people who enjoy outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, and climbing. Geochemical jobs can involve a lot of outdoor work that entails collecting samples in the field and often analyzing them in the field. Abandoned mine sites may not pleasant to look at, but they are often located in beautiful surroundings and helping to restore them can be very rewarding.
Employment is predicted to grow faster than average over the next decade. The job market is highly dependent on oil and gas prices.
A degree in geosciences is preferred, and an advanced degree in geochemistry (especially a master’s degree). If you want to go into research, a Ph.D. and postdoctoral work are required.