While many geophysicists work for oil and gas companies, there are opportunities in construction, mining, water companies and environmental agencies

As a geophysicist, you'll study the physical aspects of the earth using a range of methods, including gravity, magnetic, electrical and seismic.

You'll play a vital role in the oil and gas industries by creating a picture of what lies below the earth's surface. You'll do this by collecting data on seismic waves, which move through and around the earth.

You'll be responsible for controlling the quality of the seismic data collected and interpreting it in order to create maps of the build-up of hydrocarbons.

You'll also examine the physical properties of rocks, as well as gathering and evaluating well data in order to build reservoir models.

Types of geophysicist

Geophysicists generally work in one of three areas:

  • acquisition
  • interpretation
  • processing.

Job descriptions and job titles vary according to your area of employment. However, geophysicists are generally involved in undertaking seismic exploration and producing controlled source seismic data for oil and gas companies or consultancies. Some of your work is likely to be based offshore.

Some geophysicists may be involved in providing environmental consultancy, for example the investigation of landfill sites using geophysical techniques, or may work within a research institute to investigate seismological structures and provide seismological information to the public and government.

Responsibilities

As a geophysicist, you'll need to:

  • pre-plan projects before going on site
  • design data acquisition plans
  • decide on suitable seismic measurement and data-processing techniques
  • take equipment out to various locations around the world and deploy seismometers
  • observe the reaction of recording equipment to detect irregularities
  • use computers for data management, quality control and communication between the office and field locations
  • interpret and map 2D and 3D seismic data
  • report on collected seismic data to the team, clients, senior managers or partners at meetings and presentations
  • measure reservoir volumes
  • assess potential oil and gas yield
  • think quickly and independently to solve problems, often with limited resources in remote locations
  • design, test, modify and repair seismic equipment
  • adapt data collection procedures
  • work closely with a small team of scientists and other staff who may be away in the field or offshore for several weeks at a time
  • compile charts and reports
  • write documentation and work logs
  • provide a range of geophysical support and technical advice and guidance
  • keep abreast of new and emerging technologies
  • improve existing techniques in data acquisition and mathematical processing, as well as seek to develop new techniques and methods
  • work within budget, resource and time constraints.

Salary

  • Starting salaries typically range from £28,000 to £35,000 per year, depending on your level of qualifications and experience.
  • Typical salaries at senior level (after about six years), where you are in charge of one or more major projects, range from £40,000 to £75,000 per year. If you have the right combination of skills and experience, your salary can rise in excess of £100,000.

Salaries vary between industries. Salaries are higher in commercial companies, such as oil service companies.

In addition to basic salary, benefits such as a pension, private healthcare and life insurance are often provided. Pay and bonus schemes tend to be performance-related. An allowance may be made for offshore work.

Income data from myOilandGasCareer.com. Figures intended as a guide only.

Working hours

At sea, the working day is 12 hours. You may be called on during your free time. Although sea trips typically last for four to six weeks, they may take considerably longer or be as short as one day.

Working arrangements vary between companies and roles. If you work in an office or laboratory, you can expect safe, comfortable working conditions and 40-hour working weeks. If you are involved in exploration, you can expect very different working conditions, which may involve time abroad or at sea followed by a similar length of time on leave and then the same length of time in the office. In an exploration role as a contractor, you can generally expect six weeks on and six weeks off.

Part-time work is rare but freelance consultancy or setting up your own consultancy practice are real possibilities, provided you make the right contacts.

What to expect

  • Geophysical exploration companies are based across the UK, with a high proportion in Aberdeen and on the southeast coast of England.
  • Dress code depends on whether you work in an office or on site.
  • Site work will involve absence from home and overseas work and travel as well as high levels of responsibility. There are possibilities for relocation but this very much depends on your career choices and plans.
  • The role can involve lots of travel, working abroad or at sea depending on whether you work in exploration or laboratories and academia.

Qualifications

Relevant degree subjects include physical, mathematical and applied sciences and engineering. The following degree subjects may increase your chances of entry:

  • geology
  • geophysics
  • geoscience
  • mathematics
  • physics.

Entry is not possible with an HND only, although diplomates may be eligible for technician-level roles.

