What's a college to do?
They seek to provide the best possible training and education for geology students who will ultimately be looking for work in cyclical industries like petroleum, environment and mining.
And every year seems to bring some change in the business environment -- which, of course, impacts the business of education.
So how do colleges and universities deal with the ups and downs of geoscience-intensive industries and provide the best possible education for their students?
The answers are just about as varied as the institutions. Some have found their niche and are specializing in a specific area of geoscience while others are take a more all-encompassing approach.
A look at three U.S. universities provides some answers.
University of Oklahoma
"When I came to the University of Oklahoma in 1990 we had very few undergraduate geology majors. The steep downturn in the petroleum industry in the mid-to-late 1980s had really worked against the attractiveness of geology as a major," said Charles Gilbert, director of the school of geology and geophysics at OU.
"Since that time, through recruitment and scholarships, we have rebounded to about 80 majors in our undergraduate program," he continued.
"We have decided to remain a prominent school in oil and gas related geology, no matter what anyone else does and no matter whether the market goes up or down. Our longer-term view is that our niche is to be one of the pre-eminent departments for petroleum-related geology."
Most of his school's students, he observed, are exactly opposite the national trend.
"The majority of our students do go to work in the petroleum industry versus environmental and other areas," he said, "and that trend has nothing to do with our students' training, but rather their interests.
"Our goal is to make our students competitive enough to go after those jobs."
Gilbert pointed out, however, that OU and any geoscience program must address the fundamentals of geology and areas of study that cross industry lines.
To do that, his school tries to maintain as strengths, geochemistry, organic geochemistry and sedimentary geology, structure and rock mechanics, temperature processes, igneous and metamorphic geology and the role of basement, and geophysics, "a major area of growth" for the department recently.
"We also address environmental geology, particularly in the areas of shallow geophysics and organic geochemistry," he said, "two skill areas that are important to the environmental industry but are also applicable to petroleum geology."
Gilbert said another shift in geoscience education has been the blurring of department lines.
"We are fostering relationships with the petroleum engineering program in areas of rock mechanics and reservoir characterization, for example. This interaction across department lines is valuable because it gives students a broader view."
The geology department at Baylor University has not moved to any type of specialization, according to chairman Thomas Goforth.
"We do not try to specialize in any particular area of geology, although it is an option that we discuss regularly," he said. "But the general feeling here is that the employment picture changes so rapidly that you're rolling the dice if you try to arrange your faculty and department to teach the narrow specialty that's in favor at any given time. That specialty can go out of style fairly quickly.
"We look at our curriculum a little like the stock market," he continued. "You can't time the market, so the best strategy is to diversity.
"We take that same approach and try to teach a broad-based curriculum that is applicable to any area of geology that students ultimately go into."
Goforth said Baylor has beefed up in petroleum geology with its last couple of faculty hires with the emphasis on modern techniques like 3-D seismic, model building and visualization.
"We have a very good core of professors that can prepare students for a career in petroleum geology, but we likewise have a similar group of professors for the environmental aspects of geology," he said. "Our basic strategy is to cover fairly distinct and important niches in geology to produce a well-rounded geologist who can communicate orally and in writing, and who has a firm grasp of the fundamentals of geology and how to apply them to solve problems."
Regardless of the employment situation, however, Goforth agreed that students should select a career path they really enjoy and want to pursue.
"Employment cycles are a reality, and nobody can predict those cycles," he said. "So, I counsel students to study what they really want to pursue as a career versus what kind of job they think they can get."
University of South Carolina
For the past several years the University of South Carolina's department of geological sciences has concentrated on three areas -- geophysics, environmental geology and marine geology. In the past several months, however, "lively faculty meetings" have centered on this issue of specialization in the undergraduate curriculum, said chairman Robert Thunell.
"We are going to be making some major changes in our undergraduate curriculum," Thunell said. "We will be going away from some of the traditional courses like paleontology, structure, stratigraphy or sedimentology, for example, to more integrative classes that blend together aspects of those different areas."
For instance, he said, a course on mountain building and tectonics would bring together structural geology, seismology, geophysics, and metamorphic and igneous petrology. A course on basin evolution would incorporate sedimentology, stratigraphy, structure, geophysics and petroleum geology.
"With the cyclicity in the job market for geology we want our students to be adaptable," he said. "For that reason, we are leaning away from specialized areas and emphasizing a good strong background in a variety of arenas so our students can take advantage of what jobs are available when they graduate.
"At the graduate level there is a natural tendency toward more specialization, and generally that's good," he continued.
"But even graduate students can get too narrowly focused. They also need to broaden their course work so they can avail themselves of whatever opportunities are available when they complete their studies."