Geochemists study the chemicals that make up the Earth, including in rocks, soil, sediment and water. They produce maps to show the location and concentration of chemicals, and advise on the exploration and development of resources like oil, coal and gas. Most of their work is based in a laboratory, although they also collect information during fieldwork.
Geochemists study the type and distribution of chemicals that make up the Earth, for example, in rocks, soil, sediment and water. They also study the chemical processes that take place on and beneath the Earth's surface.
In fieldwork, geochemists take samples, bringing them back to the laboratory. Here, they use analytical chemistry to find out which chemicals are in the samples. Geochemists can use a variety of techniques and equipment in this.
They can load a number of samples into automated testing equipment. This allows them to save time by analysing hundreds of samples at once, and, sometimes, by running tests overnight. There are also more intricate and complex types of analysis, for example, using gas chromatography to separate compounds in a sample.
Geochemists use computers to display and analyse the results. They can use computers to model and simulate the generation and movement of chemicals such as hydrocarbon.
Geochemists' studies can develop our knowledge about the origin, age and nature of rocks and other structures.
They also use their findings to map the location, concentration and movement of chemicals over large areas of land. This information helps them to find the probable location of resources such as oil, coal or uranium, and leads to mining or drilling. In oil and gas companies, geochemists trace the formation and movement of oil and natural gas. They work out how much gas or oil is present and where it can be extracted.
Geochemists also have a role in monitoring and protecting the environment. They identify the presence of chemical pollution, for example, in soil or in water below the Earth's surface (the water table). They investigate landfill and disused industrial sites, for example, to find out if pollution has seeped into rocks, soil or water.
Geochemists are important to agriculture. For example, they assess the lime content of soil. Lime is a very cheap and abundant source of alkalinity, and can be used by farmers to reduce soil acidity. Geochemists identify chemicals in the soil that can harm crops. Pollutants react with minerals in the soil, and can stop plants taking up certain nutrients.
While they might spend time alone in activities like fieldwork and data analysis, geochemists are likely to be involved in lots of teamwork. They could be working with general geologists, mineral or mining geologists, petroleum engineers and site managers.
Their work involves laboratory and desk-based research, and data analysis. They keep up to date with advances in geochemistry by reading scientific journals and information on websites, and going to conferences.
Personal Qualities and Skills
- Strong analytical skills.
- A thorough, logical and methodical approach to research.
- To enjoy laboratory and desk-based research, as well as fieldwork.
- The ability to work independently, as well as in a team.
- Computer skills, and maths skills for analysis work.
- The ability to explain things clearly and concisely, including in written reports.
- Practical skills and the ability to use a wide range of technology to analyse samples.
- The ability to read and produce geochemical maps (more often using a computer than traditional drawing methods).
Pay And Opportunities
Typical employers of geochemists
Geochemists work for companies in the oil, gas and coal industries, and for geological consultancies, research companies and government-supported scientific institutions.
Opportunities for geochemists occur in towns, cities and rural areas throughout the UK. Most geochemists are office-based but have opportunities to travel for fieldwork, meetings and conferences.
Entry routes and training
To become a geochemist, you'll usually need to complete a relevant first degree. Many entrants also have a postgraduate qualification such as an MSc (a PhD is normally essential for a research appointment in industry or for a university or museum post).
Relevant first degrees include geology, geoscience, earth science and chemistry. Subjects such as oceanography and minerals/mining engineering can also be relevant but you should look at prospectuses to check the geochemistry content of each course.
There are several types of first (undergraduate) degree course. BSc (Hons) degrees usually take three years to complete (four in Scotland). MGeol/MSci degrees are four-year courses, allowing for a wider range of taught subjects and research than in the BSc.
Some universities offer degree courses with a foundation year. This is an extra year for students who don't have the specified science A levels for entry.
A small number of universities offer integrated science degrees (ISciences), aiming to give graduates interdisciplinary skills and knowledge through a problem-based approach.
The Geological Society accredits a large number of first degree courses. Accreditation demonstrates that the university department's teaching is of a high quality. Having an accredited degree reduces the amount of experience you need before you can achieve Chartered Geologist and Chartered Scientist status through the Society (see 'Progression' below). You can find a list of accredited courses on The Geological Society's website.
Following your first degree, you could take a specialist postgraduate qualification in geochemistry. These are available at a small number of universities in the UK. The Geological Society also accredits postgraduate courses, including in geochemistry.
Before entry to this career, you can develop skills through experience, for example, spending university vacation time with an oil or gas company.