Preparing Geologists for Careers in Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology

Article excerpt


Many classically- educated geologists have found employment as engineering geologists or hydrogeologists, gaining the technical knowledge and skills they need through experience and self-education. Ideally, these individuals would learn the necessary subjects in their undergraduate classes and have a shorter learning curve on the job. There are many degree programs that prepare students specifically for these fields, but students may also be prepared within a standard geology program, with some modifications. The purpose of this paper is to suggest ways of preparing students to enter work or graduate studies in engineering geology or hydrogeology through the standard geology curriculum. Critical technical skills, such as use of the Unified Soil Classification System or air photo interpretation, must be taught as additional topics in existing classes. Problem-solving and analytical thinking skills can be taught through a variety of exercises that enhance the geology curriculum without adding new topics, including in-class discussion questions, homework and laboratory problems, and add-ons to mapping and semester projects. Other educational experiences to prepare undergraduates for careers in engineering geology and hydrogeology include interaction with professional associations, internships and co-ops, and professional registration.


For many years, geoscientists have played a crucial role in the geotechnical, construction, ground-water, and hazardous waste industries. The undergraduate curriculum prepares geoscientists for these industries in two ways that are unique and valuable: they are taught to think in three-dimensions, and they can quickly develop the ability to predict subsurface conditions given limited geologic information. Professional engineering geologists and hydrogeologists construct conceptual models of the three-dimensional geologic environment that are the basis of most geotechnical and ground-water projects. They design and carry out investigations to develop this geologic model of materials and processes. Geologists group the soil and rock formations encountered into units with similar engineering properties or into hydrostratigraphic packages, so that appropriate laboratory or field tests can be conducted. Then they judge the reliability of the test results, the variability in the values, and the expected lateral and vertical changes across a site. Many times, these professionals participate in design of structures or in plans for development or remediation and will often monitor and advise during construction. Finally, engineering geologists and hydrogeologists frequently consult on solutions to earth and water problems at existing facilities, or direct forensic investigations to unravel causes of problems.

This broad range of responsibilities requires skills well beyond what is taught in a typical geology curriculum. The geology curriculum normally does not include enough soil and rock engineering or engineering geology fundamentals for the graduate to fully understand the impacts of geology on engineering design and performance. While educational deficiencies may be identified for most occupations, the relative importance of these jobs for geoscientists makes it logical that we focus our courses towards these skills.

The job market for engineering geologists and hydrogeologists is strong and will continue to be so in the future. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor (2005), approximately 36,000 individuals were employed as geoscientists and hydrologists in 2002: of which 8000 were employed as hydrologists, and 8400 were in "architecture, engineering, and related services (which would include engineering geologists)." For comparison, 4200 individuals worked for oil and gas extraction companies, 3000 for the Federal government and 3400 for State agencies. The document also reports that employment in the oil and gas industry is expected to be stable through 2010, growing "about as fast as the average for all occupations. …


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