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  Geotimes - September 2007 - Geologic Column

A License to Practice Geology
William J. Siok, CPG

See those three initials after my name? Those mean "certified professional geologist," which means I earned at least one degree in geology and demonstrated sufficient aptitude to be licensed to practice my chosen profession, geology. Today, fewer geoscientists of all specialties are getting licenses to practice, which is unfortunate, given that licensure is professional protection, not a bureaucratic hurdle. Professional licensure may not seem stimulating, but its centrality to a strong profession that contributes actively to society makes it hard to ignore.

The following scattershot look at professional registration of geologists perhaps conveys the uncertainty plaguing the practitioner, especially the recent graduate entering the workforce, who arguably needs the license most. I know advice is cheap, but let me say that it behooves all geology graduates to thoughtfully consider sitting for the necessary licensure examinations in an issuing jurisdiction even if they don't see the immediate need. After all, never again will your knowledge and freshly acquired academic skills be as sharp as they are immediately following graduation.

Currently, 30 states and all Canadian provinces and territories require geologists practicing in fields, such as geologic hazard identification, to hold a license. This is the simplest statement that can be made about government-sanctioned authorization to practice one's trade. The regulations and standards of practice required in a given jurisdiction vary widely and the aphorism "the devil is in the details" only begins to describe the confusion and lack of uniformity among the various regulations.

Registration, or licensure (the words can be used interchangeably), is intended to protect the public health and welfare against incompetent and unscrupulous practitioners. I believe most people are thankful for continued licensure of medical doctors and lawyers that sets a baseline of practice and conduct. Similarly, the field of engineering follows rules of practice, from which geology licensing rules follow. A less-discussed, but nonetheless real, aspect of geologic licensure is that it allows geologists practicing in the broad field of environmental consulting to compete against colleagues from other technical disciplines, particularly some specialties within the discipline of civil engineering. Licensing often means the difference between a job in the field or not.

Practical considerations affecting geologic registration include: the level of education required for practice within a given jurisdiction; years of experience needed by the practitioner to qualify for licensure; the practitioner's reputation for honest and ethical comportment, especially within the geosciences community; the types of sub-specialties for which licensure is required; and preparing and sitting for a written examination.

There are economic factors to consider as well. A geologist working in multiple jurisdictions is required (with minor exception) to hold separate licensure within each jurisdiction often at a significant expense. Since annual fees to a given jurisdiction can be in the hundreds of dollars, the maintenance of multiple licenses costs many practitioners thousands annually.

This is further complicated by the non-uniform (from jurisdiction to jurisdiction) definitions of the geologic disciplines that are exempt from the licensure requirement. The exempt disciplines include municipal/state/federal employees, subordinates to licensed practitioners, engineers, educators at all levels and energy and mineral resources geologists. Furthermore, increasingly greater numbers of practitioners, particularly in the energy and mineral resources fields, are working across international boundaries. Although these specific disciplines are exempt from licensing requirements in American states with registration statutes, they may be required to hold a credential to practice in a non-American jurisdiction. This is particularly true for U.S. geologists working in Canada.

None of these factors addresses the philosophical aspects of registration. It is generally accepted that registration of geologists is a positive development, particularly for those practicing in regulated fields such as water supply development, mitigation of geologic hazards, geotechnical investigation and design and related areas. Proponents of registration have worked diligently to advocate for regulatory systems that provide discipline flexibility for the practitioner while simultaneously providing the broadest safeguards for public safety and welfare.

Another side of the licensure issue is the "restraint of trade" perspective. It is plausible that a geologist with a sound academic background would be competent to offer technical expertise within the marketplace by virtue of a degree (or degrees) alone, without the added testing of a regulatory bureaucracy. Although this argument has been made with some conviction, particularly by the academic community, it has not been made convincingly enough to prevail. This certainly isn't the case in other regulated fields such as medicine, law and engineering, so the burden of proof for geologists may be insurmountable.

This brief look into the world of regulation of the geologic profession is cursory, incomplete and reflects the complex state of licensing, particularly for the uninitiated. Yet, whole organizations now exist to help geologists understand licensure, such as the National Association of State Boards of Geology (ASBOG) (, which provides links to each license-issuing state, as well as information about the licensing requirements and process.

Finally, although there are occasional efforts by legislatures to end the registration requirement, and one must wonder if it is in the name of ending restraint of free trade or a threat to the viability of geologists in the marketplace, you can be certain licensure of geologists is here for the long term (see story, this issue).

Siok is a certified professional geologist in the field of hydrogeology and is executive director of the American Institute of Professional Geologists. E-mail:

"NY State: Still no license for geologists," Geotimes, September 2007 

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