Untitled Document

Broadening horizons for students
Naomi Lubick

Sidebar: Student outlooks

In 2002, the Cornell University Department of Geological Science broadened into the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, bringing in the atmospheric group from another department. At the time, the geology program had only a few undergraduate majors. Now, the new department administers 80 to 100 undergraduates in three majors — Geological Sciences, Science of Earth Systems and Atmospheric Science.

Snee Hall is home to Cornell University’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Since broadening its subject base in 2002, the department has greatly increased its number of majors. Photo by Lynda Swafford, Cornell University.

Each major has a separate focus. For example, the Science of Earth Systems major takes an approach that highlights interactions among the solid earth, the atmosphere and the oceans. The major draws students from the Colleges of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, and Agriculture and Life Sciences. “It makes a stronger department,” says Kerry Cook, an atmospheric scientist who helped head up the recent metamorphosis. “You have to add other elements.”

That theme seems to be more common among small geology departments at all schools, from private Ivies to state-run universities, which have been under financial pressures. The shift, some say, is headed toward environmental sciences or a softening of the geological sciences — but some departments, like Cornell’s, that have undergone successful transitions lately have opted for more rigor, yet more breadth. Those that have the option of combining with another department or that redefine themselves in some way may end up better off than when they started.


At the University of Missouri at Rolla and Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech), it was the threat to another department that created the right circumstances for a merger of related geosciences at each institution. The two technology-oriented schools are state-funded, and such public institutions have been feeling the crunch. Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau recently shut down its geology department because of funding issues, among others (see Geotimes, May 2004, and sidebar in previous feature).

Geologist Jay Gregg lectures before a roadcut along Highway 72 in eastern Missouri. Gregg chairs the newly formed Department of Geological Sciences & Engineering at the University of Missouri at Rolla. Photo by Katherine Mattison, University of Missouri at Rolla.

At Rolla, the faculty themselves started the process of merging their geology department with geological and petroleum engineers last year. “Rather than fight what appeared to be inevitable,” says Jay Gregg, a geologist who chairs the new department, the faculty “embraced the change and tried to combine … with as little disruption as possible.” Gregg and his colleagues admit it was an interesting undertaking, considering the disparate views of engineering and geology cultures. From six departments, the university’s School of Materials, Energy & Earth Resources went to three, with the new configurations becoming official on July 1.

Over the past 30 years, Rolla’s school of mines had seen slightly shrinking enrollments. “It’s not easy to get 17- and 18-year-olds interested in mining. They’re interested in computers and communication technologies,” says Jeff Cawlfield, a geological engineer who is associate chair of the new department. But “we don’t need everybody to be an information technology person,” he continues, and with the bursting of the IT bubble several years ago, “we’re seeing an uptick, especially in petroleum.”

The enrollment in petroleum engineering has increased — but only from 5 new freshmen to 10 a year. “That’s a doubling for us, but to the administration, that’s not much,” Cawlfield says. “We point out that although these are small programs, they are critical” because the department’s graduates go to major oil companies, where they play an important role.

“We had to concentrate on recruiting undergraduate majors,” Gregg says. With the departmental mergers and a recent increase in student interest, the department is now over 80 majors strong.

Michigan Tech faced a similar situation, says Wayne Pennington, chair of its newly merged department, except that the main change came from the top down. Like most mining departments, Pennington says that Michigan Tech’s was experiencing declining enrollment. To save on administrative costs, he says, the university merged the mining engineering department with the department that was then geological engineering, geology and geophysics and, within the next year, terminated their undergraduate mining engineering degree. The merger brought a few more students into the new department, and despite losing faculty members to other departments, only one tenure-track position was eliminated altogether.

“The closure of mining served as a serious wakeup call to us and other programs at other universities, programs like us,” Pennington says. “At any university, any small department has to be aware that at some occasion the administration simply must consider their closure. …Whether or not that was a serious consideration of our administration, we will never know.”

But in the midst of such upheaval, the Michigan Tech geology and engineering faculty took “a hard look at what our strengths were and weaknesses,” he says. For a routine external review, the faculty prepared very carefully, Pennington says, and “instead of a basket of problems, we presented a basket of scenarios” for improvement.

Self-scrutiny played a similar role for the geologists and engineers at the University of Missouri at Rolla. Now that the budget situation for the Missouri university system has changed, the department is “feeling less under the gun,” Cawlfield says, and the consolidation provides some protection, particularly because of the faculty’s willingness to examine their inefficiencies and improve them. “We’ve done in good faith what we could do,” he says.


“What led us to survive is the fact that the University of Missouri-Rolla is not a large university, it’s a small engineering school,” Gregg says. He points out that Southeast Missouri State is a much larger school, and its geology department was still at higher risk.

“The merger made us the largest geological department in the state of Missouri; when states look to cut, it’s better to be a bigger than a smaller program,” he says, combining an active research community with turning out a lot of students with degrees. “If you’re not going to do that, you’re not going to be very survivable.”