A postgraduate qualification in a relevant course, such as a Masters degree in geophysics or geoscience or a PhD, may improve your employment prospects and enhance your salary. Study at this level can provide opportunities to make contacts through projects within industry, or attendance at conferences. It is sometimes possible to get freelance work in this way. Search for postgraduate courses in geophysics.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • good IT skills to process data and produce three-dimensional models of geophysical features
  • numerical skills
  • project management skills
  • analytical and problem-solving skills
  • flexibility and adaptability
  • attention to detail and the ability to record information accurately
  • the ability to express ideas and findings clearly, both orally and in writing to produce reports and make presentations
  • team working skills
  • the ability to work to deadlines and under pressure
  • a desire to travel - worldwide travel is a key feature of this career
  • commitment to continual learning.

You will also need good colour vision as the work may involve interpreting geological maps and differentiating between various rocks and minerals.

A driving licence and evidence of good health may be required for some postings. For overseas work, a second language is an advantage, as well as cultural awareness and communication skills.

Work experience

Practical work experience is extremely valuable. Many of the large multinationals offer paid internships and summer vacation work on projects of operational significance.

Employers are interested in experience gained through fieldwork or research trips. As well as providing valuable hands-on experience, these give an insight into work in the industry.

Employers

A large proportion of geophysicists are employed by oil and gas companies in their exploration divisions.

This work is increasingly contracted out, so consultancies provide another source of employment. Consultancy firms vary in size, from very small companies to large multinationals. Some consultancies are quite specialised in using particular geophysical techniques or working in particular locations, while others offer a more diverse range of services to their customers.

Environmental consultancy is a growing area of employment, as many landfill site owners require geophysicists to help them ensure compliance with strict requirements related to the construction, operation and closure of landfill sites.

Extraction of gas from landfill sites is likely to become another area of employment in the future.

Exploration companies may undertake work for construction firms, water companies, mining companies and environmental agencies, so geophysicists may be employed in any of these settings.

Other employers include:

  • geological surveys
  • government bodies and agencies
  • universities and research institutes.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies commonly handle vacancies. Vacancies may also be listed in the oil and gas sector press.

The level of competition for entry varies, as recruitment is affected by oil price fluctuations.

Career information days, which cover the full range of geoscience careers and are usually attended by a number of key industry employers are run by the Geological Society. Its website also has a section on careers and posts job vacancies.

Professional development

Some of the large oil and gas companies offer a full two-year structured training programme across the breadth of geophysics, including the opportunity to experience work in various teams before specialising in one area.

Your training may include work on:

  • existing wells
  • magnetic and gravitational potential field data analysis
  • research
  • rock analysis.

However, it is more usual for your initial training to be provided on the job. Training in the first six months can be intensive and includes health and safety and field training, as well as exposure to geophysics and seismic data processing.

There may be a probationary period during which you work alongside an experienced colleague. Competency-based appraisals take place regularly in most firms.

In smaller firms, and for academic posts, there is unlikely to be any formal training - you will be expected to start work straightaway and pick up skills as you go along.

External training may be offered to teach new skills, such as learning how to operate a new piece of equipment. If you work for a smaller company, you may find that you need to take responsibility for arranging and funding your own development and training.

If you have a geology degree, membership of the Geological Society can be useful for networking and for keeping up to date with the industry.

You may also find it useful to join the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain (PESGB), which has a geophysics special interest group.

Career prospects

After a probationary period and once you have gained some experience, you could progress to senior geophysicist, then team leader and then into a senior role in management. It is also possible to move into a specialist technical role or a generalist role with increased responsibility.

The ease of movement between roles depends on the company structure.

Study at Masters or PhD level in a subject related to geophysics or geosciences may help with your career development and progression.

Membership of relevant organisations can be useful for networking and making contacts, see the:

  • Geological Society
  • PESGB.

The employment market within the oil and gas industry is very dependent on price and this may affect your opportunities for career progression.

The amount of jobs available may change as a consequence of mergers between large petrochemical and exploration companies. However, not all jobs are dependent on the oil and gas industries.

Freelance consultancy offers a good route for career development as well as the possibility of specialising in a specific area of geophysics.

As a geophysicist, you are likely to have several jobs throughout your working life. Global mobility is crucial for dealing with peaks and troughs in different countries at different times. For example, if there is very little work in the UK in mining, you may choose to move to South Africa.

The ability to network is vital when you are dealing with periods out of work.

It may be possible to move into seismology, as a seismic interpreter, and engineering geology, as well as into hazard prediction.