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The Geosciences — Profession or Discipline?
Christopher M. Keane

Philosophy, outside of the formal academic environment, can be considered a discipline, not a profession. Although philosophy represents a body of knowledge, it does not beget an occupation built on that specialized body of knowledge. Philosophy degree holders move on to a myriad of job opportunities — from law to business to writing to political office — but there are no job openings on for “Philosopher.” This status does not devalue the discipline of philosophy, but rather permeates society with people grounded in the discipline’s fundamentals. On the other hand, engineering, no matter the specialty, is firmly set in the ways of a profession, from the highly structured undergraduate training to the lifetime of professional requirements.

The geosciences are potentially at a crossroads — the field can either continue to be a profession or slowly evolve into a discipline. Pressure are mounting, with the recent spate of department closures, apparent backlogging of recent Ph.D.s in post-doctoral positions, lagging undergraduate enrollments and continued modest hiring in traditional geoindustries.

The geosciences have a rich history of being more like engineering than philosophy, with interactions between industry and academic programs across the broader community. These links, however, began to weaken in the 1980s, as many faculty with strong connections moved into petroleum industry positions. Following the job losses from the oil bust of the mid-1980s, enrollments plummeted and the connection between the historical resource industries and the geoscience departments weakened even further.

For now, the geosciences are largely following the same enrollment and employment trends as the other physical sciences. But an analysis of data from several recent studies shows clear disconnects surfacing between reality and perception within the geosciences and the initial part of the human resource supply chain.

The geosciences are an exception in the sciences, with the master’s remaining the preferred degree for professional employment and geoscience master’s recipients often commanding higher starting salaries than their peers in other sciences. This positive property, however, is offset by a troubling disparity: Among master’s graduates in 2002, 72 percent took full-time non-academic employment upon graduation, while 82 percent of master’s-granting geoscience departments reported that the purpose of their program was Ph.D. preparation.

This stark contradiction is further supported by the results of the American Geological Institute’s (AGI) Sloan Foundation-funded study of professional master’s programs, which found that only one department in the United States has a formal professional science master’s program in the geosciences, compared to numerous such programs in engineering and the other sciences.

Also, the training pipeline in the geosciences continues to narrow very rapidly. The nearly 800 bachelor-granting geoscience departments in the United States yield to around 400 master-granting departments, of which 25 produce one-quarter of all master degrees. Likewise, of about 200 Ph.D.-granting departments, 25 produce one-half of all doctorates.

According to a joint study between AGI and the American Geophysical Union, in 2002, 54 percent of geoscience Ph.D.s took post-doc positions following graduation, which represents a slight increase over the near-term trend. While post-doc work is often considered the final training for a career in academic research, another view, particularly for subsequent post-doc appointments, is that the newly minted Ph.D.s are simply on hold until they can find permanent employment in academia.

Another major problem that continues to persist is a belief that environmental geoscience is the future of the profession. With geoscience departments increasingly integrating “environmental” in their name and their curriculum, academe appears out of step with the profession as a whole. Yet the academic world is facing its own external forces: The accepted view is that students are demanding more environment-oriented classes and programs. From a geoscience perspective, however, that demand does not necessarily translate into careers in the profession and, likely in the long-term, no real gains in majors.

According to an analysis of historical data from the GeoRef database, from the 1950s to the 1990s, the number of dissertations in environmental geoscience jumped 2800 percent, compared to an average 400 percent increase in the total number of dissertations published. Employment of geoscience graduates, however, has not followed this trend. Following a quick increase from 8 percent to 14 percent of total graduate hires from 1985 to 1990, the environmental sector today continues to hire less than 20 percent of geoscience graduates. In contrast, the petroleum industry today hires fully a third of all master’s and Ph.D. graduates, closely followed by non-geoscience high-tech companies. Thus, it is clear that although environmental science has a place in the profession of geoscience, it is not the only future of the profession.

These trends possibly represent larger changes afoot in the geosciences. According to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Recent College Graduates, the profession has a distinct but unrecognized dynamic — with 50 percent of people holding their terminal degree in a geoscience, yet working in another field, and 50 percent of people working as geoscientists holding terminal degrees from another discipline.

As described at the 2000 AGI Academic-Corporate Associates Conference, perhaps the geosciences need to, in part, consider themselves a “liberal” science, in which the core educational values of a program prepare students for a broad range of career and life options. In the long term, the geosciences will benefit not only from a strong geoscientist workforce, but also from well-versed, geoscience issue-aware decision-makers. Who knows, perhaps the geosciences could even compete with philosophical engineering.

Keane is director of Communications and Technology for AGI and editor of Geotimes. E-mail:

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