Recruiting Geoscience Students for the 21st Century

Barbara Tewksbury*

Dilemma: You’ve just approached a talented student in your introductory class and tried to persuade her to major in geology. She replies, “I do love geology, but I honestly don’t want to be a geologist. Besides, my parents would flip if I told them I’d decided not to major in economics.” Should you try to change her mind? If so, how??

Dilemma: Your department is under the gun to increase the number of undergraduate majors, and a colleague who will retire in the next few years may not be replaced if your department cannot attract more majors. At the same time, you are reluctant to encourage students to major in geoscience when the career prospects are uncertain. You feel like crossing your fingers behind your back as you smile and say, “Sure, there are jobs in geol-ogy.” How can you recruit with a good conscience??

There is a way out of these two dilemmas. As educators, we have talked for the last decade about the issue of science literacy and how to develop introductory courses that best meet the science literacy needs of nonscience majors. We have also discussed what constitutes the best undergraduate foundation for the next century’s geoscientists. We haven’t thought much, however, about whom we recruit as geoscience majors and why, and whether we ought to broaden our horizons when we recruit students into geoscience departments.

Most departments recruit geoscience majors (students pursuing geoscience degrees) with the underlying assumption that those students will become geoscience professionals, while the students who choose otherwise are seen as failures in one way or another. The number of majors who become geologists is the standard measure of success, after all. How many times are we asked to demonstrate the success of our undergraduate programs by tallying the number of students who have gone on to pursue graduate work in geoscience? I hope to convince you that everyone benefits when geoscience departments expand their recruitment strategies and when they choose measures of success to include students who enjoy geoscience but who have career interests in other areas.

Geoscientists on Wall Street
Is there a precedent for recruiting students who have career aspirations outside the discipline? Of course there is. How many philosophy departments can you think of that assume their philoso-phy majors will become professional philosophers? Virtually none. What about history departments? English departments? These departments have, very successfully, convinced undergraduates that training in their disciplines provides an excellent foundation for future study in many fields and for careers of all kinds. They emphasize skills, broad knowledge, and habits of the mind, rather than just knowledge of the discipline.
Most of the sciences have missed the boat on this one. What could better prepare someone for a career in law, politics, business, medicine, or teaching than a liberal arts education and a strong foundation in scientific habits of the mind? Geoscience courses can emphasize problem solving and critical thinking, evaluation of evidence, use of quantitative skills, coping with limited datasets, and systems thinking. Employers outside the geosciences recognize the value of these skills. In my 20-plus years of teaching undergraduate geoscience, I have met many employers in the banking, insurance, and business worlds who place a high value on preparation in science and who speak glowingly about what former geoscience majors have brought to their jobs. Hamilton graduates who have chosen non-geoscience careers also repeatedly praise their geoscience backgrounds and tell us that their geoscience degrees have provided advantages that colleagues with undergraduate degrees in disciplines such as history or economics don’t enjoy.

The benefits geoscience degrees give to students and businesses reach, in fact, well beyond providing training in scientific habits of the mind. The business world of the late 20th century has increasingly relied on so-called “gold-collar workers,” a term coined by Carnegie Mellon University Professor Robert E. Kelley in The Gold-Collar Worker: Harnessing the Brainpower of the New Work Force, published in 1985. Gold-collar workers are highly skilled individuals who know a great deal about more than one area of a company’s business. They have comprehensive sets of skills and can be professional on many different levels. Gold-collar workers with substantial undergraduate training in science and with graduate training in law, business, or finance (and sometimes in science as well) are particularly valuable to companies with research divisions. Such doubly trained professionals understand both management and research and can improve profitability by providing the missing interfaces between sectors of a company. Businesses want students with this kind of training. Far from being sidetracked by an undergraduate degree in science, a student who deliberately chooses such a degree, and then pursues graduate training in a nonscience field, will actually be poised to become part of the work force that businesses will value most in the 21st century.

Society wins
Society as a whole can benefit from an increased number of college graduates who have undergraduate degrees in geoscience. Consider the variety of problems and decisions related to science in general and to the environment in particular that people will face in the 21st century: global warming, cloning, resource depletion, water quality, artificial intelligence, hazardous-waste disposal, gene transplants, soil degradation, and maybe even off-planet colonies. When citizens are comfortable and familiar with science, our successful navigation through the coming minefield of complex decisions will be difficult but possible.

