PNAS: Denise Hills, Geologist II

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Denise Hills, a government geologist)

1) What is your non-academic job?

My job title is the very descriptive “Geologist II” which really tells you nothing about what I actually DO, now does it? I work for the Geological Survey of Alabama, primarily doing geophysical analysis. What does that mean? Well, I spent a lot of time looking at squiggly lines and telling people what they mean. My specialty is seismic reflection data, but I also use well log data to help determine something about the underground structure and stratigraphy of the earth. In particular, we look at oil and gas reserves throughout the state, as well as look for places to inject CO2 into the ground to help sequester it (reducing greenhouse gases).

2) What is your science background?

I have a BS in Geology from William and Mary, an MS in Geology from the University of Delaware, and am ABD in Geology and Geophysics from the University of Hawaii. I have no intention of ever completing the PhD, either. I left the PhD program when I realized that it might actually hinder me from what I wanted to do. I recognized that I did not want to stay in academics, and I preferred tech-type or science outreach sort of jobs, where having a PhD makes you overqualified.

3) What led you to this job?

When I first left my PhD program, I went to work at a museum in science outreach. From there, we moved across country (I have a spouse in academia) and I worked for another museum for a while, also doing science outreach. I decided I wanted a job closer to home than the museum, and started looking for geology-related jobs in town (the museum was in the next big city). I put myself on the state register for Geology and this job was available. I met with the people I’d be working with, we got along well, and I was hired

4) What’s your work environment like?

My work environment is primarily at a desk, in front of a computer. However, I can also have days where I work in a lab examining core, or even go out into the field to visit well sites and take measurements.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

A typical day starts with me answering email from coworkers and others. One of my duties (as for everyone who works for the Survey) is to communicate what we do to the public, and assist the public with their questions about geology. I don’t get to do that nearly as much as I’d like, but some days I do. After answering email, I usually fire up one of the specialty computer programs I use for data processing and analysis, and spend most of my day doing that. I sometimes get a chance to go look at core (actual rock!) instead of just looking at their geophysical signatures, but that’s not a typical day. The end result of our work is usually reports sent to various government agencies.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

I couldn’t do this job without my science background. I’ve learned a lot while on the job, which is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much, but I would be lost without my background. I spent time in graduate school working on seismic reflection data processing and interpretation, and other geophysical data processing and interpretation, which is exactly what I do today.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

They should get a degree in Geology. You can work at a survey with just a BS, but most people here have at least an MS degree, with some having a PhD. I would advise getting a MS, though, if you’re interested in most any geology profession.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

The most important thing I’ve learned from science is that I don’t know everything. Seriously, though, I’ve learned to ask questions and to recognize that others have different knowledge than I do, and that we can create the best product by working together using our strengths.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Find something that you’re happy with, and go with it. Not everyone needs a PhD, or to be in academia, to be happy doing science. However, if being in academia is what will make you happy, pursue it with passion. Pursue science, in whatever capacity, with a passion, and you’ll be happy.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

Salary range, for my position, starts at abouit $43K/year, and goes up to about $65K/year. There is opportunity for advancement beyond that, stepping up to Geologist III or management.