Geology is the study of the Earth. It is the science that combines Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Maths to deal with the Earth's structure, history and processes that act upon it. It is a very wide ranging subject that looks at not only the solid earth, but also the atmosphere and oceans. This discipline is extremely important and geologists help identify and manage resources, as well as helping minimise our impact on the environment. They are concerned with big issues such as climate change, peak oil and natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes. The study of geology is not limited to just the Earth. Other planets are studied along with moons, asteroids, meteorites etc. A geology degree will involve a lot science, as well as fieldwork and mapping projects. Also be prepared to do a lot of rock examinations!
The majority of universities will teach the following core subjects in the first year of a geology degree:
- Physical geology
- Materials and mineralogy
- Introductory paleontology, geological time & stratigraphy
- Sedimentology (or "surface processes')
- Structural geology and mapping
- Foundation maths, physics and chemistry
Other modules include flavour courses that aren't normally considered the 'core' of a geology degree, and can range from oceanography to planetary geology. This year also includes one or two introductory field courses, developing your field skills and your ability to present and write and interpret field notes clearly in a field notebook and map.
The generally accepted core topics are:
- Advanced physical and structural geology
- Advanced fieldwork and mapping
- Advanced igneous and metamorphic petrology
- Advanced sedimentology
- Advanced paleontology
- Advanced stratigraphy.
You'll notice that the second year not only builds up on your foundations, but contains a very vast amount of material to cover for your third and possibly fourth year of your degree. Whilst it may seem like a lot - and in many universities, optional modules are sparse in this year - all of the above topics complement one another very significantly (the exception being paleontology and geophysics, two subjects which can be studied totally independently of one another). In degree with a specific stream, such as paleontology or geophysics streams, a geophysics and paleontology module - respectively - may not be compulsory.
You build further on your mapping skills this year.
Note that geochemistry is either taught in this year on the third year.
By this year, geology students will either keep their options broad (as is common for geologists - it is normal to find students liking all branches of geology across the board) or will specialise in geophysics, paleontology, or other variations (such as engineering geology, applied and evironmental geology, marine geology, and so forth). Compulsory modules vary per university. Many universities will make physical geology, paleontology, stratigraphy and geochemistry compulsory. Other typically available modules include:
- Advanced tectonics
- Further sedimentology
- Environmental geoscience
- Minerals, ores, and economic geology
- Palaeoclimatology and isotope geochemistry.
A range of paleontological topics, such as:
- Advanced vertebrate or invertebrate paleontology
A range of geophysical topics, such as:
- Global geophysics
- Applied and exploration geophysics
- Forensic geophysics
- Theoretical geophysics
You will also have a dissertation as either an option or a compulsory module (but this is normally optional).
Depending on the university, they may also offer modules in meteorology, oceanography, physics, chemistry or physical geography.
The optional fourth year masters-equivalent year in a geology degree consists primarily of a major research topic. Students normally have the option of taking year three modules plus masters equivalent modules. Masters equivalent courses range dramatically per university (as they are tied to the department's research interests) - if you are curious to know what is offered, please look up the modules on the universities' respective websites.
Fieldwork is an extremely integral part of geology. Effectively, all the theoretical and idealised practical knowledge you learn during any given year will later be put into context for you when you're out in the field*. Normally you'll be sent to a geological area of interest for at least a week with some portion or all of your classmates. A demonstrator will guide you and a few others around the area for the duration of your stay there - your job is to document field geology accurately and neatly in a field notebook, with some interpretation. Additionally, you'll be taught to recognise rocks, geological and geometrical structures in the field (e.g. dykes, faults, etc).
Fieldwork is intellectually stimulating because you're in a completely unfamiliar geological environment. Instead of being given idealised hand specimens of fresh surfaces with distinct features, or pictures of very obvious faults or sedimentary structures, it is up to you to determine what's going on around you. Of course, your demonstrator will sometimes point out difficult to identify structures or rocks, and will teach you some new material while you're out in the field - but the geology is often complex and can take up to an hour to get to grips with. Given that the vast majority of rocks on the Earth's surface are sedimentary, do not be surprised if your field notes tend to be full of sedimentology!
In geophysics, fieldwork is slightly different - more emphasis is placed on physical parameters present in the geological area rather than the nature of the geology itself. It is similar to labwork - having collected data, you later process and interpret it once you're back home (although some geophysics students may do it during their fieldwork).
A trip can require an extensive amount of preparation, and puts a bit of pressure on finances. You may find yourself spending up to £150 to prepare yourself for a fieldtrip; however, this is much less if you've previously purchased technical pens, mapping boards, field clothing, and specialised colouring pencils (trust me, it may seem ludicrous to spend so much on colouring pencils and pens, but it's worth it). You should be prepared to work for up to 11 hours a day on just geology in various conditions: whether it's the searing hot sun or the rainy and windy cold.
