Geochemists use physical and inorganic chemistry to investigate the amount and distribution of chemical elements in rocks and minerals. They also study the movement of those elements into soil and water systems. They use organic chemistry to study the composition of fossil fuel deposits.
Their research guides oil exploration, can help improve water quality and is also used to develop plans to clean up toxic waste sites. They can be employed by oil and gas companies, consultancies, research facilities and education institutions.
Laboratory tasks usually include:
- analysing the age, nature and components of rock, soil and other environmental samples;
- conducting sample tests and checks, including gas chromatography, carbon and isotope data, viscosity and solvent extraction;
- working with a range of specialist equipment as part of research, including mass spectrometers, microscopes and electron microprobes;
- undertaking field visits to collect site samples;
- generating computer models using specialist software;
- mapping specific geochemical areas for research and analysis;
- interpreting a variety of data and analysing results;
- liaising with geologists, petroleum engineers and commercial managers;
- providing support and recommendations to mainstream geologists;
- developing databases to track and organise information;
- providing data and feedback to clients;
- undertaking long-range theoretical and applied research;
- using written sources of information, such as journals and the internet, as part of the research process;
- writing technical reports and papers for journals;
- teaching and lecturing on specific areas within geochemistry;
- giving presentations at conferences and other events;
- keeping up to date with developments and new research.
- You can expect to earn around £20,000 to £30,000 in an entry geochemist role.
- Typical salaries at senior level and with experience range from £32,000 to £50,000, while consultancy work could command considerably more.
Salaries vary according to employer, location and the nature of the work and are likely to be considerably higher for those working in multinational organisations, particularly those who are 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 often extend outside normal office hours, particularly when geochemists are on field trips. Consultancies and larger employers tend to provide flexible working schemes. Interpretation and consultancy work demand out-of-hours work.
What to expect
- At junior level, work is mainly laboratory-based with fewer opportunities to do offshore research work. At more senior levels, the work involves more administration and operations management and fewer research-focused activities. Consultants are more likely to work in an office-based environment.
- Working environments vary, but in addition to a professional and organised approach, the teamwork required in geochemistry often creates an informal, friendly working environment.
- Field work can be very physically demanding.
- Self-employment or freelance work is an option.
- Field trips and site visits requires geographical mobility.
- Travel within the working day and overnight absence from home are occasionally needed.
- Geochemists at more senior levels within industry may be required to travel overseas on a regular basis.
Relevant degree subjects include physical, mathematical and applied sciences and engineering. In particular, the following subjects may increase your chances:
- chemical engineering;
- geophysics or geotechnology;
- marine sciences or oceanography;
- mineral or mining engineering.
A degree in geology or mineral or mining engineering is usually required for employment in mining and mineral extraction.
In research and academic institutions, laboratory-based technical staff with HNDs in science and engineering subjects, together with relevant work experience, can enter geochemistry. However, further qualifications in the subject areas listed above will be required for career progression.
A postgraduate qualification can be an advantage, especially for making contacts, but having one does not necessarily guarantee employment. If you are thinking of taking a postgraduate course, consider its relevance for the specialist career area you are interested in. Search for postgraduate courses in geochemistry.
For example, courses in petroleum geochemistry are the most appropriate for a career in the petrochemical industry and the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain (PESGB) provides grants for relevant postgraduate study.
You will need to show evidence of the following:
- strong interpersonal skills;
- the ability to work as part of a team;
- networking skills;
- research skills and the ability to manage a project or study;
- a conscientious, methodical approach for analysing samples and collating data;
- good IT and database skills;
- laboratory skills, such as general technical ability and safety awareness;
- intellectual and personal flexibility.
Practical experience in temporary employment may be more beneficial in certain industries, whereas public research bodies generally require a relevant PhD.
Strong competition for vacancies means that any relevant work experience is extremely valuable, as it demonstrates interest and commitment to potential employers and will also help you to find out what the work is really like. Work shadowing and volunteering are great ways of gaining experience and skills, as well as making contacts.
The number of jobs in this field is limited, particularly in academic and environmental research institutions, so competition for work can be intense. It is therefore a good idea to apply early in your penultimate year for vacation work with oil and gas operators, service companies and small consultancies. It is also advisable to apply for advertised vacancies, as well as making speculative applications.
