Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Why geophysics?

  1. Sep 18, 2012 #1
    I'm a physics major who has become interested in earth science. Many fields of geophysics have caught my interest but as a whole, I seem to be more interested in whole earth geophysics than applied geophysics. Seismology, geodynamics, & tectonics have really caught my eye. The field work is what I'm primarily interested in.

    Basically, I created this thread because I would like to hear from others in geophysics who may have been in my position at one point or another. What sparked your interest in earth science? What advice do you have for someone who might be in my position? How often do you get to go out into the field to collect data?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 18, 2012 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2017 Award

    Hi jbrussell
    greetings :)

    Tho I dont work in the field ( Im an electronics technician) I did put myself through a degree in geology back in the 1990's as an adult student. Your interests are very similar to mine but with the addition of volcanics

    What got me into it .... it was a very local M5.0 earthquake back in 1974 when I was a young teenager ... I changed my life interests forever and I became very passionate about seismology and quake recording. I started with rotating drum and paper recorders and in the mid '90's moved into multichannel digital recording which I am still active with.
    Those early teen years also saw a growing interest in rock and mineral collecting and studies. And by the time the late '80's to '90's came arouond and I decided to do some university studies, I already has a lot of very practical experience. The uni studies provided the missing link .... the theory background !

    Advice .... well following a strong passion, you can never go wrong. you will always be in a better position than some one who is just studying the subject cuz they just need a job in that field. Be aware, getting work in the geophysics field will be a bit more difficult than in other areas like economic or enviromental geology, which is where the big money is also to be made. When I was at uni, at the end of each graduation, you would see all the BIG mining companies visiting and skim off the top 5% of graduates to go into the big Australian mines. This was great for those guys, they would often just do a solid 5 years with a company gaining valuable field experience and financial renumeration like that before moving elsewhere to follow their main lines of interest and research.

  4. Sep 18, 2012 #3
    I'm a seismologist so I can tell you a little bit about that.
    In seismology you might get some field experience. Likely deploying and servicing seismometers. It can be great, if you go somewhere nice. It's mainly driving around though, followed by beers in the evenings with your comrades. Occasionally people get to go in helicopters or light aircraft. And there are usually a few technical problems to sort out with solar panels, or car batteries or something. You might have to do some digging. The "real" work is done back in the office though, sifting through data, and generally using it to try to understand some aspect of the Earth.

    I jumped straight in to a geophysics degree as an undergraduate. I was interested in it, especially because I had done geology at A-level (education for ages 16-18 in the UK), which I particularly enjoyed. However I also enjoyed maths and physics so I chose geophysics over geology. I got into seismology after taking the course as an advanced undergraduate. Living in the UK I've never experienced an earthquake, but I was really turned on by the theoretical aspects of seismology, which goes from continuum mechanics and the wave propagation of all kinds of crazy waves, through to rather mathematical processing techniques involving things like Radon transforms and Born perturbations. I use seismology to study the Earth, however there are others who use it to study earthquakes in detail. To me an earthquake is a source of energy, energy that illuminates the deep Earth, to others the details of the waveform reveal aspects of the fault geometry and the mechanics of the event itself.
  5. Sep 18, 2012 #4
    This was all very helpful for me, thanks for the input. I figured the field work was probably pretty minimal, but even just getting away from the monotonous desk work for a day would be nice. I'm currently working in a neurobiology lab doing some computer modeling and I've realized that I need something more applied and physically stimulating. I originally got interested in research in high school when I did some bird banding one summer. I fell in love with being in the field but desired something more quantitative. As you can see, I am still in the process of trying different things out but I think geophysics, the combination of both field work and quantitative work, sounds like the best of both worlds. I will be taking my first physical geology class next semester so I'll see how serious I still am after that. I'm also planning on applying to geophysics REU's for this summer to see what the research is really all about

    As far as graduate programs in geophysics... How much geology/geophysics do they expect me to have as an undergrad in physics? I'm able to take one every semester before I graduate and get a geophysics minor if that helps at all.
  6. Sep 19, 2012 #5
    I don't know about the American system, really. However, with a physics degree you're in with a shot. A lot of geophysicists, particularly among the older generation, started off with physics. Nowadays geophysics degrees are more common, and most of the geos below the age of about 30 I know have undergrads in geophysics. Having a minor in geophysics would certainly help you. Although it would depend on the supervisor and the project they have in mind. Many supervisors might have a preference for people with physics backgrounds, especially if they are more theoretically inclined.