In the end, the trip is normally worth it - the amount of material you'll learn and understand is very impressive. Fieldwork also gives you a chance to fraternize with more classmates, as well as the demonstrators or lecturers. It's no wonder geologists are so keen on their pubs - after a long, hard day in the field, there's nothing like sitting down with your friends and a pint!
Most universities will ask for two science subjects as a minimum at A Level for geology admissions. Many will accept A Level Geography and A Level Geology, although there is a clear preference for the “traditional” sciences (particularly Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, but also Biology). To illustrate this, Bristol gives out lower offers to applicants with three traditional sciences and Oxford’s entrance requirements are Maths plus either Chemistry or Physics.
If you do not have A Level Mathematics, then you will usually be required to have a good grade in GCSE Mathematics.
Generally speaking, the following subjects can be considered as preferred...
...and the following as useful:
- Biology (particularly if you are interested in paleontology)
- Further Mathematics (particularly if you have an interest in Geophysics)
- (To a lesser extent) Geography
Work Experience/Fieldwork Experience
You do not need to have Geology-related work experience to apply for Geology at university. Admissions tutors are completely aware that it is very difficult to find lab-based work experience so they are not expecting it from applicants. Having said that, it is possible to get geological work experience, although you will need to organise placements yourself as they are very rarely advertised. A good place to start is to ask in the Earth Sciences department of a nearby university, as they may be able to offer you a placement.
On a similar note, you do not need to have experience of fieldwork. Many of the students applying for Geology have not taken the subject (or any other subjects with fieldwork such as Geography) at school so will not have had the opportunity to take part in fieldwork.
UCAS Form & Personal Statement
Read sample personal statements written by people applying for geology related courses.
Although many universities do not interview for Geology admission, some do. This might make some people anxious, particularly if they have never studied Geology before. A very important thing to understand is that the academics interviewing you are not going to expect you to have any knowledge beyond what you've already declared in your application. You do not need to self-teach A Level Geology, nor are you going to be expected to be some kind of geological expert. For instance, it is very possible that you will be asked to comment on a geological specimen in your interview but you are not going to be expected to go, "Aha, that's rock X!". Instead, they will probably be more interested in how you describe the sample and what inferences you can draw in an ensuing discussion. They are trying to gauge your potential for the course rather than seeing how much you already know. On the other hand, if you do declare a particular area of interest (in your personal statement, for example), then you will be expected to be able to expand on that.
Life as a Geology Student
Graduate Destinations and Career Prospects
Most jobs directly related to geology will require further study. An MSci or MSc is often asked for. Jobs in geology often involve a lot of travel, so be prepared to move around and even look overseas for work. Geologists are in high demand at the moment, and there is a shortest of geologists, particularly in the ground engineering/construction sector. As a result of growing concerns regarding the environment, more jobs are opening up in the environmental sector for geologists too.
Below is a list of jobs related to a geology degree. Some jobs may overlap in areas.
Engineering geologist – Engineering geology is quite a wide field. They can work for engineering companies and assess the impact of a development on an area of ground. They will often work for civil engineering companies on projects where there are large amounts of excavating and drilling of rock. Work may include assessing the integrity of soil, rock, groundwater and other natural conditions prior to a construction projects. May also be responsible for monitoring conditions throughout a project.
Volcanologist – Study volcanoes. Often work as consultants who help predict future eruptions. They can also work as academic researchers.
Paleontologist – Study ancient life forms and climate changes through rock formations and fossils. Usually work for a museum or as an academic researcher at a university.
Hydrogeologist – Investigate water flowing through the ground. Their work may involve testing water quality, finding new water supplies, maintaining water quality and protecting from pollution.
Reservoir Geologist – work for oil and gas companies. They interpret seismic data to look at the underlying rock which helps them find oil and gas. They also help plan wells and work out how to get the most oil or gas out of the site as possible.
Remote Sensing Geologist - process and interpret remotely acquired data. This data can be acquired from satellites to airborne sensors. The information gathered can be used to find gold, diamonds and other valuable minerals.
Petroleum geologists - are involved in exploration and production of oil and natural gas. Often very well paid.
Environmental Consultant – Consult clients on the impact on the environment. May work in areas such as water pollution, waste management and air and land contamination. Environmental geology is currently the fastest growing field.
Seismologist – research earthquakes. Can also work with engineers on earthquake hazard assessmet work.
Mineralologist – Can work for mining companies to identify minerals. Can also be involved in the valuation of various jewels and gems.
Geochemist - study the distribution of chemical elements in rocks and minerals. Can be involved in improving water quality, but also can work for oil and gas companies guiding oil exploration.
Planetary Geologist - Study celestial bodies such as the planets and their moons, asteroids and meteorites.
You can find more information on the types of jobs from these websites:
If you decide that a job directly related to your geology degree is not for you then there are other options. A geology degree is considered an academic degree and gives you a range of mathematical, scientific, observational and problem solving skills. These skills can be transfered to a variety of other jobs as many graduate jobs do not ask for a specific degree subject.