SAGE Musings: Student Perceptions of Geoscience Careers

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Feb 15, 2018 4:57pm

Whether students choose to pursue a degree or career in geoscience - or even take classes in geoscience - is often influenced by their perceptions of geoscience careers. A recent study (Sherman-Morris and McNeal, 2016) found that "the geosciences scored lower than other science subjects with respect to student perceptions in its ability to help the environment, help society, help them find a job, and salary. This was true for each of the geoscience fields measured when compared with every other science, technology, engineering, and math fields measured with the exception of physics." Obviously, these perceptions make geoscience less appealing to many students. But are they accurate? Let's consider each of these perceptions.

  • Helping the environment
    My first thought, upon reading this, was to wonder how students could be unaware of the potential for the geosciences, which are intricately intertwined with environmental science and environmental studies, to help the environment. However, I think it's likely that students with only a passing knowledge of geoscience careers would associate the geosciences with mining and the petroleum industry rather than with environmental science and sustainability. I think this perception would change dramatically if more people knew about how the geosciences can contribute to addressing many of the grand challenges facing our planet today (e.g., National Research Council, 2001; Bralower et al., 2008).
  • Helping society
    Likewise, I found it surprising that students don't know about the power of the geosciences to help society. I think about the critically important role of the geosciences in building a sustainable future for our planet, the role of the geosciences in evaluating and mitigating natural hazards, and many other ways the geosciences contribute to helping society. Clearly, we could do a better job of educating the general population about this. One strategy for doing this is simply to connect our teaching to the world we live in.
  • Job / career opportunities
    When I was an undergraduate student, I knew next to nothing about job and career opportunities in the geosciences, so I didn't find this result quite as surprising. Nonetheless, there are a broad range of careers in the geosciences and the geoscience job market looks promising (Harwell, 2017).
  • Salary
    If students aren't aware of the kinds of jobs they could get with a degree in geoscience, of course they also don't know what the salaries for such jobs would be. The geosciences compare quite favorably to other STEM disciplines in terms of salaries earned, and geoscientist salaries have been rising steadily for a long time. The American Geosciences Institute published these median salary data for geoscience-related occupations in 2015, and here's a somewhat more nuanced look at geoscientist salaries by occupation.

What can we do with this information? On the one hand, it's unfortunate that students' perceptions of the geosciences are so inaccurate. On the other hand, it seems to me that we ought to be able to address these misconceptions, and that if we do, student interest in geoscience degrees and careers will follow.

What are your students' perceptions of geoscience, of geoscience jobs, and of geoscience careers? How do you address these topics in your classes?

SAGE Musings: Student Perceptions of Geoscience Careers -- Discussion  

Carol, Great post! Are there any national studies of perception (e.g. from AGI)? I'd like to know if nature of the study subjects (state university students next to the petrochemical hub of America) biased the perceptions significantly.
~Scott L


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Originally Posted by Scott Linneman

Are there any national studies of perception (e.g. from AGI)? I'd like to know if nature of the study subjects (state university students next to the petrochemical hub of America) biased the perceptions significantly.

Great question, Scott! I don't know. Perhaps someone else will chime in?


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I teach at a cc in the LA basin; our students are not rural in the same sense as others but have similar close ties that keep them local. Also, they aren’t really aware of geosciences as a career path because of their family backgrounds and what they are exposed to growing up (even though of all places in the US, this is probably one of the most geologically significant areas from a hazard perspective). I think this is because they don’t know anyone who works in geosciences, so have no role models or understanding of the possibilities in terms of careers.

Our students are equally reticent to move; they are very close to their families. In our case, this means that they often don’t consider transfer options outside of the LA area.

I try to emphasize how you can bring a wide range of backgrounds to bear in the earth sciences; I also try to talk to them about the fact that transferring to a school outside of this area is a short term adventure. We also do a lot of networking with recent alums from our program. They often have more sway with our students in getting them to consider other options.


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