For Cornell the issue was less about survivability and more about general departmental health. A school of 16,000, Cornell has a long history of geologic prestige and would never completely eliminate its geology department, Cook says: “There’s some kind of immunity there,” one that atmospheric sciences, for example, may not have. Nevertheless, she says, “the thing that really drove the change was the needs of the undergraduate program to develop a more earth systems approach,” and the interdisciplinary change has been “exciting.”

All of these transformed departments, however, have one strong commonality: The faculty decided that they would maintain scientific rigor. “We realized we weren’t going to be able to dumb down our programs,” Gregg says, and still ensure that their graduates continue to be hired by mining, engineering and oil companies — something he says other geology programs have done to their own detriment.

Departments can essentially take two paths, one that maintains scientific rigor by increasing the breadth of the science studied, and another that blends in policy or social science. In Cornell’s case, Cook says that the new department was able to maintain scientific rigor while still allowing students to take elective courses that blend in social science. Thus, some of Cornell’s earth science majors, who take interdisciplinary science courses, may go to policy programs or environmental law after they finish.

For threatened departments, knowing when to shift into survival mode is not necessarily clear, however (see story). While a variety of methods and behaviors can ensure a department’s continued existence, perhaps in the end, it comes down to a more fickle deciding factor: student preference.

For example, Pennington says, the Michigan Tech department has maintained its scientific rigor, combined with other fields and conducted sincere self-evaluation and made appropriate changes. Nevertheless, “that doesn’t mean we haven’t been changing our emphasis, as the student clientele change their emphasis,” he says. Adding to their strong programs in petroleum and mineral resources and in groundwater engineering, Michigan Tech recently adopted a natural hazards program with a Peace Corps volunteer component, and historically the department includes an earth science teachers program.

“Every case like this,” Pennington says, “is a unique case, with different conditions.”

Student outlooks

Geotimes spoke to a handful of geology students to see what they were thinking about their futures in the field. Like most students in any discipline, they are grappling with the difficult question of what’s next.

Elliot Grunewald, who will start his senior year at Brown University in Providence, R.I., this fall, interned this summer at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park. Although he worked on earthquake hazards, he will probably pursue geophysics and hydrology. Photo by Serkan Bozkurt, USGS.

“The job market is kind of an uncertain thing,” says Scott Miller, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University who hopes to be done in December. “You never know what’s [going to be] available.” When Miller started his graduate work in tectonic geomorphology five years ago, the market was strong, he says, “but you wonder how long that wave of hiring will last.”

Of his classmates, Miller says that some recent graduates have taught for several years, covering for people on sabbatical or in the field, or taken on post-doctoral positions, eventually getting teaching positions. And while he has interned with ExxonMobil, which has shown interest in his computer modeling work, he sounds less sure about working for industry than some of his other classmates might be.

“I like many aspects of the [industry] environment — the data richness of it, that they do pay you to do something you enjoy,” he says, but “a big concern of mine is quality of life. I do geology because of that: I like the outdoors. Houston would be a shock to me.”

To that end, Miller says he may have to readjust his goals, whether he ends up pursuing an academic or industry position. “You may end up where you didn’t really think you would be,” he says.

Elliot Grunewald, soon to be a senior geology major at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., is likewise “a little concerned about what’s out there just in terms of jobs,” he says. “It’s a little disconcerting when people ask me, as I get closer and closer to graduating, what I’m going to do with [a geology degree] and I don’t have an answer.” On the other hand, Grunewald says he is confident he will find something that interests him that is geology related, noting that Brown’s geology students in the past have received assistance from the university’s career center.

Grunewald discovered geology in his first year of high school, through an engaging earth science teacher. But Grunewald wasn’t sure he himself would pursue it, until he found hydrology and geophysics. “One of my original concerns with geology was just how useful it is in general with tackling modern problems and producing real results, real impacts,” he says, “and applied geophysics showed me the power of geology to do something more than just say what happened to an area 10 million years ago.”

Grunewald will take his first hydrology course in his senior year, after having spent this summer interning with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), working on estimating earthquake hazards for Tokyo using historical data.

Julie Fosdick, who graduated last spring with her bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, has a bit more time to explore her career options, as she plans to stay in the academic realm of geology. She will start a master’s program this fall at Stanford University, and once she figures out her thesis topic, she will most likely follow through with a Ph.D. “I would like to teach, and I would like to research,” she says.

Of the dozen or so students who graduated with her, Fosdick says most were interested in “the academic component,” with a few going to industry, either oil or environmental. One classmate is pursuing a teaching certificate for high school earth science, and another took an internship at USGS, biding his time before deciding to apply to graduate school or not.

Fosdick is positive about her academic future. “I’m anticipating there being openings” once she is ready to look for a job, but after her Ph.D., she says, “my next step would be a post-doctoral research position,” something a newly minted geology Ph.D. may not have done a decade ago.


Lubick is a staff writer for Geotimes.


"Geology cut in Missouri," Geotimes, May 2004
"Building Geology for the Future: Cui bono?" Geotimes, September 2004
"The numbers," sidebar, Geotimes, September 2004

Back to top

Geotimes Home | AGI Home | Information Services | Geoscience Education | Public Policy | Programs | Publications | Careers

© 2014 American Geological Institute. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the express written consent of the American Geological Institute is expressly prohibited. For all electronic copyright requests, visit: