With the price of oil hanging high,
changes are beginning to be detected in
career choices for geoscience students
at American universities and colleges.
For years, the environmental side of
geology — hydrology, pollution, regulatory
work — was where the jobs were.
They still are — but with oil at $70 per
barrel, students may now be willing to
take a chance on an industry that not long
ago was described as "sunset."
According to the results of a recent
study on student trends taken by the
American Geological Institute (AGI), the
recent B-12 shot the industry has
received in the form of higher oil prices
has, in fact, caused some schools and
students to re-focus on "old school"
geology, though not at the expense of
other ancillary programs.
"At the strong schools, the curriculum
has remained fairly stable and focused on
strong, fundamental geology programs,"
said Christopher M. Keane, who
conducted the study for AGI. "Some of
the schools with softer enrollments
appear to be tweaking their core
curriculum to address more
environmental topics, and few seem to
have made structural pushes into the
geospatial analysis arena as a primary
focus of their program.
"On average, programs that have
retained a traditional geology core have
remained strong," he said.
Keane is AGI's communications and
technology director and editor for
Geotimes. His study suggests that overall
enrollments in the nation's university
geology departments are up 5 percent
per year over the last three years.
A caveat would be that the figures are
not comprehensive: Laura Stafford, AGI's
communication manager, said "schools
do not do a good job of communicating
changes to us, and I suppose we must
not be doing a great job of getting these
schools to send us updated information."
Still, the figures that are available
reveal some promising trends.
A look at the numbers for the
University of Texas at Austin, for example,
shows a steady increase in both students
enrolled and the numbers who have
graduated since 2002 (figure 1).
Figure 1: University of Texas Geoscience Student Data
Students / Graduates
Students / Graduates
Students / Graduates
155 / 29
76 / 16
80 / 9
206 / 0
96 / 0
96 / 0
210 / 42
90 / 34
108 / 28
Source: American Geological Institute
The California Institute of Technology
also showed an increase, especially in its
doctorate programs, which had 137
students in 2002, compared with only 59
Keane, though, doesn't think university
programs will see a windfall of students
due to recent surges in oil prices.
"I think there remains a lot of memory
about the hiring bubble in the 1980s
among the faculty, and thus I do not
expect to see a large adjustment of
programs towards guiding students into
industry," he said.
"One of the key things about the
geosciences is that our enrollment is now
better mirroring the other physical
sciences again," he continued. "All of the
physical sciences took enrollment hits
during the dot-com boom, but have
started to recover since."
This is borne out by another study
done by AGI in 2003, which reported that
25 percent of geology students in Ph.D.
programs dropped out because of a poor
With the recent surge in oil prices, that,
at least, should no longer be the case.
Keane says he is unsure which order
the cause and effect goes, but adds:
"Many of the departments over the last
five years that have gone away had
changed their curriculum into more
specialty areas at the undergraduate
level in efforts to increase student
enrollments," he said.
"In some cases this failed; in others,
the success has facilitated the evolution
of the department from being strictly
geology-centric," he added.
Room to Grow
There are about 30-40 schools, Keane
believes, which have done and continue
to do the heavy lifting when it comes to
producing students for the petroleum
industry. But there are now over 350
other schools with advanced geology
programs in the country that are
producing geologists of all stripes.
Some of those schools have reported figures to AGI, and the data suggests
that, at least from 2001-04, no great shifts
in enrollment numbers or graduation rates
Asked what kinds of students are
graduating, Keane was less than
"We were hearing that on average the
quality of new graduates remains
satisfactory, but that incoming student
quality remains an issue," he said. "The
single greatest common issue with the
student body is poor writing and business
Of course, it doesn't matter how many
or how good the students are if there
aren't jobs for them when they graduate.
And when prices are low, as they were in
the early 1990s, companies do less
At $60 per barrel, though, the demand
for good geologists once again
Nevertheless, Keane suggests that the
industry's demographics rather than
prices have the biggest effect on
"Job opportunities are being driven by
attrition of older workers in most sectors,"
Options Are Open
One sector where it's not, though, is in
"It appears to me there are a lot of
recent grads that are fixated on going into
academia, and the retirement wave has
not really hit that community yet, so the
opportunities are a bit scarcer," even with
a renewed oil and gas industry.
One such student is Eva-Maria
Rumpfhuber, a transfer student from
Austria, now studying at the University of
Texas-El Paso, where during the past five
years the numbers of students pursuing
Ph.D.s has gone from 18 in 2000 to 43 in
Rumpfhuber said that for some
students, what happens in the industry is
less important than their own interests
and goals. As for a job in oil and gas
exploration, she is keeping her options
"In my internship this summer I got an
insight in the oil industry, especially its
R&D programs," she said. "Isn't it
amazing that we are able to travel to the
moon, but we have so many unanswered
questions about the Earth?
"To me, the more I learn and the
broader my background, the better I
understand my own field," she said. "It
will take a while until we have every
problem solved, so there is no threat of
getting bored in the geosciences."