Geophysicists are concerned with the physical processes of the earth and are often employed by oil and gas 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.
By collecting data on seismic waves, which move through and around the earth, you'll create a picture of what lies below the earth's surface. This information is vitally important to the oil and gas industries.
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.
Other tasks include examining the physical properties of rocks and gathering and evaluating well data in order to build reservoir models.
Types of geophysicist
Geophysicists usually work in one of three areas:
- Solid earth
- Fluid earth
- Upper atmosphere
Three key tasks in geophysics are:
- acquisition - the generation and recording of data
- processing - plotting data and checking for errors
- interpretation - the analysis and evaluation of geophysical data
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.
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
- 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.
- Starting salaries typically range from £28,000 to £35,000, depending on your level of qualifications and experience.
- Typical salaries at senior level (after about six years), where you're 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, with the highest being paid by commercial companies, such as oil and gas 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 arrangements vary between companies and roles. In an office or laboratory, you can expect safe, comfortable working conditions and 40-hour working weeks.
If you're involved in exploration, you can expect very different working conditions, which may involve time abroad or at sea. Although sea trips typically last four to six weeks, they may take considerably longer or be as short as a day. At sea, the norm is a 12-hour working day, though you may be called on during your free time.
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.
Relevant degree subjects include physical, mathematical and applied sciences and engineering. The following degree subjects may increase your chances of entry:
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's sometimes possible to get freelance work in this way. Search postgraduate courses in geophysics.
You'll need to have:
- 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
- teamworking skills
- the ability to work to deadlines and under pressure
- a desire to travel, as worldwide travel is a key feature of this career
- commitment to continual learning
- 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
- a second language - can be an advantage for overseas work.
Practical work experience is extremely important. Many of the large multinationals offer paid internships and summer vacation work on projects of operational significance.
Employers particularly value the experience gained through fieldwork or research trips. As well as providing valuable hands-on experience, these give an insight into work in the industry.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
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.
The extraction of gas from landfill sites is another area of employment and this may grow 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:
- Earthworks Jobs: Oil & Gas
- The Geological Society - Geoscience Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs
- Oil and Gas Job Search
- Oil and Gas People
Check careers service websites, university department job boards and attend recruitment events.
Vacancies may be listed in the oil and gas sector press.
Recruitment is affected by oil price fluctuations and the level of competition for positions varies depending on this.
Careers 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.
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
- rock analysis.
However, it's 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'll 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. Members of The Geological Society can also apply to join the British Geophysical Association.
You may also find it useful to join the PESGB (The Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain, which has a geophysics special interest group.
After a probationary period, and once you've gained some experience, you could progress to senior geophysicist, then team leader and then into a senior role in management. It's 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.
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.
For experienced geophysicists, freelance consultancy offers a good route for career development. You can also specialise in a specific area of geophysics.
As a geophysicist, you're 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 - where there are likely to be many more mining opportunities.
From geophysics, it's possible to focus on seismology (completing further training to become a seismic interpreter) or to move into related areas such as engineering geology or hazard prediction.