Geological engineering involves geology, civil engineering, and fields such as mining, forestry and geography. These engineers apply earth sciences to human problems. Specialty areas include geotechnical site studies of rock and soil slope stability for projects; environmental studies and planning for construction sites; groundwater studies; hazard investigations; and finding fossil fuel and mineral deposits.
Geological engineers investigate things that are part of or are made to be part of the earth, including roads, mines and quarries, dams, petroleum production, railways, building projects, pipelines, and forestry operations.
They engineer clean-up and environmental assessments where pollution occurs. They survey for minerals and drinking water; they search for building material resources, and they map potential landslides and earthquakes. The variety in this field is enormous.
What do They do?
Many of these specialists consult for engineering or environmental firms. Many are employed by highway departments, environmental protection agencies, forest services, and hydro operations.
Construction industries depend on geological engineers to assure the stability of rock and soil foundations for tunnels, bridges, and highrises. Foundations must withstand earthquakes, landslides, and all other phenomena which effect the ground, including permafrost, swamps and bogs.
Geological engineers find better ways to build and manage landfills. They find safer ways to dispose of toxic chemicals and garbage, and to manage sewage. They plan excavations and design tunnels.
Transportation infrastructures depend on geological engineers to determine strong terrain and safe pathways for airports, railways, highways, and even pipelines.
These engineers are heavily employed in energy fields, exploring for more natural resources (oil, gas, uranium, tar sands, geothermal and coal). They develop ways to mine hard-to-access resources, and in the least polluting manner. They are responsible for the safety of pits, reservoirs and mining facilities, guarding against earthquake damage and environmental risks—even for nuclear reactors.
Groundwater is another geological engineering specialty. Industries and farms need reliable water sources, sometimes requiring dams or well drilling. Water supply to hydroelectric dams is regulated by these engineers; they design dikes and they work at preventing shoreline erosion.
Ore and other metallic mineral deposits (lead, zinc, iron, nickel, copper) are essential to transportation and construction industries. Geological engineers discover new sources of minerals, as present supplies diminish.
Becoming a Geological Engineer
A B.S. in geological engineering gives students in-depth studies in the humanities, economics, and social science. Graduates have the communications skills to be effective and responsible in meeting the social needs of their field. A B.S. typically is a 4-year course of study and involves laboratory work.
Courses include geology, structural geology, marine paleontology, paleoecology, igneous and metamorphic petrology, mineralogy and optical mineralogy.
Advanced degrees are needed to pursue careers as environmental, petroleum and mining geologists.
The senior-year capstone experience allows students to explore the technical facets of their specialties as well as the business of engineering—teamwork, project management, communications, ethics, and intellectual property. Teams experience opportunities with real, client-based projects that tackle problems they are likely to encounter on the job.
Geological Engineer Employment & Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Mining and geological engineering positions are expected to increase by 10 percent between 2010 and 2020 for those with bachelor's degrees. This occupation does not require the numbers of professionals that many other professions employ, but a growth of 10 percent is about average for all occupations.
Typical Geological Engineer Salary
Geological and mining engineering and sciences have a median salary of $84,300, and the top 10 percent earn $136,800 (BSL).
Career Advancement Opportunities
Government agencies, both federal and state, employ geological engineers to develop and enforce environmental standards, and to conduct research. Post-graduate degrees open opportunities for higher salaries, research and teaching.
Is This the Right Career for You?
If you were a child who often picked up "special" rocks, or watched fascinated as creeks followed their course underground and out again, or as springs bubbled from the ground… If you tunneled in snow banks, built forts, footbridges or sandcastles… you were literally toying with geological engineering.
Still, before pursuing geological engineering specifically, it is a good idea to find your niche discipline—structural, environmental, or geotechnical engineering, for example.
Career-related experience is available long before graduation, and will help you better understand any field of study. Through co-op programs, students gain experience interning in their field of study, and some are paid.
Internships are another great way to put a toe in the water. Interns perform a broad range of laboratory procedures; they use computers to figure size distributions and generate plots and statistics; they do field work at sea, and make geophysical surveys. If these kinds of activities appeal to the explorer or builder in you, that's a good sign.
Geological Engineer Associations
- American Association of Petroleum Geologists
- American Geological Institute
- American Geophysical Union
- Geological Society of America