Working as a geologist

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Ailsa Jones is a geologist working with the British Geological Survey (BGS). But she is also a writer, an illustrator and an editor. One week she may be doing geological fieldwork in the highlands of Scotland or the United Arab Emirates, and the next writing and illustrating a book, or editing a scientific report back in the office.

What does your job as a geologist involve?

A whole range of geological and writing activities. As a geologist I carry out fieldwork in Scotland and further afield, surveying the rock formation of a specific area and drawing up a map which shows how the ground is made up of different layers and the types of rocks involved.

I also edit scientific publications produced by the BGS. In the past couple of years a major part of my job has been writing and illustrating books on geology and landscape for non-specialist readers, such as tourists or walkers. I enjoy writing and painting and this role allows me to combine my interests with my scientific expertise.

What are you doing at the moment?

I'm involved in a project in the United Arab Emirates which runs for two months a year. This involves fieldwork surveying the rock formation of the area. After fieldwork, I compile maps and write scientific reports and papers on the results. I also edit scientific publications produced by the British Geological Society.

What was your route into this job?

I studied science at A level, followed by geology at degree and PhD level at university. I joined the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh and started by doing geological mapping in Scotland, which involved fieldwork, map-making and technical report writing.

How did you manage to combine geology with writing?

I originally chose to study geology because I loved being outdoors and was interested in how the landscapes around me formed. Once I had been a geologist with BGS for several years, I managed to incorporate my interests in writing and illustrating into my career.

How did you manage to combine geology with writing?

I originally chose to study geology because I loved being outdoors and was interested in how the landscapes around me formed. Once I had been a geologist with BGS for several years, I managed to incorporate my interests in writing and illustrating into my career.

What equipment do you use?

When I'm in the field I use a hammer, hand lens, and a compass-clinometer which also allows me to measure the angle of a sloping surface. I also use a GPS (Global Positioning System) navigator, which uses satellites to pinpoint my position and gives me a grid reference or longitude and latitude of the exact spot I am standing on. I usually drive a four-wheel drive jeep or pick-up when surveying a site.

What do you use for writing and illustrations?

I use opaque watercolour paints and am starting to use computer drawing packages.

Do you have a typical day?

Not really, although it depends upon the projects I am working on. When I am carrying out fieldwork in the UK, I will spend the day outdoors making measurements and observations on rock outcrops and landforms. In the office, I will either be working at a computer or doing illustrations using paints. I also spend time liaising with BGS staff and clients.

What do you like best about your job?

I enjoy working with people on a wide variety of projects. I like the opportunity to be creative and I get to travel to all sorts of places in the UK and abroad – both for scientific fieldwork and for the popular writing and illustrating side of my job.

What training do you receive?

I receive regular and very varied training which to date has included IT courses, technical and scientific courses, fieldbased courses, management and work skills courses.

What hours do you work?

Officially, 37 hours a week but I often work longer hours, especially when I'm in the field or working to tight deadlines. When I'm in the office I am on flexi time, which allows me to vary when I work.

What are the skills and qualities needed to work as a geologist

First and foremost is the need to be a qualified geologist with several years of field experience. This experience should ideally be as varied as possible, involving participation in a range of projects in the UK and, if you get the opportunity, overseas. The science of geology is always moving on so it is important that you keep up to date with new ideas and techniques.

You will have to produce reports and papers on your findings, and if you have the ability to write creatively this can be adapted to the writing of books for non-specialists. Good communication skills and the ability to work in teams and with a range of different people, are essential.

Writing and illustrating popular, non-technical, books requires creativity and art and design skills, plus the ability to put scientific concepts across in an attractive and interesting way.

Ailsa's route

  • A levels in maths, physics and chemistry.
  • BA (Hons) in Geology.
  • PhD in Geology.

Ailsa's tips

  • If you are a scientist you may not manage to do other things such as writing and illustrating straight away. Just persevere and take the opportunities when they arrive.
  • Keep actively involved with your science – I am still a scientist as well as a writer and illustrator.

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Salary of a geologist

  • Starting salaries at degree level are about £17,000 up to about £21,000 if you start with a PhD.
  • At Higher or Senior Scientific Officer level you could expect to earn between £21,000 and £31,000. Project Leaders earn between £30,000 and £43,000.

Getting in

  • Science subjects at school followed by a good degree and possibly a further degree such as a PhD or MSc (although not essential) is the normal route for work at this level.
  • All scientists have to undertake writing at various levels, mostly in the form of reports on their research to be read by other scientists in scientific journals. Experience and interest may lead to the ability to produce the more general writing referred to here which can lead to a career in scientific journalism.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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