July 4, 2022

Career Column 11: Seismologists, Hydrologists, and Meteorologists

Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and floods.  The news has been full of these problems and their disastrous consequences lately.  It seems that we need help on planet Earth.  Seismologists study earthquakes, hydrologists water patterns, and meteorologists weather patterns.  I am hoping that talented and dedicated people will choose these fields and work on improving techniques for predicting extreme weather,  earthquakes, volcanic activity, and so forth, making the world safer for all of us. 


There is a great description of the work of seismologists, put together by a Canadian organization, Eco Canada, here:  www.eco.ca/_student/PrintableProfiles/87.pdf.  Briefly, seismology is the scientific study of the movement of waves through the earth.  It is typically associated with studying earthquakes but has other applications, especially in the oil and gas industry.  The work essentially involves analyzing and interpreting data from records of earth tremors (seismic records), developing methodologies to improve data interpretation, and communicating findings.  A seismologist might set up equipment and collect data in the field or in a laboratory, create specialized maps, and prepare scientific reports. 

Seismology is a subfield of geophysics, a branch of earth science concerned with the Earth’s physical processes.  Careers in the oil and gas industry are open to individuals with undergraduate degrees in related fields, such as math, physics, or geology, but a master’s degree in geophysics will open up more opportunities.  A doctorate is necessary for those interested in a research career.  For everyone in the field, high level computer skills are important as is coursework in math, physics, and geology. 


Hydrologists study the movement of water through the earth, using specialized techniques and sophisticated instruments.   They tend to specialize in either groundwater or surface water.  According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), hydrologists “examine the form and intensity of precipitation, its rate of infiltration into the soil, its movement through the Earth, and its return to the ocean and atmosphere”.  They often work in the field, and they are needed in the United States and internationally to serve government and industry.  Hydrologists at the doctoral level often work in universities as researchers and educators.

There were only about 8100 hydrologists employed in the United States in 2008, according to the OOH.   It is expected to be a fast growing field, however, with excellent prospects for those with a master’s degree and field work experience.  Hydrologists will be needed to assess building and hazardous waste sites and to deal with issues such as rising sea water and water conservation.   Hydrologists typically study in graduate programs in geological sciences (geosciences), environmental science, physical geography, or engineering.    The University of Connecticut, for example, offers MS and Ph.D. degrees in geological science that includes coursework relevant to hydrology, through the Center for Integrative Geosciences.    Wikipedia has a very thorough description of the field, here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrology


Meteorologists, also known as atmospheric scientists, study the physical properties of the atmosphere, the air covering the earth, and how those properties affect the environment.  They predict weather patterns and climate trends using complex instruments and computer models, working for the federal government, private consulting firms, or radio and television stations. They work at weather stations, sometimes in remote areas, and in offices and broadcast studios.  Entry level meteorologists for the government often hold a bachelor’s degree, but they have completed very specific coursework in math, physics, and atmospheric sciences.  The field is small and, although expected to grow, job prospects are likely to be best for those with master’s degrees who want to work in private industry. 

There are many other narrowly defined fields in atmospheric and geological sciences, each employing relatively small numbers of specially trained individuals.  For example, you can be a geochronologist  (“use the rates of decay of certain radioactive elements in rocks to determine their age and the time sequence of events in the history of the Earth”), a geomorphologist (“study Earth’s landforms and landscapes in relation to the geologic and climatic processes and human activities, which form them”), or a mineralogist (“study mineral formation, composition, and properties”) among many other possibilities.   These fields and several more are described here:  www.agiweb.org/workforce/brochure.html

If you are not afraid of math, science, and computer modeling, don’t mind getting dirty (doing field work), and are interested in the physical properties of our environment, a career in the earth or atmospheric sciences could be fantastic.  There is often funding available for graduate training at both the master’s and doctoral levels.  Salaries are good, if not great, and job prospects seem to be stronger than in many other fields,  including other scientific fields, with opportunities in government, industry, and academia in the United States and internationally.   

Career Resource

There are some helpful tips for applying to graduate school in the sciences here: http://envsci.science.oregonstate.edu/graduate/future/tips_applying_grad_school, in an article prepared by the Oregon State University Zoology Department.  I think it’s on target.  The advice includes:   Focus on programs that offer a good fit with your academic and professional interests, and faculty members in the program who might serve as mentors, rather than focusing on a particular school.  Apply for fellowships, because if you are awarded a fellowship you will increase your chances of acceptance at a program of your choice by a large margin.  Your undergraduate program should have listings of fellowships you can apply for.  Contact potential mentors (faculty members you might want to work with) and visit programs you have an interest in.   Work hard on your essay (the article offers some detailed advice about the essay) and choose references who are familiar with your academic work, especially your involvement in research.

Karen Goldfinger, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Essex, Connecticut.   She specializes in psychological assessment for clinical, educational, and forensic purposes and has a special interest in career assessment.  She and two partners recently established KSB Career Consultants, LLC to provide on line career consultation for clients in Connecticut and New York.   Contact her with questions,  comments, or suggestions for the column at karengoldfinger@comcast.net