Relevant internships and placement opportunities, as well as ideas for arranging your own work experience can be found through the Geological Society - Work Experience and Placements. The Geochemical Baseline Survey of the Environment (G-Base) advertises its own vacation work placements, which aim to enable students to gain valuable experience in the more practical aspects of geology and geochemistry.
You should be ready to research potential employers and to start applying for graduate jobs early in the autumn term, checking company websites for details of graduate training schemes and visiting the university's careers service for information, advice and guidance.
The job market fluctuates with oil prices and the status of existing and proposed projects, so changes in the industry should be regularly monitored by prospective applicants.
Typical employers include:
- oil and gas companies;
- mining companies;
- environmental consultancies;
- universities and research institutes;
- specialist environmental bodies, such as the British Geological Survey (BGS) (part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)) and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
Your choice of employer is likely to be influenced by both your degree subject and your specialist area.
Opportunities to work for major oil operators or service companies are currently fairly limited due to the increase in outsourcing. However, this does mean that there has been an increase in vacancies within oil and gas consultancies. Given the broad scope of work covered by such consultancies, there may be opportunities to develop expertise in a range of areas.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Earthworks Jobs
- Geological Society: careers
- New Scientist Jobs
- Oil and Gas Job Search
- Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain (PESGB)
- World Oil
Recruitment agencies sometimes handle vacancies. See entries in the specialist press and links from professional websites.
The exploration and extraction industry is international, which means there are opportunities to live and work abroad. Major employers recruit internationally, attracting many applicants from the US and Europe, where a higher degree is the normal qualification for entry to a professional career.
Recruitment, training and job titles vary from company to company. Some employers do not distinguish at entry level between, for example, petroleum, drilling and support engineering. Instead, candidates who demonstrate broad potential are recruited and then deployed after training. Recruitment is often informal, via contacts, networking and reputation. For example, an employer may recognise the quality of someone's work and their expertise during a project or contract and offer them a job as a result.
Although training varies between employers, it is generally provided on an informal basis while working. Learning on the job usually involves gaining additional skills and knowledge by working closely with a more experienced or senior colleague. New recruits are expected to pick up additional laboratory or other practical research skills quickly. For consultancy work, being able to develop an understanding of business issues, such as project management and budgets, is essential.
Some employers provide the opportunity to gain further qualifications if they are likely to enhance an individual's work. Employers may provide formal training in the form of in-house and external courses on topics 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 professional bodies and specialist organisations, including the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) and the Geological Society, can provide professional development opportunities.
Professional accreditation is obtained through the Geological Society, which offers chartered geologist (CGeol) and chartered scientist (CSci) status.
It is essential that geochemists keep up to date with new research and commercial developments because there are frequent changes in the industrial and academic fields. It is therefore useful to attend relevant short courses, seminars, conferences and networking events, and to subscribe to professional journals.
Geographical mobility and a flexible attitude to work will be assets in the early stages of your career. Being willing to move around in order to gain relevant experience will help build up a strong portfolio and lead to more opportunities.
Career development may be challenging because of the demand for specialist knowledge within each sector of the industry, and progress will depend on your interests and chosen sector. For example, a postgraduate degree in petroleum geochemistry is usually required in order to progress within the oil industry.
This need for specialist knowledge, qualifications and skills means that it is possible to become restricted to one area of employment, so it is important that geochemists who wish to keep their options open move around in order to gain as much experience as possible.
Oil and gas specialists may progress into consultancy-based project work. Analysts can move into environmental work, for example, investigating chemical contamination of land at a landfill site, disused industrial site or agricultural site.
Geochemists are also employed by mining companies to assist in developing sites. This may include, for example, mapping the location, concentration and movement of chemicals over large areas of land to help locate resources, such as coal or uranium, leading to exploratory mining or drilling. Again, relevant experience is important to develop a career in this area.
Career progress within the academic field depends on the success of any research you have done. Occasionally, individuals within academia move into consultancy work or employment with an environmental body or oil and gas company.
Self-employment and freelance work also provide possible avenues for career development, as outsourcing creates opportunities for geochemists. Oil industry related contracts are determined by project status and oil prices. Other possibilities include environmental consultancy, such as advising on the construction, operation or closure of landfill sites. Building up a network of contacts through contract or project work, and by attending events and conferences, is crucial to successful freelancing.