Seeking opinions on career options and life directions for a young geologist - please weigh in with your experiences!
September 11, 2011 2:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm a young geologist considering long-term career options and life directions. Please tell me about your experiences (as a geologist) in grad school, industry, or government/regulation. Or your experiences working in video/photography, as that is an alternative career path I'm considering.

I'm a geologist working as an environmental consultant for an engineering/environmental firm, investigating and remediating old industrial sites in New Jersey. This post can feel somewhat ungrateful given the struggles most people are having these days, but here it is:

I like my job. Compared to most jobs, it seems to be fairly fulfilling, interesting, pays pretty well (especially for just having a BA), and I have good bosses, who are competent managers and talented professionals in their own right. Turns out having superiors you respect helps a lot. However, having said all that, I realized that I can't see myself doing this in ten years, and I don't see myself enjoying management, either. And I'm very conscious of the salary trap. I'm not in this for a money, but it is all too easy to become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and fail to explore other avenues because of the necessity to change (or reduce your economic means) lifestyles to try other vocations.

By virtue of the fact that I tried (and continue to) to pick up as many employable skills and as much knowledge as I can, it seems like I have a lot of options, but I try to work out long term plans, so I would welcome any insight or experiences you could share with me. So here are my thoughts:

I. I have continually thought about the idea of getting a PhD. But this comes with several complications:

1) I'm very uncertain about what I want to do and it's a big commitment to sign on for 5-7 years of school, and I'm not comfortable with the notion of dropping up, giving up, or changing my mind 3 years in.

2) I don't know what I want to specialize in! There's a lot that falls under the general heading of Geosciences, and while I could see myself doing a variety of things, I haven't really been able to narrow that down to even a subfield to look at grad schools for. Perhaps going to the grad schools and talking to people might help, but right now it seems like I just have too many choices. Options I've considered include hydrogeology, geomorphology, sedimentology, climatology, oceanography and environmental geology, but that's not narrowing it down a lot.

3) For me, the big elephant in the room is, could I hack the life of an academic? I would be the first to admit that the academic schedule did not exactly suit me; I did manage a 3.4 GPA overall and a 3.8 GPA in my major, but that was in spite of my failings as a student. I think my work ethic has improved since then, and I worked hard back then, but this would be far more challenging than college. More to the point, while I did pretty well in geology classes, it was other things I struggled with: my math abilities are not fantastic, and as a result I really struggled with my year of chemistry and calculus. I'm glad I had them, because now I won't have to have those just in order to go to grad school, but what if the path I choose requires a lore more study of those (and physics?). It doesn't help that despite assurances that I needed them, all my general chemistry classes proved to be pretty much useless to me at work, and I certainly haven't needed calculus. I got all the chemistry I actually use in my geology classes.

4) If I go this path, will it be necessary or worthwhile? I don't know if I would enjoy being an academic; I think I'd probably like teaching and research, but I really wouldn't know until I tried doing it full time, like I have with my current job. And won't competition be fierce? As it's a smaller field, I know I don't have it nearly as bad as the biologists, but it still seems like there are far more qualified people than jobs available. That having been said, a PhD would be good for more than a professor job - I could also go into government or regulation, or do research. Though it seems like those jobs are even more elusive...

II. I spoke to a guy who did a half-year stint in Antarctica, doing science. I feel like it's only practical for one to pursue opportunities like this when young and relatively unattached - fieldwork and science out away from the comforts of civilization. Experiences you can't easily get other ways. I'm told I'd have the qualifications for work like this, and it's worth doing if I can land it. Seems worth pursuing, but I'd probably have to quit my job to pursue opportunities like this.

