You’re a what?
For many people, earthquakes cause fear. But Graham Kent isn’t afraid. He studies and learns from earthquakes as a seismologist and director of the Seismological Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Seismology is the scientific study of earthquakes and related phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions. Earthquakes occur when the tectonic plates that make up the Earth’s crust shift and release energy in the form of waves. These seismic waves, which move through the Earth’s molten core, can cause destruction on the surface by damaging structures, warping roads and bridges, and injuring living things.
Graham’s work is about more than just earthquakes, though. Seismologists also apply what they learn from studying the Earth’s structure and other geological events, such as tsunamis, for commercial and other purposes, such as detecting nuclear explosions.
What they do
Seismologists’ tasks vary, depending on their area of focus. Some seismologists conduct research, for example; others directly observe earthquakes. Still others use their expertise in practical applications. Their work also may combine these different areas of focus.
Seismologists often have additional responsibilities, regardless of their focus. In overseeing the lab, for example, Graham manages budgets and completes administrative work. “A lot of what I do involves paperwork, which takes up a large amount of time,” he says.
Research. Research seismologists study the internal structure of the Earth and try to determine factors that contribute to or foretell an earthquake. They publish their findings in scientific journals or present them at academic forums—or do both. Their work helps guide engineering and building practices to improve safety wherever earthquakes are common.
In addition to conducting their own projects, research seismologists usually teach college- or graduate-level courses and supervise students’ work. Universities and government entities, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, employ most of these seismologists.
Observation. Seismologists who focus on observation record and analyze data from the thousands of earthquakes, both big and small, that occur around the world every year.
They often work in observatories or analysis centers, which are usually built and supported by universities or national governments. For example, Graham’s laboratory studies all earthquakes that occur in Nevada. The laboratory staff, which includes seismologists and students, maps each earthquake and collects associated data, such as its precise location and magnitude. This information is communicated to relief workers in order to aid residents in the affected area.
Applications. Instead of studying earthquakes, some seismologists apply their knowledge to commercial or other uses. For example, they may use sound waves to aid the energy industry in finding oil deep under the Earth’s crust.
Seismology also can help detect nuclear explosions. These explosions create seismic waves that can be identified at great distances, so seismologists help monitor whether countries are complying with nuclear test bans.
How they prepare
To become a seismologist, you need specific skills and a graduate degree. Graham suggests also having a range of interests. “You need to be a bit of an explorer, a bit of an engineer,” he says. “It’s important to have a wide toolset and be able to take in all kinds of information and make something useful out of it.”
Skills. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are essential for seismologists. Their work often involves collecting and analyzing data to develop solid conclusions.
Seismologists should also work well independently, sometimes with limited information. “There is no sign that says ‘Dig here!’ in our work,” says Graham. “You need to be comfortable striking out on your own and working without specific direction.”
But just because seismologists are self-directed doesn’t mean they work alone. Interpersonal skills are imperative for seismologists, because they are often part of a team that includes other scientists, researchers, and students. And seismologists need good communication skills to write papers, present their work, and speak clearly about complex topics.
Seismologists also must have physical stamina and enjoy working outdoors.
Education. How much education prospective seismologists get depends on what they want to do—but they should plan to earn a master’s degree if they want to do fieldwork, says Graham: “To work as a seismologist in the field, a Ph.D. is too much and a bachelor’s degree is not enough.” During fieldwork, seismologists travel to earthquake-prone areas to collect data and physical specimens for lab analysis.
Coursework usually includes subjects such as geology, math, and physics. Knowledge of data analysis software is also important.
Most seismologists who observe earthquakes or apply their knowledge commercially have a master’s degree in geophysics or a related science. However, some entry-level positions may be available for workers with a bachelor's degree. Other areas of study, such as engineering, are also acceptable. Seismologists focusing in research or teaching usually need a Ph.D.
Conducting fieldwork and getting laboratory experience, such as by using data to create computer simulations of earthquakes, are good ways for prospective seismologists to prepare for a career. These experiences may be available to both undergraduate and graduate students. Summer camps may also allow students to apply their knowledge by collecting and analyzing their own data.
What to expect
Working as a seismologist can be interesting and rewarding, but, like any job, seismology has its frustrations and difficulties, too.
Employment and wages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not collect data specific to seismologists. Instead, BLS counts seismologists among geoscientists, a more general category that also includes geologists and oceanographers. In May 2013, there were 34,690 geoscientists, excluding hydrologists and geographers, according to BLS. Their median annual wage was $91,920, compared with a median wage of $35,080 for all workers.
Within the occupation of geoscientist, wages vary by industry. For example, the median wage for geoscientists, excluding hydrologists and geographers, in federal, state, and local government was $79,770 in May 2013; the median wage for this occupation in oil and gas extraction was nearly double that: $142,860.
Work environment. Seismologists work primarily in areas of the United States where earthquakes are common, such as the West Coast. Those in the energy industry may be employed in oil-rich states, such as Texas.
Seismologists usually work for long, irregular periods, including nights and weekends. Other working conditions vary, depending on the focus.
Research seismologists spend much of their time in the lab, usually at a computer. Seismologists who focus on observation often trek long distances, sometimes in extreme weather and through difficult terrain, to find suitable locations for collecting data. And those in the energy industry may work around complex, dangerous drilling equipment.
Challenges and rewards. Among the perks of being a seismologist, says Graham, is working on projects that keep communities safe—sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, Graham’s seismology lab is leading an effort to install potentially life-saving fire cameras on mountaintops in northern California, an outgrowth of seismic monitoring equipment his team set up previously. “The cameras allow firefighters to watch over areas that are difficult to access after lightning storms,” he says. “They can detect forest fires long before they become a threat to people.”
But some projects require seismologists to get permits for installing cameras or seismometers, instruments that measure seismic waves and collect other data, on protected federal lands. And that task is sometimes challenging. “We can’t always get permits for what we want to do,” says Graham. “It can really stifle our research.”
Even if permits are available, securing the funding needed for a project can be difficult. Seismologists apply for grants from governments or nonprofit organizations by submitting a description of the project and its costs. But money for these projects is limited, and seismologists compete with other scientific projects for the same funds. They learn to stretch whatever resources they have.
Still, Graham feels excited about the prospects of working in seismology. “We’re in a time period when we can do amazing things,” he says. “The best part is when you get the permit, and you get the money that you need, and then you make an incredible discovery. I feel lucky to be a part of that.”
Sara Royster, "Seismologist," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2015.