So you want to be a geologist

With many schools running options evening in the upcoming months, I thought I’d put a post together which answers a lot of the questions which I’ve been asked over the years – namely those which amount to “how do you become a geologist?”.

We all know that geology is the best subject in the world; it’s the one subject which draws together such a broad range of all the other sciences.  To be a good geologist you have to be able to assimilate a wide variety of information types, at a huge variety of scales.  You could be looking at crystal structure at the atomic scale, or planetary formation on the astronomic.  We have volcanoes, and we have dinosaurs.  Geologists are consistently at the forefront of exploration missions – be it on other planets, the moon, our oceans, or deep crustal drilling.  Every industry on the planet is dependant on geologists to locate raw materials or fuel.

The very breadth of the science means that the routes into it are fairly open.  However, one thing that must be pointed out (and something some undergraduates arrive not really grasping) is that it *is* a science.  As with any science, you need to be pretty numerate, and you need to be able to describe and interpret data. One of the things with geological data is that when you measure something, not only are you measuring that thing, but you are also interested in its location.  As a result you are frequently dealing with spatial data, so an ability to visualise things in 3D can be a huge bonus.

So you’re a GCSE student wanting to go into geology.  What A Levels should you be looking at? I would suggest there are two tiers of subjects; top tier brilliant subjects which will be highly valued by departments looking for applicants and useful in your progression as an earth scientist, and second tier subjects which will have some relevance and use but not quite at the same level as the others.

Tier 1
  • Maths
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Statistics
Tier 2
  • Geography
  • Geology
  • Biology

Some might be surprised that A Level geology is in the second tier. I talked about this in some detail a few months ago. The question, then, is how do you pick your A Levels?  I think there is sometimes a tendency for people to be advised to do a couple of subjects needed for university, then something they enjoy. So what you often see is someone with – for example – qualifications in maths, chemistry and art.  The truth is that while technically under the point system they are equally rated, no admissions tutor is going to look on the art qualification as very useful – it is (at least in a hard science context) about as useful as General Studies.  However much it may have value as a subject in itself, it does not provide the training which would allow you achieve a running start at university.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t do a qualification combination like that, but I would suggest that if there is nothing in A Level physics or chemistry that you enjoy, geology may not be the subject for you in the first place.  It is honestly a bit disturbing how many undergraduates turn up at university for a geology degree and are genuinely taken aback when they’re expected to do a whole host of geochemistry and geophysics courses.  While there will always be catch-up courses for those who didn’t study chemistry, physics or maths at A Level there is no substitute for the deeper understanding you gain through a proper 2 year A level in a subject, than a 1 term catch up course (which will attempt to cover the key parts of an A Level syllabus in about 10 – 20 hours of lectures).

So of the subjects I listed above, prioritise the Tier 1 stuff, and pick up one or two Tier 2 subjects if you really can’t face a completely numerical/hard science 2 years at sixth form.  If you’re into fossils, then Biology may be more usful than Physics in any case.  Avoid a throwaway ‘relaxation’ A Level if at all possible; admissions tutors aren’t generally big fans of them, and they don’t help you in your degree.  A Levels are a gateway to a degree, so use them as such.

About Pete Rowley

Earth Scientist with a background in volcanology and sedimentology. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and games. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
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2 Responses to So you want to be a geologist

  1. Pingback: “I can’t think, therefore I probably am not” | geologygeek

  2. Pingback: “I can’t think, therefore I probably am not” | lithics

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