Navigating the future with a citizenry that may not distinguish science from pseudoscience is a frightening prospect. Firsthand,
personal experiences in science are crucial for all members of society and more, rather than less, science is necessary. While a single introductory course is better than no exposure to geoscience at all, an intro course simply doesn’t give a student a deep understanding of Earth and of the scientific process that a geoscience degree can. The more people who have undergraduate degrees in geoscience, the better our society will be poised to tackle the environmental
challenges of the 21st century.

The geoscience profession can also benefit from doctors, business people, lawyers, and politicians who have geoscience degrees. The geosciences suffer from a chronically low public profile, despite what seem to us the obvious connections between the geosciences and the environment, as well as the resources society uses daily. When most people think about science, they typically think about the PCBs (physics, chemistry, and biology). One way for the geosciences to develop a more effective public presence is to increase the number of citizens having a deep understanding of the geosciences. Imagine what could happen to the public image of the importance of geoscience if more teachers, corporate executives, lawyers, small business owners, government officials, and ordinary citizens had undergraduate degrees in geoscience!

Geoscience departments win too
What of geoscience departments? Can a department benefit from having majors with other career aspirations outside of geology? Certainly. Rethinking which students to recruit to pursue geoscience majors gives departments another strategy for recruiting bright and talented students. A new recruiting rationale allows us to capture that student who says, “I like geology, but I’m headed for an MBA.” How can a department lose? Numbers increase and diversity increases. And broadening the pool also allows us, with a good conscience, to recruit outstanding students. We don’t want to double the number of majors in
our departments when jobs in the geosciences will not be available for all students. If we actively advertise geoscience as an appropriate major for many different career trajectories, we can increase the number of students in our departments without misleading those students about their futures.

But what of the fear that broadening recruitment might dilute the major? I can think of no reason why this has to be the case. The bright students we want to recruit are capable of doing as well in a rigorous major as those who intend to be geologists. In fact, bright students looking for a challenge don’t want an easy, watered-down major and are, quite frankly, sometimes bored by introductory courses that are less than challenging. To attract the best and brightest, we need to keep our curricula strong and challenging, rather than diluting curricula or offering less rigorous tracks for students who don’t intend to become geologists. We also can’t lose sight of the fact that rigorous practice in critical thinking and the development of scientific habits of the mind provide the real value in an undergraduate science education. Students don’t acquire these skills without rigor and depth. Thus, I would argue that a department has nothing to lose by broadening its recruitment strategies.

How can a department change its recruitment strategies? First and foremost, the faculty must shift attitudes in several ways. We geoscientists must accept and promote the notion that undergraduate training in geology is valuable for any student, regardless of career trajectory. We also need to stop counting as “failures” those who do not go on to be geologists — an idea
perhaps more difficult to conceptualize than is seeing the value of geology for everyone. Our training has conditioned us to value cloning our professional selves, and it’s hard not to be disappointed when a good student goes off to business school and doesn’t follow us into geology. But we must get over this mindset if we are to be successful at recruiting more broadly. No student should feel second-class simply for choosing a different career path. Beyond meeting this challenge, departments need to measure the successes of their programs by doing more than counting the number of geoscientists they produce. As long as this parameter remains the primary measure of success, no one (faculty and students alike) can truly believe in the worth of each and every student.

Departments also need to take a proactive attitude toward recruitment. Recruit shamelessly and unabashedly at every opportunity! Take the time in introductory courses to discuss not only the courses offered in your department but also the value to anyone of a degree in geoscience. Approach your best and brightest students individually and encourage them to major in geoscience. Be prepared with a convincing rationale that focuses on their interest in geoscience, that advertises the skills a geoscience degree provides, and that describes the career benefits of the degree for those pursuing law, business, finance, politics, and so on. Remind them that most philosophy majors don’t become philosophers and that your department doesn’t simply train geologists. Develop a departmental brochure that students can read leisurely and send to their parents. We all know that it is usually the parents that are  hardest to convince. Don’t hesitate to use success stories from previous graduates, who are commonly more than willing to offer a few bons mots about how their undergraduate degrees in geoscience have made all the difference in their careers in finance, or insurance, or law. And, above all, value all students, regardless of their career plans, and treasure the diversity in your department. Faculty, departments, and the profession can benefit when students are trained, as undergraduates, with good scientific habits of the mind and a deep understanding of how Earth works — regardless of whether those students become career geoscientists.

Barbara Tewksbury
Department of Geology, Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y., 13323. E-mail: <>.
Tewksbury is the Stephen Harper Kirner Professor of Geology and chair of the Hamilton College Department of Geology, which has successfully used a broad recruitment strategy for over a decade. Tewksbury is a past president of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers and received the 1997 New York State Professor of the Year Award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.