Whether you want to use your expertise in geology and chemistry to help search for natural resources or clean up the environment, a career as a geochemist could be for you

As a geochemist, you'll use physical and inorganic chemistry to investigate the amount and distribution of chemical elements in rocks and minerals. You'll also study the movement of those elements into soil and water systems and will use organic chemistry to study the composition of fossil fuel deposits.

Your research guides oil exploration, can help improve water quality and is also used to develop plans to clean up toxic waste sites. Opportunities exist with oil and gas companies, environmental consultancies, research facilities and education institutions.

Responsibilities

As a geochemist, you'll need to:

  • analyse the age, nature and components of rock, minerals, soil and other environmental samples
  • conduct sample tests and checks, including gas chromatography, carbon and isotope data, viscosity and solvent extraction
  • work with a range of specialist equipment as part of your research, including mass spectrometers, microscopes and electron microprobes
  • undertake field visits to collect site samples
  • generate computer models using specialist software
  • map specific geochemical areas for research and analysis
  • interpret a variety of data and analyse results
  • liaise with geologists, petroleum engineers and commercial managers
  • provide support and recommendations to mainstream geologists
  • develop databases to track and organise information
  • provide data and feedback to clients
  • undertake long-range theoretical and applied research
  • write technical reports and papers for journals
  • teach and lecture on specific areas within geochemistry
  • give presentations at conferences and other events
  • keep up to date with developments and new research.

Salary

  • You can expect to earn around £20,000 to £30,000 in an entry-level geochemist role.
  • With experience, your salary can range from around £32,000 to in excess of £50,000.
  • Consultancy work can command considerably more.

Salaries vary according to the type of employer, location and nature of the work. They're likely to be considerably higher if you work for a multinational organisation, particularly if you’re prepared to live and work in more remote locations.

Larger companies usually provide additional benefits, such as private healthcare, childcare allowance and a company pension scheme.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours often extend outside normal office hours, particularly when you're on a field trip. Consultancies and larger employers tend to provide flexible working schemes.

What to expect

  • Although you may spend a lot time in the lab, there are also opportunities to work in the field collecting samples. At senior levels, the work can involve more administration and operations management.
  • Field work can be physically demanding.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is an option for experienced geochemists.
  • The exploration and extraction industry is international, providing opportunities to live and work abroad.

Qualifications

Relevant degree areas include physical, mathematical and applied sciences, and engineering. Typical subjects include:

  • chemical engineering
  • earth sciences
  • environmental sciences
  • geochemistry
  • geology
  • geophysics or geotechnology
  • marine sciences or oceanography
  • mineral or mining engineering.

It's possible to work in research and academic institutions as a laboratory-based technician with an HND in a science and engineering subject, together with relevant work experience. However, you'll need to take further qualifications to progress your career.

A postgraduate qualification might also come in useful, especially as there is a limited number of jobs in the field and competition is fierce. If you're thinking of taking a postgraduate course, consider its relevance to the specialist area you're interested in. Major employers recruit internationally, attracting applicants from the US and Europe, and a postgraduate qualification may be a requirement.

To work for a public research body or university, you'll usually need a relevant PhD. Search for postgraduate courses in geochemistry.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • laboratory skills, such as general technical ability and safety awareness
  • strong communication and interpersonal skills
  • the ability to work as part of a team
  • networking skills
  • research skills and the ability to manage a project or study
  • good numeracy skills
  • a methodical approach to work for analysing samples and collating data
  • good IT and database skills
  • intellectual and personal flexibility.

Work experience

Strong competition for jobs means that any relevant work experience is valuable. The number of jobs in this field is limited, particularly in academic and environmental research institutions, so try to apply early in your penultimate year for vacation work with oil and gas operators, service companies and small consultancies. Advice on work experience and a list of companies that may offer placements is available from The Geological Society.

It's also worth making targeted speculative applications for work experience. You can search The Geologist's Directory for a list of geoscience-related companies. The Association of Geotechnical & Geoenvironmental Specialists also has a searchable directory of members.

Employers

Typical employers include:

  • oil and gas companies
  • consultancies
  • mining companies
  • environmental consultancies
  • universities and research institutes
  • specialist environmental bodies, such as the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

Your choice of employer will be influenced by both your degree subject and your specialist area.

The job market fluctuates with oil prices so you should look out for changes in the industry as this will affect the number of jobs available.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies sometimes handle vacancies.

Building up a reputation, networking and making contacts are important parts of the job hunting process.

Recruitment, training and job titles vary from company to company and jobs may not always be advertised as 'geochemist'.

Professional development

Training is usually carried out on the job, learning from a senior geochemist. You'll be expected to pick up extra laboratory and practical research skills quickly. If you're working for a consultancy, you'll need to develop an understanding of business issues, such as project management and budgets.

There may be opportunities to attend in-house training or external courses on areas such as business, personal development and safety training. Technical and IT training is also usually provided. For jobs that involve field work, employers are likely to provide training in survival skills, such as crevasse rescue.

Membership of The Geological Society will provide further professional development opportunities and can enhance your career prospects. The society provides professional accreditation through chartered geologist (CGeol) and chartered scientist (CSci) status.

Geochemists usually specialise in a particular area such as mining or oil, so membership of a specialist professional body such as The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) or The Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain (PESGB) can provide opportunities to network and to attend seminars, conferences and short courses.

Career prospects

Geographical mobility and a flexible attitude to work are useful, particularly at the start of your career. Being willing to move around in order to gain relevant experience will help you build up a strong portfolio, a network of contacts and lead to more opportunities.

Once you've gained experience, you're likely to specialise in a specific area such as oil and gas, mining or the environment. Progress will depend on your interests and the opportunities available in your chosen sector.

For experienced geochemists, there are also opportunities to move into consultancy-based project work in the oil industry or in environmental consultancy. Building up a network of contacts through contract or project work, and by attending events and conferences, is crucial to successful freelancing.

Career progress within the academic field depends on having an active research profile. Occasionally, individuals within academia move into consultancy work or employment with an environmental body or oil and gas company.