What is Geophysics?
Geophysics, sometimes referred to as Geophysical Science, is the scientific study of the Earth using physical applications. A relatively uncommon physical science, it seeks to understand things like: Why does the Earth produce a magnetic field? Can we physically explain and quantify the driving forces behind tectonic motion? For what reasons do earthquakes occur?
Of course, a Geology degree can aptly provide a perfect explanation for the above questions, however, a geophysics degree emphasises the complex physical nature of it all, using mathematics whenever possible. As such, it is easy to say that a Physics degree is also capable of answering the very same questions using fundamental laws of physics. Ultimately, however, Geophysics is primarily considered to be an earth science due to an earth scientist's capability to qualitatively explain geophysical theory.
The application of physics to the understanding of natural geological processes in the solid earth is called Geodynamics and Solid Earth Geophysics. This is primarily known as theoretical, pure, or academic geophysics where the geophysicist aims to understand paleomagnetism, radioactive minerals through geological time, the kinematics of tectonic plates and convectional flow in the internal structure of the Earth using a more theoretical approach - i.e., topics which wouldn't normally contribute to industrial and applied geophysics. These topics are generally touched upon at undergraduate level but are more commonly explored in depth at postgraduate level.
Geophysics, like Engineering or Computer Science, also applies mathematical and physical methods to use in the industry; geophysicists are the backbone of oil and mineral exploration. Using applied geophysical methods - such as electromagnetism, electricity, magnetism, seismology and gravity - they seek to locate and identify resources with the aid of computational modeling. This branch of geophysics is known primarily as Exploration Geophysics. It is categorised as a branch of applied geophysics.
Keep in mind that applied geophysics could also represent the application of geophysical techniques to understanding the interior structure of the Earth, the structure of the lithosphere below a continent, the location of archaeological objects and subsurface structures under a city (e.g. for geotechnical engineering).
Course Content and Structure
NB: Geophysics degrees can be offered as a BSc or MSci. Because Geophysics is a more popular subject in North America and Australia, Geophysics degrees also tend to offer year abroad programmes.
Typical Geophysics degrees do not introduce geophysics -- except in field work -- to undergraduate students in their first year. The first year will normally consist of geology, mathematics and physics.
Normally, by the second year of the degree, geophysics is immediately introduced and students will be able to make use of their knowledge of physics, geology, and maths. Your third year will have a great degree of geophysical study in it. Unlike a geology degree, geophysics degrees will sway from compulsory Geochemistry, Petrology and Paleontology modules from your second year onwards. However, keep in mind that seeing how Geophysics is part of Earth Science departments, there's a lot of flexibility in choosing earth science modules (as well as atmospheric science, environmental geography or oceanography). Optional physics modules will normally be offered (in geophysics specific degrees), but to a lesser extent.
As in any Earth, Environmental or Ocean science, fieldwork is a very integral part of a Geophysics degree. Expect to spend a lot of time partaking in extensive fieldwork trips and writing subsequent geophysical fieldwork reports after.
Finally, practicals such as labs or computing are also very emphasised in a geophysics degree; as much of it is applied rather than theoretical, this ensures that you have the transferable skills necessary for when you graduate.
In your first year, your course content should generally look like the following:
- Earth and Ocean Systems
- Physical and Dynamic Geology
- Electricity and Magnetism
- Other [depending on the university]
- Identical maths courses to another physical science student.
From your second year onwards you begin to study geophysical science (and one to four compulsory maths and physics modules building up on your previous year). It normally consists of:
- Structural geology in geophysical exploration
- Hydrocarbon geophysics
- Solid Earth Geophysics & Geodynamics OR Tectonophysics
- Marine Geophysical Exploration
- Reflection and Refraction Seismology
- Electromagnetic methods
- Physical Volcanology (NB: Not normally classified as a 'geophysics' module).
Because Geophysics is a particularly narrow subject, do not expect to have too much choice in how much geophysics you'd like to do; earth science and/or physics modules will generally fill in your optional choices.
Throughout the course of a geophysics degree, generally, you may find that you prefer applied or theoretical geophysics. Keep in mind, however, that applied and exploration geophysics is a much more developed subject than the latter. As such they offer more transferable skills and are key modules should you plan on working in the energy or oil industry.
A-Levels: Physics and Maths are normally required to A2 level.
International Baccalaureate: Higher Level Maths and Physics are normally required.
Keep in mind that Geophysics is a relatively unpopular degree, so like most other physical sciences their offers (unless you've applied to Oxbridge or Imperial) will be generally mid-range.
Universities Offering Geophysical Sciences
The table below is a list of universities offering geophysics, meteorology and oceanography degrees. Please keep in mind that meteorology degrees have A2-level (IB Higher Level) Maths as a mandatory requirement and will most likely not compromise AS-level (IB Standard Level) Maths or A2 Physics as sufficient. NB: Some universities will compromise both physics and maths at AS-level (IB standard level) Maths for entry, but is very rare.