III. I spent a lot of time through college and afterwards doing work in photography and video, and while I'm continuing to do this on the side as a personal side business, I do enjoy working in media, and I wonder if it would be worth pursuing a more formal career in it, but of course, this has its own complications:

1. This is a very competitive field. Many, many applicants for a comparatively small number of jobs. I think I have or could learn the skills I need relatively quickly, but I'm not willing to take an unpaid internship or do low level "get me a coffee" grunt work just to make a contact. I'm not exactly expecting to be a director right out of the gate, but I don't want to leave my job for non-creative work, though I do recognize that experience is paramount and one must work their way up. Perhaps I'm spoiled by my personal experience, but I feel like one should be able to get a job on merit rather than contacts. Unfortunately, what I hear of the industry seems to argue that this is just not the case.

2. I'm a generalist. I can shoot, and edit both stills and video and perform much of the supporting work to a degree that's high quality enough to impress the uninitiated, but it seems like the way to be valuable is to be fantastically good at a small number of things, rather than the whole process, unless what you want is to be a one-man band, as I am accustomed to being.

3. I've worked enough to know at this point that creative jobs can be a lot less creative than you were hoping. Now, they can open a door to better things, but I'm not wild about the idea of spending 5+ years to develop a career and wind up editing crappy commercials (I'd be okay with doing artistic commercials, and if you want an example, I'll post a link). So, a similar problem: I'd have to try it to know.

IV. I could stick in my current career track and hope I come to like it better, which is a possibility. I've only been at this for about a year and a half, and been promoted once already; the company will reimburse 90% of my costs to go to grad school for my masters, which I would have to do, as it is the barrier to advancement. Or this could eventually lead into a career at a government agency if I worked hard to go that route. Again, the serious risk here is the salary trap, or simply becoming too comfortable to seriously consider something radically different.

I'm soon to turn 24 and I'm an impatient young person. I try not to rush, but I'd like to at least be somewhere on a career path by the time I'm near my 30s, or at least have a plan to modify. My current plan is to work at this job another couple years, as my car will be paid off soon and I'll be able to save enough money to have a nest egg with which I could move to the city of my choice and start over doing whatever it is I decide to do. But time is precious, and I would like having a more concrete plan to work off of even sooner. At the same time, I'd be working on all my media stuff on the side, as another option for breaking into the media industry is to produce your own work on the side until you're good enough to get something substantial.

I would welcome any input, personal experiences, or corrections for my misconceptions on all of this. If you have any questions or are at all curious about my situation and experiences, I will be happy to answer any way I can. Thanks for sticking with me through that wall of text. If you couldn't:

TL;DR - I'm a geologist doing environmental consulting considering getting a PhD, doing adventurous fieldwork, or a job in digital media if I could land it. Your input or experiences very welcome.
posted by Strudel to Work & Money (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Always a tough question! The thing I liked about grad school was that I was doing stuff I enjoyed doing, and I got a degree out of it at the end. The classes were less important, and, honestly, grad school classes tend to be easier than undergrad classes. If you like doing field work, it's likely you could find a grad program where you will get to do that. Coming out the other end, you'll be a PhD geologist with access to the sort of jobs available to people with PhDs in geology. Disclosure: I don't know what the market is like for PhD geologists. Find out what kind of jobs people like that are getting out of grad school. I suspect it's a lot better than the biologists' situation.

Your ability to edit stills and video makes you valuable as a geologist, because it allows you to make demos and presentations to potential funders and clients who will be much more impressed your your work than that of your competitors and colleagues.

I'd recommend against trying to turn your skills in digital media into a career. There are some things that are enjoyable as hobbies and get "ruined" for people by making them a full time job. Think of it as a complement to your career as a geologist, rather than an alternative.
posted by deanc at 2:58 PM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm in environmental consulting, with several years experience on you but in a slightly different part of the field (Phase Is and compliance).

You're in New Jersey? This is just the option I know most about, but -- what do you know about the upcoming switch over to the new regulatory framework? New Jersey is in the process of privatizing the system, like Massachusetts already has in place. A few more years in and you'll be eligible to become an LSRP, one of the licensed professionals who oversee remediation projects. It's a valuable credential to have, and it might be a good fit for you, since the actual work is a mix of a lot of different areas -- geology, project management, technical analysis, etc.

