Identifying the ideal career path that best suits your interests and that closely aligns well with your skills, strengths and personality can be a tricky business. But if you’re fascinated by earthquakes and the science behind them then the answer is right in front of you: seismologist.
Are you shaking and quaking to find out more about this potentially lucrative career? Read on to learn how to become a seismologist, what a typical day on the job involves, as well as how much money you could make!
1. Research the profession
Before you start looking at universities and course entry requirements, it’s a good idea to do some research into the profession to get an understanding of what exactly it is that seismologists do.
Seismologists are geophysicists who study earthquakes and related phenomena, including the effects of explosions and the formation of tsunamis. They analyse and interpret seismological data (studying plate tectonics, etc.) through the use of seismographs and other instruments.
While seismologists are generally unable to predict earthquakes, their work has led to the development of advances such as tsunami warning systems.
There are several subfields in seismology to choose from, including:
- Ground motion seismology
- Earthquake hazard assessment
- Seismic interpretation
Duties and responsibilities vary according to role. For example, some seismologists conduct research while others focus on directly observing earthquakes and other events. During a typical workday, you will:
- Analyse and interpret daily seismic records to identify and distinguish different seismic sources such as earthquakes and quarry blasts
- Use data to evaluate seismic hazards
- Analyse seismic data in relation to geological composition and structure
- Process data using computer algorithms
- Produce maps of shaking intensity
- Write reports and publish findings
- Communicate with the media to educate the public about earthquakes and earthquake preparedness
- Carry out seismology surveys
- Set up and test instruments and equipment
In addition to these main tasks, you may have additional responsibilities like managing budgets and completing administrative work.
Essential skills and qualities
You’ll need the following skills and qualities to enter this profession:
- Critical thinking and problem-solving skills
- The ability to communicate effectively and express ideas clearly
- The ability to work as part of a team as well as independently
- A natural aptitude for mathematics and science
- A keen interest in geophysics
- IT skills
You may also need to have a reasonable level of fitness as field work can be physically demanding.
Working hours and conditions
Work is typically office or lab-based, and you can expect to work 40 hours a week, sometimes more, especially when there’s a major earthquake either in the UK or overseas. You may also perform field work as well as be required to travel to different parts of the world for research purposes or to attend industry events like conferences and conventions. Moreover, there are opportunities for relocation (within the UK or abroad), though this largely depends on the employer and your career plans.
It’s important to note that some work can be physically dangerous: hiking in areas where the ground tends to shake or spew lava isn’t what you’d call the safest thing in the world. Working for an oil and gas company, meanwhile, doesn’t offer a particularly safe working environment, either.
The average annual starting salary for seismologists and other geophysicists ranges between £25,000 and £30,000. The typical salary for more senior roles (after about six years) increases to between £50,000 and £75,000 a year.
Salaries vary depending on your level of education and experience, where you work, as well as the specific responsibilities of the role. Moreover, many employers also offer a number of other benefits to employees and their families.
2. Get the qualifications
If you’re still in school and considering a career in seismology, you should have a strong interest and good grades in:
- Computer science
A degree education is essential to gain entry into this profession. Relevant subjects include:
- Applied physics
- Earth sciences
You’ll need to carefully research the course you choose to take to make sure it suits your needs. For example, some universities will offer courses which focus on applied (industry-linked) geology while others offer a more ‘classic’ programme based on geological theory and research.
An undergraduate degree will normally take four years to complete, with some BSc degrees offering a year in the industry (typically in the third year of study and paid).
Obtaining a postgraduate degree (like a master’s or a PhD), meanwhile, can make you more employable and enhance your salary prospects. It also provides you with the opportunity to make meaningful contacts in the field as well as the ability to attend industry conferences.
Some MGeol, MSci and MEarth Sci integrated master’s degrees offer a year abroad, but you’ll normally need to obtain a 2:1 or 1st grade during your studies to qualify and to progress to the fourth year of study.
Some of the top universities which offer relevant postgraduate degree courses include:
- Imperial College London
- University College London (UCL)
- University of Dundee
- University of Sheffield
3. Land your first job
Now that you’re a qualified seismologist, it’s time to start looking for work. Below we outline how you can boost your employability with work experience and where to start your job search.
How to gain work experience
Having some experience in the field can help make you a viable candidate when you start applying for jobs. One of the best ways to achieve this is through a work placement.
The British Geological Survey (BGS) offers work experience opportunities at their Cardiff, Edinburgh, Kayworth and Wallingford sites, which are open to young people under the age of 18 as part of their school’s work experience programme. Placements are for one week.
The BGS also offers paid internships. These are aimed at recent graduates and last between three and six months.
Where to look for seismologist jobs
Seismologist vacancies are pretty rare, but if you’re lucky (and quick to apply), you may find opportunities listed on some of the UK’s biggest job boards, including Monster and Reed. (This is the part where we casually mention our own CareerAddict job board).
Other, more specialist, sites to check out include:
- British Geological Survey (BGS) (they list vacancies at BGS sites across the country)
- Geoscience (education and careers section for Geological Society)
- International Seismological Centre (ISC) (vacancies are usually listed on their News page)
- New Scientist Jobs (features vacancies across 10 different areas)
You can also search for vacancies directly through employers’ websites, who include:
- Environmental consultancy firms
- Engineering firms
- Exploration companies
- Professional organisations
- Governmental agencies
- Universities, colleges and research institutes
It should also be noted that as there aren’t many opportunities in the UK, you might want to consider moving and working abroad.
Meanwhile, it goes without saying that a well-written CV and cover letter are essential for job search success!
4. Develop your career
While there is no specific career path within seismology, with the right experience and skills, you could move to a more senior role with increased responsibility.
Meanwhile, there a number of seismological societies around the world worth taking a look at, including:
- European Seismological Commission
- Seismological Society of America
- International Association of Seismology and Physics of the Earth’s Interior (IASPEI)
Joining these societies is extremely beneficial as you’ll be able to stay up to date with industry news and developments, network with like-minded scientists and generally progress your career.
Would you consider a career in seismology? Are you fascinated by the physics behind tectonic plates or are you terrified of earthquakes (like myself)? Perhaps you’ve completed the journey of becoming a successful seismologist and would like to part your wisdom with future scientists?
Join the conversation down below and let us know!
Meanwhile, don’t forget to check out the highest paying jobs in science for some inspiration if you’re not particularly sold on a career in studying earthquakes.
The salary information contained in this article is based on data compiled and published by Prospects.ac.uk. Additional information was taken from the Geological Society.
This article was originally published in October 2014.