Choosing a career in the Earth Sciences

Monday, May 24, 1999

By: Jason M. Payne

Do you have an interest in volcanoes and earthquakes? Or do you like dinosaurs and fossils? For some people you might be concerned about the environment and want to find ways to help keep it clean. Other people, like myself, are interested in finding 'lost treasure'. Of course the kind of treasure I am referring to is gold, diamonds, oil and other valuable materials in their raw form. The pursuit of these endeavours are common in that they are all branches of the Earth Sciences. Volcanology, paleontology, groundwater geochemistry and especially exploration geology are some of the many career paths that one can undertake in the Earth Sciences.

By studying volcanoes and earthquakes scientists can learn to predict and plan for future events that may be disastrous. These studies help to minimize the potential risk of living near dangerous places such as volcanoes and fault zones. Paleontologists study the biology of the past to help reconstruct what the earth was like millions and sometimes billions of years ago. This allows us to see what changes have taken place in the climate and how life on the planet adapted to those changes. By knowing this we can hopefully understand what future changes may occur and why. Ground-water geology is an important way to understand patterns of pollution and how we can control them. This provides us with plans on how and where to build hazardous sites (such as garbage dumps, nuclear reactors), where current pollution is originating from and where it will end up (such as when a factory dumps chemicals into a river). All of these are important in understanding our planet and how it functions.

Drill site in northern QuébecDrill site in northern Québec

Then there is exploration geology. The importance of this branch of the Earth Sciences is often overlooked. Have you ever been driving in your car and wondered where the steel for the frame originated or the glass for the windshield? How about the platinum component of the catalytic converter? Not to mention the gas used by your car. What about your house? Where did the copper wiring come from? What about the cement for the foundation? Don't forget about your nice gold watch and diamond earrings. All of these materials (steel, platinum, glass, petroleum, copper, cement, gold, diamonds) originated from the Earth. How did they get where they did? Well that is a long process but it usually starts out with an exploration geologist.

The materials we need to exist in everyday life are mined from the earth. A mine could be something as simple as a sand pit used for mixing cement to something as complex as a shaft that penetrates the earth some 2 kilometres and produces millions of dollars of gold. A mine is really an intermediate step between the finished product (cement, gold watch, steel car frame) and the raw materials needed to make these products. Finding the raw materials is the first step. That is the job of the exploration geologist.

There are many things that one can look for. But the ones that can be sold profitably are the ones most commonly sought after. I personally have worked on projects looking for base metals (copper, zinc, lead), gold, diamonds and even uranium. Once you have a specific material you want to find you need to start looking for a place to find it. This often involves a lot of research. You need to look into prospectors claims, old exploration reports from other companies or you can start from scratch with no previous information and create your own database.

truck stuck in mudWhy not choose a career that pays you to travel to interesting places?

Now that you have a property or area to begin your work you need to determine where on your property you should concentrate your efforts. Your gold mine or iron mine will not be a big X marking the spot. You need to conduct soil sampling and mapping of rock units that outcrop on the surface to determine if there are any anomalous values (values that are higher than normal for that area) for the material you are searching. This involves sending samples to the lab for assay. If an anomalous set of numbers exists the next stage might involve drilling.

Drilling is the process of removing rock from the earth in cylindrical form as a drill bit cuts around it. Every 3 metres the drill retrieves the core it has cut and it is placed in sequence in boxes for the geologist to examine. This allows the geologist to see what kind of rocks occur below surface and what their relationship is to the rocks that are on surface. The core is split and samples sent again to the lab for analyses. If high values are returned from the lab, the geologist will plan more holes to see how much of the material he can find. If there is enough then there is a possibility that a mine may be built. If a mine is built then the material will be extracted, refined and sold to a manufacturer who then builds the things you use around you every day.

This of course is a very basic overview of how exploration geology works. It involves a lot of planning and work. It is very costly to conduct a geological investigation (many budgets for projects are in the millions of dollars) but if they are successful they are very rewarding financially. But what you may not realize is that there are many reasons to work in the Earth Sciences beyond the work itself.

When I decided that I wanted to become a geologist it was because I truly knew and understood what it was that I wanted to do. It wasn't because that it was the only program I could get into at university or sometimes you see students who choose a profession because their father and grandfather did it. For me it was a natural fit. Since childhood I had always been interested in dinosaurs and I liked to go hiking and collect rocks. Every time I went camping I would like to examine the cliffs and hills around me. For me personally, geology was ideal in that it involved the outdoors.

Secondly and maybe more importantly is that no matter where you travel on our planet you will find geology in one form or another. I like to travel. Why not choose a career that pays me to travel all over the world? So far I have been to Mexico, Guyana, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Tanzania and all across Canada because of geology. And as a bonus, in having to travel to Africa it was necessary to stay over in London, Paris and Amsterdam to get connecting flights so indirectly geology allowed me to visit these places.

Jason crossing a beaver dam Jason crossing a beaver dam in northern Ontario

It is quite fulfilling to be in Northern Canada finishing work and going fishing in some of the best rivers and lakes you can imagine, seeing moose, wolves, bears and caribou while other people are paying thousands of dollars to do the same thing on their own time. Likewise in Africa. I have spent many of my days off driving through the jungle looking at elephants, antelope, warthogs and other animals while people are paying upwards of $10 000 to be in the same place as me. Another nice thing about exploration geology is that you get paid well and when you are out working in the bush, all your expenses (travel, food, lodging) are covered by the company. From what I have told you so far, exploration sounds too good to be true. Well there are some negative points as well. Often you spend months away from home and many times you don't even have a phone to call anyone. This can be difficult if you have a family. The work hours are not 9-5 and can typically be upwards of 12-15 hours a day. Secondly, some of the places you work can be dangerous. Up North there are no hospitals so if an accident occurs you need to know some first aid and hope that a helicopter or plane can get to you. While working in the Central African Republic I contracted malaria 3 times. This can be a fatal illness if not treated properly. Also while in the Central African Republic, I was evacuated from the country twice due to armed rebellion from soldiers who wanted to overthrow the government. Being stuck in the middle of a war zone is not something you should have on your list of things to do.

Finally and most importantly, the commodities sector is cyclical. What this means is that for a few years there will be high demand for gold, oil, copper and the prices for these materials will be high. This translates to lots of jobs. But every few years there is a decline in the demand for these materials and their value drops. This leads to layoffs and no job opportunities. As an example, I have been unemployed for up to a year. Your position within a company is often only guaranteed as long as the demand for your product is high.

For me the benefits and rewards of being in exploration geology outweigh the negative aspects. I am fortunate in being able to work at something I truly enjoy. If you enjoy the outdoors and travelling then you may consider a career in exploration geology. Otherwise, if you are concerned about the environment and want to control how pollution is spread you may choose a career in groundwater geology. Maybe you just like dinosaurs and will want to become a paleontologist. If any of these subjects are of interest to you then perhaps you should investigate academic and employment opportunities in the Earth Sciences.

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