When you say you don't see yourself in management, do you mean project management or company management? If you could see yourself as a project manager, then the LSRP may be a career path to consider. It sounds like your company would work with you on training and the route you take to get there.

From talking with other people at other consulting firms, it sounds like you've landed at a very good company. I don't know many people in this field who talk as highly about their firm as you do about yours.

As far as the salary trap goes: please remember that you don't have to live on what they pay you. Do you have a 401(k)? If so, just put the next $16,500 in annual raises directly into your 401(k), and pretend it doesn't even exist. The next $5,000 goes into an IRA through Direct Deposit. Above that, you could start saving for a house. You'll only get used to living on that money if you use it to live on -- so if that's important for you, don't use it to live on. And now's an excellent time to be putting money in your retirement savings.
posted by pie ninja at 4:21 PM on September 11, 2011

Response by poster: There's been a lot of talk about LSRP these days, and in fact, my boss's boss is on the LSRP board. But from my understanding, I'll need a good 10 years of experience before that would even be slightly practical. I'd get my Professional Geologist (PG) certification in Pennsylvania first; that still requires a master's degree and 3 years of experience, or 5 years of experience. Oddly enough, they don't like to see that you do a lot of fieldwork - they rejected my coworker's application for that reason.

I do mean project management - only the exclusively support staff at my company don't also do project management; everybody else who's senior enough to be in any management is managing projects. Even our database software specialist manages projects and staff. I see what everybody spends their time on, though, and...well, I just don't see myself enjoying all the management/business minutiae. Heck, I get exposed to it myself, dealing with subcontractors, and the like, and it gets tiresome, real fast. Plenty of days where I feel like I spend more time jumping through various client or business related hoops than doing environmental work.

As far as how good my company is, that actually, from what I can tell, has more to do with your managers than anything else. The company has its policies, but far more often I'm operating under my manager's way of doing things. My managers have a good reputation for taking care of their employees, and they actually listen to all the staff carefully, so if anything, that underscores the importance of having a good boss to me. Amusingly enough, I think I'd have a really hard time working for someone who wasn't a good supervisor at this point.

I already contribute to a 401(k) - 5% of my salary per year right now. But I consider such savings a last resort. I don't see myself not living off of a salary for some time, if ever. I think I'm doing pretty well for my age and education, but I don't see what would enable me to not live off of my salary sustainably short of day trading. And while I've ruminated on the idea of buying a house, that simply doesn't make sense at this time, because what if I move across the country? Also, as it is, I can be out of the state (I'm living in the Philly burbs) for a month at a time on fieldwork. I rent a room, and so only pay $600/mo, utilities included, and I'm quite satisfied with it, but I really don't see circumstances where buying makes sense right now. I didn't grow up in this area, and there's not that much holding me here if I found an opportunity great enough for me to drop everything for. But the salary trap is really all about just being too comfortable to leave or take risks. I think people underestimate how crystallizing your life into a certain structure can trap you. And when you've got a family...well, let's just say that forewarned is forearmed when it comes to concepts like this.

Appreciate the thoughts, though.
posted by Strudel at 4:47 PM on September 11, 2011

"I'm not willing to take an unpaid internship or do low level "get me a coffee" grunt work just to make a contact."

Unless you want to shoot wedding videos and bar mitzvahs, you need to get over this. Show biz ia about networking and ability. Really good people hang out with and hire other really good--like Caleb Deschanel good--people. And while I'm not a fan of unpaid unternships, everyone starts pretty near the bottom.

Your student film will not impress me, any of the people I work with and for, but your attitude will or should. One of the most creative people I know, who has awards and films at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto ever year, started by making copies of script pages, all day long. When she got her big chance--which was to deliver the pages to the set--she siezed the day.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:52 PM on September 11, 2011

Seize--sorry, ipad + fat fingers.

