Geologists commonly work at time and space scales that are inconceivable to those in most other professions. We work with incomplete datasets — the preserved geological record represents a very small percentage of the total history. We work with complex and dynamic processes that require specialization and yet simultaneously broad interdisciplinary knowledge to unravel. In short, no matter what our particular area of specialization we need to have both an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge to be successful no matter if we are educators, researchers, or applied practitioners.
To that end I have four recommendations:
- Don’t specialize too quickly, but capture as much breadth as you can as an undergraduate. The high cost of college is driving both students and academic institutions to look for ways to accelerate the education process so that a higher percentage of the student population can graduate within four years. This focus is understandable but creates tension between opportunities for elective courses and undergraduate research on the one hand and getting the degree on time on the other. As I reflect back, some of my elective courses in geology, other sciences, and philosophy actually had the biggest influence on my professional career.
- Spend as much time in the field as you can studying both the preserved geological record and modern systems. I was fortunate enough to have been able do field geology during the first 25 years of my career, much of it in remote parts of Alaska. Detailed description of the outcrop required me to work in four dimensions on complex problems and to develop a systematic methodology for separating observational data from interpretation. A strong background in field geology will be valuable even if you spend most of your professional career at a seismic workstation, at a microscope or probe, or in a remote-sensing lab.
- Learn how to function and communicate effectively across disciplines both within and outside of the geosciences. Interdisciplinary science is necessary to understand the geological processes that have shaped our planet, discover and produce energy and mineral resources, manage and protect water resources, unravel geological history, manage and preserve ecosystem services, or understand, predict, and monitor natural hazards. One of the great challenges in interdisciplinary science is being able to translate methodology and vocabulary between fields. This requires a significant effort of time and face-to-face interaction. It often requires willingness to go outside the comfort zone of your own frame of reference. While difficult, the personal growth and the advancement of scientific understanding make it rewarding and worthwhile.
- Never let your intellectual curiosity stagnate. Hopefully you are considering the profession of geology or working as a geologist for more than the economic benefits. The opportunities to learn never stop. For me one of the greatest benefits is the amazing platform the profession provides to expand your mind. If your job doesn’t provide you with a significant intellectual challenge and exciting opportunity to grow you are probably in the wrong field.