Study for an Indiana Jones lifestyle

A geology qualification can set students up for a life of exotic travel and gritty experience, says Emma Haughton
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The Independent Online

Fault lines and Richter scales, ammonites and ichthyosaurs, tectonic plates and diamond deposits - a degree in geology, or geoscience as it's now often dubbed, can bring you into contact with a diverse and fascinating range of natural phenomena - all with a good dose of fresh air thrown in.

"Certainly geology is popular in terms of the image it portrays," says Joe Cann, professor of Earth sciences at the University of Leeds, "The media is packed with regular stories and series about volcanoes, dinosaurs, all that prehistoric stuff, as well as disasters like big earthquakes. Geology appeals very strongly to younger children, and they tend to get fixed on it early."

Geoscience basically includes all the sciences - geology, geophysics, geochemistry - that study the structure, evolution and dynamics of the Earth and its natural mineral and energy resources. It investigates the processes that have shaped the planet through its 4,600 million year lifespan, using the rock record to unravel history.

Disentangling those processes is what appeals to a lot of students, says Cann. "What all geology degrees try to give them is a sense that they can themselves solve problems, especially in the field. Getting out among wild rocks in wild countries to make observations and solve certain sorts of problems is very rewarding."

Indeed, field work is what characterises the classic geology degree, according to Dr Ted Nield, science and communications officer at the Geological Society: "It's about quality time actually sticking your nose up against rocks and hitting them with hammers, and as such is a very interesting and diverting way of spending three years. A geology degree has the unique advantage that you travel the world at other people's expense, getting to see all kinds of places ordinary tourists don't go. And no other subject gives you such a sense of community with your fellow students, largely from being forced together in often uncomfortable circumstances."

And it's this on-the-job experience that appeals to employers, he says. "That's essentially what makes a real geologist, and those are what companies want. Oil companies, engineering companies, hydrogeology companies - they all want someone who is a practical field geologist."

Around a quarter of new geology graduates go into geological jobs within six months of finishing their course. Although many used to be employed by the North Sea oil industry, these days geologists are just as likely to work for environmental or construction companies or in newer areas like hydrogeology.

"Geology is one of those sciences where you will always find work but can often find yourself out of work," says Nield. "Many jobs tend to depend on the price of commodities like oil, gold, copper, diamonds - anything that has to be dug out of the earth - and those prices can be volatile. It all hinges of the economics of exploiting those resources. The most difficult places to develop need most geological advice, but as soon as the price of the commodity drops it can become uneconomic and all the geologists get the sack. Getting laid off is a fact of life for every geologist." But a little uncertainty can be a small price to pay, points out Cann. "Our students often just go along to Australia or Africa and in a relatively short space of time they've got a responsible job in a mining company, out in the bush having a wild time, supervising a team of people finding new deposits and living a real Indiana Jones kind of life."

About 50 universities offer first degree courses in geoscience, typically of three years' duration, although some offer a year abroad or an extra year to take you to master's level. Entry grades vary, but typically around three Bs will get you into all but the most popular institutions. A and AS level subjects normally preferred include physics, chemistry, biology, geology and a mathematical subject, although geography is acceptable for some courses.

You can opt for a broad-based geology or Earth science degree course or choose a more specialised degree course concentrating on a particular aspect of geoscience such as environmental geology or geophysics. You can also combine a geology degree with other subjects, typically geography, physics or chemistry.

It's vital to research carefully the bias of the course you're considering, looking at the syllabus and staff list to see their research interests and actually visiting the department, stresses Cann: "The range of degrees is incredibly diverse and each department has its own flavour. There are no shortcuts to finding the right course."