But there might be a way for you to use your video talents with the geological studies you've already done.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:31 PM on September 11, 2011

Wow, long question with some long answers. I am not a geologist however I live in the Canadian north and geologists are currently flocking to the Yukon - as you well know it is a hot spot at the moment. You may be able to marry you interest in photography and videography. You would quickly come to know the industry and the contact for both geology/mining related items as well as arts/culture/film. The Yukon Territory is a huge supporter of the arts and you may find many interesting opportunities to work with people in the film and arts industry that you wouldn't get in other parts of North America.
posted by YukonQuirm at 5:33 PM on September 11, 2011

B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Geological Oceanography and Micropalaeontology here. I opted not to do a PhD for the same kind of reasons; I'd had enough of academia and also wanted to get out and see some of the world. At the time I graduated, 1994, jobs weren't great in environmental work, so I joined the oil business. Spent over 6 years as a field engineer working on land/offshore rigs in various countries. Since then, I've done various management jobs and currently live in China.
Oil industry has a shortage of talent currently, so now is a good time to join if that interests you. Memail me if you want to chat about it.
posted by arcticseal at 2:01 AM on September 12, 2011

B.Sc in Geophysics here. I graduated at just the right time (spring 2008) to get a great job before the crash and managed to hang on to it. Haven't really been motivated to go back to school for an M.Sc. or MBA yet, but it's a distinct possibility. I also travel 250+ days a year right now (today: Belo Horizonte, Brazil) and am trying to define where I want to go in my career while being pushed and pulled in different directions. We're in pretty similar boats.

You say you have a BA. That may hinder you significantly, because a lot of employers in geological fields require that you at least be eligible for professional designation. I'm not completely sure how true that is in America, but you'd have a hard time getting a foot in the door with a lot of geoscience companies in Canada, for example.

You'd probably have good chances for overseas work, as arcticseal says oil & gas companies are on a hiring binge. Depending on how you feel about the oil industry, that might not be a step you're willing to make from environmental remediation.

Digital media skills are always valuable, especially in sciences where people who can make strong visualizations are often lacking. At the very least it makes you more desirable as a geologist.

Before you go back to school, really dig deep into the job possibilities you'd get from having that degree. Geology is fairly meritocratic, and having good practical experience often counts more than having a piece of paper from a school. However, if you'd like to get on with the British Antarctic Survey, for example, that PhD might be necessary.
posted by t_dubs at 5:17 AM on September 12, 2011

I just don't see myself enjoying all the management/business minutiae. Heck, I get exposed to it myself, dealing with subcontractors, and the like, and it gets tiresome, real fast. Plenty of days where I feel like I spend more time jumping through various client or business related hoops than doing environmental work.

If this is something you're not going to compromise on, you're right to be concerned about your career path at your current company. Your company isn't the only one that doesn't have a particularly promising or interesting career path for a dedicated field guy. (I know of companies that don't have a "field guy" career path at all; I've seen someone leave a company because he wasn't given a choice about whether he wanted to manage projects.) As far as I know, there isn't any path to doing complicated remdial oversight that doesn't involve PM work.

Within the environmental consulting field, the only kinds of things I can think of that might allow you to spend more time in the field, less time managing projects, and less time on the phone, while still doing interesting work with increasing responsibility, are independent auditor-type positions. Think the people who get hired as an outside party to audit environmental compliance or do LEED audits. Less time on the phone, probably -- certainly less than remedial PMs spend -- and it wouldn't involve as much to manage in the way of subs and supplies.

On the regulatory front, speaking as someone who interned with the state government and works with regulatory agencies now, I don't think getting a job with a regulatory agency is going to allow you to avoid jumping through hoops. They'll just be different hoops.
posted by pie ninja at 5:32 AM on September 12, 2011

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