Click Here for Salary Graph
Click Here for Job Graph

Have you ever wondered why the typical geology department has only about 30-50 majors? As a faculty member, I find myself and my colleagues being asked this question quite often by inquisitive administrators. Usually, they are more specific and want to know why our department has only about 40 majors? In response, my co-workers and I initiated a recruitment program at the local high schools in an attempt to attract more majors. This necessitated some research by myself and two students (Mary Bridget Champlain and Josh Wiechert) into student motivations for the selection of a major. I would like to share a few bits of information we retrieved that provide some insights into why a student might select one scientific discipline over another as their chosen field of study. Cutting to the chase, it seems that actual career potential in any science is far less of a factor to a beginning student than the perception of that field they have gained at the high-school level. 

The Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, provides a rather thorough discussion of labor characteristics for most of the common professions. I chose to focus our efforts on a comparison of the field of geology with three of our most visible sister sciences -- chemistry, biology, and physics -- using the general assumption that these are our three biggest competitors for science-oriented students. 

Our findings indicate that at present, there are 118,000 biologists, 97,000 chemists, 46,000 geologists, and 20,000 physicists working in the United States. This seems to dispel the myth that there are no jobs in geology. The number of people working in our profession is actually near average for the physical and life sciences. 

What about the pay? The average starting salaries for a bachelors degree in each of these fields are $29,300 (chemistry), $27,900 (geology), and $22,900 (biology). As you may note, geologists are actually on the high side of this distribution (if you're wondering what happened to the field of physics, the Occupational Outlook Handbook states somewhat bluntly that there just aren't enough people working as physicists with only a bachelors degree to make it worth the trouble to count them). 

It appears from the above data that, in terms of job availability and pay, we are rather comparable with the other physical and life sciences. So, maybe, students choose a major of study based on the level of competition for the available jobs in that field. We proceeded to the Department of Education home page (, where we found a table that lists the number of degrees conferred in the United States in every field for the past 25 years. Between 1970 and 1994, U.S. institutions granted bachelors degrees to 659,495 biologists, 244,348 chemists, 94,862 physicists, and 88,906 geologists. Cross referencing these data with the job data above gives us a rough idea of how each field compares in terms of the number of potential competitors for each paying job. The jobs:degrees ratios for the four fields are 1:5.6 (biology), 1:4.7 (physics), 1:2.5 (chemistry), and 1:1.9 geology. By this measure, geology would seem to be a comparatively choice career opportunity.

Another way of estimating job competitiveness is to divide the number of people working in each discipline by the number of people who get bachelors degrees in that field in any given year. This yields an estimate of the replacement rate for each discipline. In this case, 1994 was used as it is the most recent year for which data were available. So, if every working geologist died today, it would take 17.2 years to replace all of them with newly minted baccalaureates, given the rate at which we presently generate bachelor-level geologists. Comparatively, it would take 10.3 years to replace all working chemists, five years to replace all working physicists, and five semesters to replace all working biologists. 

I have heard the sonnet, before, from various choirs, "Don't major in geology; the job market in that field is terrible." If this statement is true, the above data infers that the job market for chemistry, physics and, especially, biology are nothing less than atrocities (bear in mind, however, that this discussion applies only to jobs within the respective disciplines, and does not address the many jobs outside the major discipline that any fundamentally sound science degree will often help to obtain). 

There appears to be no strong correlation between career placement rate, pay, and the number of people choosing geology, chemistry, physics, or biology as a field of study. After all, geology traditionally has the highest professional-placement rate and the lowest number of majors among these fields. I think it is safe to say that if physical- and life-science students are choosing between careers in geology, chemistry, physics, and biology based on the potential of gaining employment within that discipline, they are doing so based on myth and misinformation. 

This brings us to something that does correlate. We have found that there is a strong correlation between the number of people majoring in each of these fields, and the number of courses taken in each field at the high school level (High school refers typically to grades 10-12, but grades 9-12 are included in many schools). Our own experiences tell us that most students take high school biology, quite a few less will take chemistry, some will take physics, and very few will take advanced geology or any Earth science course. This is quantified in The Condition of Education 1996, available on the Department of Education home page. Among the students who graduated in 1994 in these United States, 99.5% took at least one year of high-school biology, 56.0% took at least one year of high-school chemistry, 24.4% took at least one year of high-school physics, and only 23.0% took one semester or more of geology/earth science. If your high school was like mine, that geology/earth science course was also taught at a lower level than the other courses. 

The number of high school courses taken in each of these four sciences closely mirrors the number of degree recipients in each of these fields (Figure 1), and is broadly controlled by the number of high-school courses offered in each field. Thus, it would seem that the degree of high-school exposure to a particular science has a much greater impact on a student's decision to pursue that discipline than does the actual likelihood of gaining employment in that field. This came as quite a surprise to me, as I will admit that there have been times when I thought that the reason so many more college students selected the other sciences was because the job prospects were better in those fields. As it turns out, it is probably more a high-school-derived image than substance that leads students to a potential career in a particular science.

No doubt, other factors not discussed (e.g., the media) play a part in a students' career choice. As a science, however, it would seem that we may be grossly overestimating the role that job potential plays when students are selecting a science major, and severely underestimating the role of exposure at the high school level. Worse yet, maybe job potential is heavy on a lot of students' minds as they select science majors, and we are willingly allowing them to be egregiously misinformed. Either way, acceptance of our minimalist role in the nation's high schools is probably costing our science many of the best and most motivated students for no good reason.  

John Holbrook