Monday, May 2, 2011

A question for geologists:

Within the next semester or so, I need to decide whether to major in geology or geophysics. After some deliberation, I’ve decided to proceed with my initial impulse to aim for a career in volcanology, with a specific aim of working in monitoring and eruption prediction. I’ve done some reading about various ways to monitor volcanoes, and I’m getting the impression that a degree in geophysics might be a better preparation than a geology degree for this particular specialty.
My concerns about this thought process are as follows:
  • I may have no idea what I’m talking about. Perhaps a geology degree would be perfectly fine preparation for volcanology, or perhaps an even better one. Making decisions based on possibly serious misconceptions makes me quite hesitant. (The last time I did that, I ended up two tattoos, several thousand dollars of loan debt, and a personally translated copy of chapter 16 of Homer’s “Odyssey.”)
  • I’m not sure I can hack higher-level math and computer-based processing. (The difference is 4 credits of multivariable calculus, 6 credits of computer science, and the 16 geophysics credits themselves.)
  • That being said, I’m also concerned about my GPA: perhaps a higher geology GPA would be preferable to a lower geophysics GPA when applying for graduate school.  (And my GPA is already embarrassingly low.)
  • That I might be talking myself out of something I need to do, or into something I don’t need to do.
I know that the real decision point is grad school, but I need to make this particular choice within a few months. As part of my neurotic research, I was wondering if the geoblogsphere might be so kind as to advise me on the following questions:
  • Is volcano monitoring and eruption prediction best approached from geophysics or geology?
  • Which might best prepare me for jobs?
  • How painful is multivariable calculus? (Where 1 = “Basket-weaving” and 10 = “Ancient Greek.”)
  • What do grad school programs look for in applicants, generally? And GPAs, specifically?
  • Am I over-thinking this decision?
In exchange, I offer this song about earthquakes:
I’d like to make a well-informed decision, so I’d appreciate any advice or counsel you can offer!


Mark W. Eisner, PG said...

I have a BS and MS in Geology, with academic specialization in Geophysics. I also have 25 years of professional experience as a hydrogeologist, which was not the initial plan but was where gainful employment was and remains. The decision you face is not a monumental or irrevocable one.

I now am an employer of geologists and geophysicists and the like. Protect that GPA; it is one od the only differentiators on the path to the AIFJ (all-important first job). If Math is of concern that it will weigh down your GPA, trust your instinct and take the less mathematical track.

Final word: volcanology is cool but is a narrow field with perhaps not many employment prospects. You are just starting your career and need to think more broadly.

Good luck!

Anne Jefferson said...

In my experience in geology, you've got to resolve yourself to either make peace (and gain lots of knowledge) in math/physics or chemistry or both. Some of my igneous petrology grad school friends seemed to spend an awful lot of time thinking about chemistry, whereas I (hydro) had to content with lots of math.

Probably the thing to do is take the major that has classes that appeal most to you, make sure you get lots of math into your brain, and take courses from the other major as your schedule allows. I'd guess that geophysics undergraduate degrees aren't all that common, so if you major in geology and then decide to something more geophysics-y in graduate school, you'll probably be fine (if you get the math).

Multivariable calculus is painful, but survivable. Differential equations is cool and very very useful, but to get there usually you have to get through the calculus.

Grad schools look at GPA, GRE scores, and research experience. And those personal statements matter too. The best applicants have good GPAs, very good GRE scores, and some undergraduate research experience (either through summer programs or working with faculty during the school year). And they can write a statement describing what they want to get out of graduate school, what skills they bring in (without rehashing the resume), and why working with Prof. X at University Y is going to be good for everybody.

Aschenbrödel said...

My experience, not coming from the USA (so I have no idea how bad can be to have a low GPA, but with my basic knowledge on the EEUU's Universities, I kinda gues...).
I have a Bachellor and a Master in Sciences in Geophysics, and now I'm on my first year as a PhD Student, studing seismology and volcanoes [ ;) yeeah!! ]. Though I took very basic geology courses, I had most -if not all- the math courses I had to take for the degree. Also, I had several geologist friends and took a look at their classes too.

With that being said, I would say the math courses would be harder to learn in comparison to some descriptive geology. Of course, the chemistry could be a tricky part of it, but at the end I found it much "easier" to learn it by reading from a book and asking to some Professor or PostDoc than trying to do the same for math [though I had multivariable calculus in the Bachelor :P].

In any case, although it is important to have a good background on what you will study, depending on the path, you will always learn new things. I don't expect to work full time in an observatory back in my country doing the same all day everyday, but doing research at some University, therefore you will always have to learn by reading rather than taking classes.

I think life gives a lot of rounds before you get your final destination, and even it is an important choice to make, don't think that it will restrict your future. I would focus on having a good grade (I assume that is directly related to your GPA) and love what you're learning, otherwise it will be awfully painful.

Best of lucks!

Erik said...

On the topic of active volcano monitoring, right now (and I emphasize that), the focus seems to be more on geophysics and seismology over field geology/petrology. Although the latter does still contribute significantly to our understanding of volcanoes (heck, that is what I do), the former is what is mostly used for monitoring of active volcanoes, like at AVO or YVO. Ideally, you should try to get a bit of it all, but it you are serious about wanting to pursue active volcano monitoring, geophysics might be the better route today.

-Erik, Eruptions

Jessica Ball (AKA Tuff Cookie) said...

I concur with Anne's comments about maybe choosing a geology degree and supplementing it - I feel like I've been pretty well off with mine, and if you feel that the geophysics route is going to kill your GPA, sticking with geology might be the wiser choice when it comes to applying to grad school. But do make sure you get as much math as you can stand, because you'll need it at some point. (For things like volcano seismology,make sure you get a Linear Algebra class in there somewhere - I ended up taking one last year.) Also, if you're interested in doing any monitoring work, getting a fluid dynamics class in there will be really useful - many volcanic processes (magma movement, lava flows, pyroclasticflows, eruption columns, etc etc.) involve fluid movement, and knowing how models and monitoring exploit that is really important.

Erik's probably right about geophysics being the big thing in volcano monitoring right now, but you should also temper your decision with the knowledge that a lot of volcanology grads come into their programs wanting to join an observatory and monitor voclanoes - and very few of us do. (Jobs at observatories are few and far between, and they're really popular, so they go fast!) That said, it doesn't mean that you'll never get a chance to do volcano monitoring, but you will probably have to go at it in a different way. There are a lot of research areas in volcanology, and you can combine them in many different ways to contribute to the hazard mitigation side of the science. My PhD work involves geochemistry, remote sensing, field mapping, and eventually numerical modelling, all of which will eventually help improve the knowledge of hazards in my field area. And I never would have guessed that all of those would come together (or that I'd end up acquiring such a diverse skill set!) I guess my main message is not to restrict yourself right away - it's good to have a variety of abilities, and concentrate on your strengths now to prepare yourself for grad school. Grad school still gives you an opportunity to take classes and improve your background knowledge, so don't feel like you have to get everything done right now if you think you might burn out and end up with not-so-great marks for your grad school applications.

Jessica Ball, Magma Cum Laude

aliya seen said...

The universities that accept low gpa need to be proactive and build up some experience that showcases your talents and abilities.