    The stereotypical view would be that physicists are better at maths but know nothing about rocks. Earth scientists the other way around. I've heard professors say it is easier to teach a geo the relevant maths than it is to teach a physicist/maths guy rocks. If you're serious about doing geophysics I would recommend finding a course that'll teach you about rocks, igneous petrology is not a bad starting point.
  7. Sep 20, 2012 #6
    I come from a physics background and managed to get a PhD offer studying landslides and landslide induced tsunamis under the supervision of a geophysicist (In the UK). I am sure I could have also got an offer studying impact cratering. I believe the most important factor in this was my research experience in the area, which was entirely computational modelling. I had almost zero undergrad teaching in the area! Neither project had any field work, although the landslide tsunami one would have involved experiments in a fluid dynamics lab. I expect I would have had a difficult time getting a project that involved significant field work without having done any previously, and I was told as much by my supervisor.

    I feel exactly the same as you with regard to the monotony of computational work. However, you have to bare in mind that even if you do find a PhD with significant fieldwork, it is still highly likely that the majority of your year will be spent at a computer. That is just the reality of science today. Data has to be analysed and reports written :(. You could make life easier for yourself by getting familiar a programming language like Python or MATLAB which will certainly take the pain out computational work when it arises.

    My advice to you would be try and get some research experience in the area if possible. So it is great that you are applying for geophysics REUs. I know professors, certainly at my university, were open to undergraduate students from other areas wanting to work in their labs. For example, a physics friend of mine studied isotope anomalies in volcanic rocks from Iceland during the summer but is now doing an astrophysics PhD. Since you are still an undergraduate the world is still open to you, so to speak, and it seems like you have all the right ideas in mind.
  8. Sep 20, 2012 #7


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2017 Award

    hahaha ohhh gosh aint that the truth !! ;)

  9. Sep 20, 2012 #8
    Yeah, I only know a minimal amount of python and I was going to take a MATLAB class this semester but had to hold off in order to keep on track with my physics courses. What would you say is the best language to learn because I was going to take a C intro programming class for computer science majors, but I'm beginning to think one of the MATLAB programming classes for engineers may be a better choice for modeling work. Maybe once I get a better feel for programming I'll enjoy the computational work a bit more.

    So what exactly are you doing now? It sounds from your post that you are not doing the geophysics PhD involving tsunamis. Also, when you were looking at graduate programs, did you look at geology/geophysics departments or physics with a geophysics emphasis? I would imagine that I would have a greater chance of doing some field work in a geology/geophysics department...
  10. Sep 20, 2012 #9
    There is no one best language to learn! Once you learn how to "think like a programmer" then you'll find learning any language much easier. When I said MATLAB/Python I was referring specifically to data analysis work. They are good, common, scripting languages with hundreds of built in functions to plot graphs, do statistical analysis and everything else. I should say that Python itself is much more general, but there are modules for scientific work (NumPy, SciPy), while MATLAB is not free but your university will probably have an institutional license. It is my understanding that complex modelling work is not typically done in scripting languages because it is much faster to use a compiled language like Fortran or C. So... taking a class in C would not be a bad thing to do, however if you really have no interest in modelling and would prefer to do fieldwork perhaps your time is better spent on something more relevant to that?

    I looked for PhDs in earth science departments, which usually included atmospheric science, oceanography, geology, geophysics and sometimes even planetary science. You will often find physicists working in earth science departments but rarely find geologists in physics departments, so definitely restrict your search to the earth sciences if that is what you want! However, there is always overlap, for example seismic waves can be used to study the oceans and neutrinos can potentially be used to study the earth. If you want to do fieldwork I would suggest you look up some faculty who are doing fieldwork and send them a polite email about opportunities to do your graduate work with them. The worst they can do is say no, but more helpful ones might suggest other opportunities or put you in touch with other people.

