Studying earth sciences

Introduction

Geology is the area of science which involves the study of the physical history of the Earth, from its beginnings to the present day. What happens to the Earth is largely controlled by changes that occur over time deep inside it; these changes are recorded in the rocks which make up the Earth's crust, such as granite and slate and all natural, non-living solid material found in or at the Earth's surface, including for example mud and peat.

Areas of geology

Geology is broken down into several clearly defined topics:

  • Physical geology
    involves the study of the processes which shape the Earth's surface, for example the work of gravity, the atmosphere, weathering, wind, water, ice, rivers and the sea.
  • Petrology
    involves the study of the nature, make up, textures and origins of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.
  • Mineralogy
    involves the study of the make up and physical characteristics (including crystal forms) of naturally formed substances with chemical compositions and atomic structures (minerals).
  • Sedimentology
    involves the study of the processes which form sedimentary rocks.
  • Stratigraphy
    involves the historical study of the rocks that make up the Earth's crust, their relationship with each other, their structure, how they are grouped, the conditions involved in their formation and their fossil content. It is common to study particular periods of geological time, for example Quaternary or Precambrian.
  • Palaeontology
    involves the study of the history of life on Earth, its anatomical development and evolution.

Applicability to industry

The majority of geological studies give results which are of practical use. For example geological information and techniques are used in exploring for, finding and extracting ores for metals and fossil fuels; engineering geology investigates and reports on conditions of sites and the ground for major construction projects, such as dams, roads, tunnels, and oil rigs; environmental geology and hydrogeology investigates underground water supplies.

Course content

Fieldwork plays a vital part in most courses and you should be prepared to spend time out of doors to undertake group expeditions lasting from a few days to one or two weeks.

You will also be expected to complete a longer, usually independent project during the first and/or second summer vacation and in the case of honours students this would last between six and ten weeks depending on the education establishment and department. The content of the project will usually include geological mapping of an area and production of a written report of the findings. Some courses offer field and/or laboratory work as suitable projects.

Laboratory work is also a component of the study of geology. This involves identification of different types of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, and the examination of thin rock sections under microscopes. Fossils are also studied and most departments offer comprehensive collections of both local and exotic examples.

You will also examine and interpret geological maps showing the surface outcrop of rock formations through or below the top layer of superficial deposits.

Increasingly computers are playing a greater part in the study of geology, for example in computer modelling in geophysics or in solving stratigraphical or palaeontological problems.

Education establishments: selection process

When assessing candidates for university places selectors look for evidence of the necessary motivation, potential and knowledge to benefit from and succeed on the course. This can be demonstrated through gaining qualifications, or learning in other ways such as in paid or voluntary work, as a member of an organisation or by participation in any other activity where skills and knowledge are developed. Although no previous knowledge of geology is needed most educational establishments offering degree courses require at least one GCSE / 'A' Level subject to be science based. If you have studied GCSE / 'A' Level geology you would have the advantage of being familiar with the various terminology; however if you have studied GCSE / 'A' Level geology you may feel that your knowledge of other sciences is weaker.

Each education establishment has lecturers who are recognised for their research expertise, often reflected in the courses on offer. Your final year option may therefore involve research in the lecturer's area of expertise.

The subject's multidisciplinary nature and the fact that in most cases no previous knowledge of geology is required to undertake courses makes it an attractive proposition and competition for places is therefore relatively strong.

Further information

  • Local libraries
  • School / College careers service and advice