If you enjoy travel and meeting new people then why not use your geophysical knowledge and skills to become a seismic interpreter

Seismic interpreters play an important role in the oil and gas industry. You'll work from surveys, sending pulses of sound energy down through layers of rock beneath the earth's surface. The energy that bounces back is recorded, processed and then interpreted.

As part of your analysis, you'll combine the use of 2D, 3D and 4D models with your geological knowledge to calculate the depth and outline of underground formations in order to make estimates of mineral or carbon deposits. These are used by energy or minerals extraction companies, or to inform environmental assessments or geological research if working in other settings.

Types of work

Seismic interpretation skills are required in various geological jobs, including:

There is often overlap between the roles.

Responsibilities

As a seismic interpreter, you'll need to:

  • interpret data of seismic sections (3D and 2D sections of the earth's crust) from surveys, satellites and acoustic measurements;
  • use data to generate maps and cross sections of the earth's structure to locate oil-bearing strata;
  • analyse and generate scientific and numerical data;
  • work with reservoir engineers to evaluate hydrocarbon prospects - looking at how much oil and gas there is, how easy it is to get to, and what difficulties and hazards might be encountered;
  • predict any changes, movements and flow in the rock structures where the hydrocarbons are present;
  • conduct detailed analyses of current exploration fields for data that may have a bearing on new wells, looking at how productive they're likely to be and whether there may be any structural problems to consider;
  • use a combination of well and seismic data to convert map structures from time to depth in order to know how deep drilling needs to be;
  • use seismic data to collect information about rock quality and volume in order to measure how much oil or gas is likely to be in a given structure;
  • analyse seismic data for sub-surface engineering applications;
  • interpret seismic data for environmental assessments and geological research;
  • write scientific reports;
  • deliver technical presentations to your clients at the end of a project;
  • use specialised equipment to assess the physical properties of rock;
  • use computer modelling to simulate hydrocarbon generation and seismic responses of specific structures with specialist software;
  • occasionally work on the development of specialised interpretation software;
  • use information from one oil basin (area of oil deposit) to locate potential in others;
  • advise and consult with clients and colleagues;
  • supervise and train staff in the techniques listed above;
  • share information within a multidisciplinary team.

Salary

  • Typical starting salaries are between £25,000 and £30,000. Salaries often increase significantly after initial training.
  • After several years' experience, you may earn in the region of £50,000 to £75,000 plus. However, there is wide variation depending on the company you work for and your location.

Many companies also pay a comprehensive range of benefits to their employees and families.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are mainly 9am to 5pm, but you may need to work additional hours at key stages during a project or when a deadline must be met.

What to expect

  • Many roles are permanent, but companies also offer long-term contracts with higher rates of pay. Recruitment often depends on the changing demand for oil.
  • Although most of the work is office based, geographical mobility is important as exploration and production sites move to new locations around the world. Large companies provide accommodation and support for families in residential postings around the globe.
  • English is usually the language used for business in offices worldwide. In the UK, the majority of jobs are based around London or Aberdeen.
  • A number of companies have sites in many parts of the world and on any oil field there is likely to be a culturally diverse workforce.
  • Occasionally, the work can become dangerous, in the sense that oil is a politically sensitive commodity, so outbreaks of international tension may have an effect on your location or day-to-day working conditions.

Qualifications

You'll generally need at least a good honours degree in a relevant subject such as physical, mathematical or applied science. In particular, the following subjects may improve your chances:

  • applied physics;
  • earth sciences;
  • geosciences (geology, geophysics, and geochemistry);
  • mathematics;
  • physics.

However, many companies will only consider you if you have a postgraduate qualification in an area such as geoscience or petroleum geology. University departments with relevant courses are listed on The Geological Society website.

Look for companies that have links with the universities you're considering, as some of the large energy companies head-hunt students from courses and may offer sponsorship for Masters and Doctorate programmes.

The number of jobs and the level of competition depend on the demand for oil. Other economic factors, such as high exploration costs, will also have an effect on the number of jobs available. However, this doesn't lead to a relaxation in entry standards and you'll still need a good degree in a relevant subject.

Search for postgraduate courses in geology.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • excellent communication skills to interact with a range of clients;
  • excellent teamwork skills;
  • the ability to work well alone;
  • IT skills;
  • project management skills;
  • strong numerical, analytical and logical skills;
  • resilience;
  • an appreciation of different physical and cultural environments.

Work experience

Although experience isn't essential, any vacation work or other experience in the industry will be useful. For example, a number of the major oil and petroleum companies, including BP and Shell, offer summer and one-year internships. You'll find a list of organisations that offer vacation opportunities on The Geological Society website.

It's also useful to build up your awareness of the industry by joining relevant societies, such as the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain (PESGB), keeping up to date with current affairs and reading industry publications.

Employers

The most significant employers in terms of the numbers they recruit and the training that they offer are the large, international companies involved in the exploration, extraction and production business, or their various contractors and sub-contractors. They're likely to have offices throughout the world and work on several projects onshore and offshore at a range of locations around the globe.

Companies that use shallow marine seismic data for engineering applications, such as cable laying and offshore construction, also recruit a number of seismic interpreters.

There are occasional opportunities to work within the public sector for organisations such as the British Geological Survey (BGS), where the emphasis is on interpreting data from a range of geological structures.

Environmental consultants form another smaller group of employers. They employ seismic interpreters and other geophysical specialists to ascertain distributions of hydrocarbons in order to assess the environmental impact of exploration and extraction.

Recruitment and training patterns, as well as job titles, vary from company to company, so you'll need to follow up vacancy and recruitment information carefully to find out what each employer is really offering.

Look for job vacancies at:

After initial entry, it's likely that you'll use contacts, conferences and personal experience to network your way to job opportunities. The Geologist's Directory Online is a good source of contact information.

Specialist recruitment agencies also recruit for jobs in the energy sector.

Professional development

As a new employee, you'll learn how your company's interpretation software works and then build up your experience of applying geological knowledge to build interpretations 'on the job'.

You'll also receive training in areas such as contract management and general business skills, which will help when working with employees from commercial and other disciplines. Industry conferences are another major channel for finding out about current issues and developments in the field.

Training is usually tailored to your (and the company's) needs so there are no standard courses.

Some companies have their own training centres, while others use external courses, or a mixture of both. You may also have a mentor, an experienced professional who can offer continued support and advice.

Career prospects

Career direction and development begins as soon as you join a company. Many companies don't recruit directly into seismic interpreter, field seismologist or petroleum engineer roles and your career path may depend on whether you enter the field from a geology background or a geophysics background. As there is overlap between some of these roles, employers will often recruit people who have suitable qualifications, IT skills and potential and then assess where these skills will be best used.

Your career path will depend, to a certain extent, on your personal preferences and interest in the exploration or production aspects of the business. There's no single career path that typifies progress in every company, but a move up might be to asset manager and then to exploration manager.

With experience, it's possible to move into more senior positions within a company, but this is likely to mean a move away from geosciences and into another area, such as business, production or systems management. It's also possible to use seismic interpretation skills outside the oil sector in areas such as hydrology, mining or contaminants measurement.