    You are right, I didn't do the landslide PhD for numerous reasons which I won't go into but I have now moved sideways into climate and atmospheric science. I'm actually doing a one year MSc course while reapplying for PhDs.
  11. Sep 22, 2012 #10
    I actually have talked to a seismologist in the geology department at my school who has a PhD in physics who was VERY interested and enthusiastic about letting me work with him. He said that he's only ever had one other undergrad physics student interested in geophysics, but they eventually lost interest. My school is a larger state school (around 33,000 undergrad) but the physics department is tiny with only about 60-70 physics undergrads total. I'm going to take his intro physical geology class next semester before I commit to working with him, though. Partly because I'm still not completely sure that I want to go for geophysics, but mainly because I feel that I would be "abandoning" my current lab if I switched right now. I'm sure my mentor would understand but I want to at least follow through with my project to the end of the academic year because I personally feel that I should.
  12. Sep 22, 2012 #11


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    My niece has a PhD in planetary physics and specializes in seismology. You might want to look into that.
  13. Sep 23, 2012 #12
    Back to the OP. One of the giants of geology was the physicist Arthur Holmes. He produced the first widely accepted data on rock dating and the age of the Earth. He proposed sea-floor spreading and mantle convection four decades before plate tectonics was developed. His Principles of Physical Geology was an outstanding textbook.

    In summary, my message is "Physicists can make hugely important contributions to geology."
  14. Sep 23, 2012 #13
    That is one fascinating wikipedia page. And from the page it looks as though he did the rock dating in his undergrad years! It's nice to see useful things come from physicists who side step into other fields. Being in a biology lab I've seen first hand how biologists tend to view physicists as having simplistic views, but it's hard to deny the fact that the tools that physicists employ are useful for just about any problem. Just look at Hodgkin and Huxley and their contributions to neurobiology!
  15. Sep 24, 2012 #14
    I tried to answer that but I think that it was not explicitely enough to suggest: passion to solve mysteries. I wonder if it's a problem to suggest that without being geophysicist What happened to Earth and why (physically)? I'll start a thread on the example I attempted to give in a few days. Need to do some more research first.
  16. Sep 25, 2012 #15
    I wanted to be an astronomer, but thought my maths wasn't up to it. The next largest thing for study after the rest of the universe is the Earth.
  17. Sep 25, 2012 #16
    It's interesting you say that... What originally drew me towards physics was astronomy/astrophysics but after researching on the internet while still in high school and finding that it's next to impossible to become a research astronomer/astrophysicist, I started looking into biology where I knew there was more funding. Now that I've stumbled upon geophysics, I feel that it is close to my original interests only more applicable to everyday life and therefore... more funding. Though, I've still seen more of a space physics flavor to some of the geophysics departments I've seen with atmospheric plasma, geomagnetic fields, etc... So maybe there is still hope!
  18. Sep 25, 2012 #17
    You still need pretty sharp maths skillz to be a geophysicist. If you don't understand Fourier transforms, for example, you would be lucky to pass grad school. Some geos have crazy maths skillz, Harold Jeffries (deceased), Tony Dahlen (deceased), Albert Tarantola (deceased), and Roel Schneider spring to mind to name but a few.
  19. Sep 25, 2012 #18
    A computational geologist at a good London university told me "I'm garbagee at maths."... his colleague, turned to me and said, "He isn't being modest, he really is garbagee at maths." XD. I still think he WAS being modest of course...
  20. Sep 25, 2012 #19
    In terms of maths skillz (typically):

    Geophysicist ≠ Geologist

    Mathematician > Physicist > Geophysicist > Geologist > Non-scientist

    As for anecdotes, I recently attended a software engineering course also attended by a group of particle physicists, neurobiologists, economists, mechanical engineers, and geographers. One task was to write an algorithm to find the co-ordinates of the overlapping region given the co-ordinates of two overlapping squares (with aligned vertices). The geophysicists in the room realised the problem could be solved 1-dimension at a time and wrote the nicest, most general algorithm in the room. The others wrote messy algorithms that required the user to input the leftmost square co-ordinates first and solved the problem in an awkward way. That is, apart from the particle physicists, who could not figure out an algorithm at all!
  21. Sep 29, 2012 #20
    i'm a undergraduate student, studying in pure geology, but i love geophysics very much.
    any advice for me?
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook