Earth sciences explore the various physical and chemical processes that have literally shaped our planet. Some earth scientists monitor the activity of plate tectonics, volcanoes, and other natural features, while others seek solutions for global problems like air, soil, and water pollution. Thanks to the advent of open courseware, today’s learners can access free, web-based courses and tutorials to see if earth science is the best field of study for them.
Careers for earth scientists widely vary. Some focus on scientific research, often funded through private or federal grants. Others dedicate their careers to environmental policy and advocacy, working alongside elected leaders and private contractors to enact changes that stand to benefit the entire planet. There is also a large contingent of earth scientists who end up teaching their subject to students in primary, secondary, and postsecondary schools. The common thread linking all of these career paths is a data-driven approach to the natural cycles and phenomena that occur daily across the globe.
Students who hope to earn a degree in earth science will be required to complete a series of courses that explore the associated sub-fields. These sub-fields may include geology, the study of rocks and soil; meteorology, the study of climate and weather patterns; hydrology, the study of water and the way it interacts with other materials; and atmospheric science, the study of air and atmosphere. Earth science majors will also learn about environmental issues like climate change, the effects of pollution, and the ‘footprint’ of human populations and manmade structures.
As students advance through their undergraduate education (and possibly continue on to earn an advanced degree), they may be asked to choose a specialized area of study that matches their career goals. Typically, these specializations will narrow in on one of the sub-fields of earth science, such as climate science, marine science, or land and water systems. Students may also be allowed to choose a specialization in earth science education if they hope to become teachers.
In addition to specialization, the level of degree a student chooses to earn will ultimately impact their career opportunities. Here is a rundown of options for prospective earth scientists:
Like other scientific fields, earth science requires an extensive education ― and for this reason, a two-year associate degree from a community college or vocational school is insufficient for anything beyond an entry-level job. However, associate-level earth science courses will introduce key concepts that students will further delve into during the later stages of their education.
Generally, anyone hoping to become an earth scientist will be required to complete a minimum of four years of accredited higher education and eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. However, some careers (such as environmental scientists and geoscientists) will only require a bachelor’s degree for those who want to obtain an entry-level position with a government agency or private research firm. Those who wish to pursue careers in advanced research or teaching will probably need to obtain a master’s degree to supplement their undergraduate credentials.
Students who choose to earn a master’s degree will enroll in courses that generally focus on the advanced chemistry and physics associated with the planet’s natural processes. A Master of Education in Earth Science (at the very least) will be required for virtually any teaching role at the primary, secondary, or postsecondary level, while an M.S. degree with a specialization will often allow graduates to bypass the entry-level employment stage and land high-paying jobs in the private or public sector.
Most students who earn a Ph.D. in this field plan to teach or research specialized earth sciences within an academic setting; for other career paths, job-seekers may be able to get good jobs with lesser credentials. Ph.D. or doctoral studies usually entail a dissertation, capstone project, and/or internship with an earth science laboratory or research facility.
In lieu of a traditional degree like those listed above, some earth science students may earn an advanced certificate comparable to an undergraduate or graduate-level diploma. Others, such as earth science teachers, may be required to earn additional certifications in order to be considered for positions at some institutions or in certain states. Also, it should be noted that some federal agencies (such as the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Department of Natural Resources) will employ ‘student hires’ who are currently enrolled in any level of higher education (including associate and bachelor’s programs), and this experience can increase their potential for employment opportunities without obtaining a higher degree.
Ideal Candidates for Earth Science
Earth science ― like any scientific field ― requires students to be analytical and speculative when it comes to monitoring and evaluating data. A firm understanding of other core sciences (such as chemistry, physics, and biology) is also crucial. Naturally, earth scientists must be comfortable working outdoors, and willing to hike, climb, or navigate adverse terrain in order to collect samples required for tests and experiments. Strong communication skills and interpersonal effectiveness will also aid these individuals when they collaborate with fellow scientists.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are many different career paths earth scientists may consider; what they do and where they end up will depend on their degree level and any specializations they have chosen during the course of their college studies. Fields like geoscience and environmental engineering are projected to grow 15% to 16% between 2012 and 2022 ― faster than the national average for all careers ― while other fields, such as atmospheric science and hydrology, are expected to grow at slower rates during that same period.
Educational level and specialization will also help determine how much money an earth scientists makes once they land a job. Environmental engineers with a bachelor’s degree, for instance, earned a median salary of $80,890 per year in 2012 ― which was roughly $5,000 more than the median annual earnings for a hydrologist with a master’s degree. Generally, earth scientists who work for companies and organizations in the private sector will outearn their counterparts who work for federal agencies.
Prospective students who would like to learn more about the field of earth science are encouraged to contact agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Most college campuses will also sponsor field trips to local volcanoes, caves, or other areas of interest to earth scientists.