A Letter to Myself as an Undergraduate Geologist

By: Erik Ronald, PG

Mining Geology HQ

30 April 2016

It’s a common exercise that career councilors provide to those looking for answers to the age old question “what do you want to be when you grow up” to write a letter to your future self, write your obituary (i.e. life highlights) or a summary of your career goals in order to focus on what you enjoy, where your passions lie, and to help set your sights high. I’d like to turn this on its head and instead, write a letter to myself when I was an undergraduate in geology in the mid-1990s. As hindsight is 20/20, not only would this be much easier but also I thought it may prove helpful for current students and young professionals to hear the thoughts of a career geologist approaching two decades in the industry.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young especially in terms of options and opportunities. If university teaches us one thing, it’s how to think and to foster a love of learning and curiosity required to succeed in science. For students, there are a lot of opportunities likely more than you’ll see at any other time during your career. At times it may not feel so optimistic but you should realize that at no other time in your professional career will you likely be surrounded by as many smart, ambitious, and willing-to-teach people as you are right now. You have open access to your fellow students, experts in your professors and lecturers, a slew of graduate students, and an opportunity to get involved with a great deal of research projects simply by asking questions. So here we go (not that I would have listened):

  • Take advantage of as many summer or holiday working opportunities as possible with industry internships. You don’t know what you like or dislike until you try. Spending a summer working underground or offshore or in a corporate office will teach you whether you enjoy and can succeed in any of those rough environments. Going back home to work at the local burger restaurant or as a lifeguard will prepare you for nothing.
  • Join and lead student chapters of industry professional groups. Since you have no idea whether you’ll end up a petroleum, mining, engineering, or some other form of geologist, try them all! Most student participants are treated like kings at industry professional groups. There are low or zero dues, free food, scholarship opportunities, discounts and great networking. Groups know that young individuals interested in their field are the future hopes of the industry and therefore most professional societies do an excellent job of catering to students. By leading these Student chapters, you’ll have direct access to industry leaders and a front-row seat to opportunities as they arise.
  • Work internationally as soon as possible. You will grow both personally and professionally.
  • Success should be measured in experiences, stories and happiness, not in a business card title, how much you over-paid for your German car, or paycheck size. The amount a company is willing to pay you has no correlation to the quality of your character or worth as a human being.
  • Find a professor who’s willing to work with undergrads and ask them for work. You may not get paid in money but you’ll gain experience and insight into how someone at their level thinks which is more than you’ll get in any class. Do the same for graduate students. Though most know little more (or sometimes less) than you and they always need help in the field, lab or elsewhere. You may find some very interesting work and get an insight into the sad life of a grad student.
  • It’s true, the geologist who sees the most rocks wins!
  • Collect life experiences: whether you spend the summer backpacking around Europe or working underground in Queensland, you’ll get some great memories and stories to tell your grand kids someday.
  • Pay attention in Chemistry class. Yes, I know it’s boring at times but you will use it!
  • Don’t worry so much about calculus. It will help when you’re taking fluid dynamics but you’ll forget everything by the time you learn geostatistics. Don’t worry, when you need to use it, you’ll learn it.
  • Take as many field-based courses as you can. Hopefully these are in geology but you’ll also benefit from sister-fields such as paleontology, archaeology or even civil engineering. The keys are to understand how to collect and interpret observational data from the field.
  • Take at least one business or economics course. It would be a wonderful world if you could exist on rock licking alone, unfortunately you will need to be paid so understand business, your role in it, and how important geology can be will benefit you greatly over time.
  • Enjoy every day of your Summer Field program. This has been a rite-of-passage for geologists for 150 years and shouldn’t change. Not taking a course to cumulative your undergraduate geology courses is like reading a murder mystery novel when someone’s removed the last page.
  • Though you’re studying to be a scientist (and later an engineer), it’s your ability to communicate, people skills, and technical writing that will be the deciding factor on career success or failure. Don’t take these for granted.
  • Find an industry mentor. There are a lot of good folks involved with professional societies or alumni groups willing to mentor a young geology student. These are wonderful opportunities that few people take advantage of enough and sadly, they are rarely available to mid- and later-career professionals at low costs.
  • Cancel of all your credit cards. Debt creates dependency. Dependency eliminates opportunities. No opportunities equal one unhappy person stuck in a job they don’t like and cannot quit.
  • Don’t discount the social sciences while in school. Sure the geology courses are why you’re there but what makes us truly human is our ability to appreciate art and music, understand history, dive into psychology, and enjoy language. These classes pay dividends in different and enriching ways.
  • Attend conferences and trade shows (and pay attention). Typically students can attend conferences at highly discounted costs. These are great for networking, hearing what’s new and important in the industry, and meeting the people who wrote your textbooks. Another added perk is there’s typically a lot of free alcohol and food but realize that though memorable, nothing constructive happens after 2am at conferences, especially in Spokane.
  • Part-time work. This may seem intimidating at first but cold calling companies to ask about part time work, even a few hours a week, can not only greatly boost a CV, but will help you gain some “real” experience. Remember the phrase “Hello, I’m a geology major, is there anything I can do to help around here?”
  • If you really want something, don’t take no for an answer.
  • Get advice from (certain) professors. Some in academia have already spent a full and successful career in industry or are currently active in consulting. Find which professors are well-connected to reality and speak to them about your interests, what you can do to gain more experience, and then simply listen.
  • Seek out the unconventional. Those volunteer internships at the USGS Volcanic observatory on Kilauea or that Scripps Institute seismic ship or that mapping project in Patagonia will not be available nor feasible as you progress your career and life. Do them now, you won’t regret anything.
  • Don’t stress about your first job. Sure it would be great to get hired by a company that provides you a graduate training program, challenges you and works with you as your grow your career but realize that’s more fantasy than reality and you will change companies many times over the course of your career.
  • Don’t worry about what others “expect” or how they define success. Find something you’d do for free and make that your job. If you want to follow the crowd to a mundane yet safe corporate cubicle life, the path is easy…do as little as possible. Just think, how many cows do you know who have truly enjoyed their life?

I know I can’t change the past or somehow time travel to give this letter to myself 20+ years ago but I imagine there are many others out there now in a similar position to me back then – passionate for science and the natural world, an inherent sense of scientific curiosity, and a willingness to have an adventurous or challenging life.

I hope you found this useful, interesting, or at least entertaining. If you did, I encourage you to subscribe to your newsletter for alerts on future articles and follow Mining Geology HQ on LinkedIn or Facebook to get recent geology-related news and contribute to our community.


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Posted in Mine Geology, Mineral Exploration, Resource Geology.


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