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Could a postgraduate earth sciences course be for you?

James Davis

Careers Commentator
The earth sciences are an incredibly broad selection. There’s a lot to take in when considering your study options.

Earth sciences, otherwise known as geospatial sciences, allow us to understand the earth’s constitution and atmosphere. They are concerned with many things, from measuring the various spheres (biosphere, hydrosphere or lithosphere) to understanding the causes of natural disasters. With a postgraduate qualification, it’s possible to deepen your knowledge and enter or re-enter a career in the field more qualified and confident than ever. However, it’s not necessarily for everyone.

This article will cover four questions regarding whether or not postgraduate study into physics is for you. In answering each, you should have a better idea of whether or not it’d be something for you:

  1. What do the earth sciences entail day-to-day in a professional context and what’s required academically?
  2. What are the job prospects like?
  3. What’s the salary like?
  4. What are your study options?

What do ‘earth sciences’ entail?

The day-to-day activities of earth scientists vary between specialisations, but common to each is the continuous need for monitoring instruments and gathering information. The following are broad examples of what’s available, but do not constitute an exhaustive list:

  • Practitioners of atmospheric science and its various sub-specialisations study the climate, weather, atmospheric chemistry and more.
  • Environmental scientists study ecology, environmental chemistry, soil science and more in an effort to understand how the climate is performing.
  • Geologists have great deal of specialisations, tending to geophysics, geodesy, mineralogy, paleontology and more.

Postgraduate earth sciences courses can allow entry to those from other disciplines, but others are more geared toward those with previous experience. As such, units range from fairly fundamental to advanced. Some of these include:

  • Advanced dynamical meteorology
  • Cartography and visualisation
  • Climate analysis and modelling
  • Convective clouds and storms
  • Database concepts
  • GIS principles
  • Land development
  • Statistics in climate dynamics

To enter some of the higher entry requirement courses, such as the Master of Science (Earth Sciences) from the University of Melbourne, you’ll need a previous bachelor’s degree in a cognate discipline. Unlike many other courses, there’s a strict list of cognate disciplines you can come from to be eligible. The following is an exhaustive list of eligible bachelor degree majors:

  • Agricultural science
  • Climate and weather
  • Biochemistry
  • Botany
  • Chemistry
  • Engineering
  • Environmental science
  • Food science
  • Genetics
  • Geography
  • Geology
  • Mathematics
  • Microbiology
  • Physics
  • Plant science
  • Zoology

If you’re from a discipline outside these, you’ll have to look at other institutions. Fortunately, courses like the Master of Geospatial Science from RMIT could be ideal for you if you’ve not got a scientific background. They offer foundational units and introductions to the scientific method. Overall, this line of study is well-suited to many sorts of people, particularly those who care about understanding and preserving the integrity of our planet. If you’re an environmentally conscious person who wants to understand how people can improve and protect our environment combined with mathematical ability, you can’t go wrong with a postgraduate earth science specialisation.

What are the job prospects?

There are many different professional roles for earth scientists, making it quite hard to pin down precise job prospects across each. However, given contemporary environmental concerns, earth scientists are needed now more than ever to help persuade politicians and populations that the threat is real and impending. If you’re considering going into environmental science, there are a variety of roles you can fill that’ll be both useful and fulfilling. In a traditionally scientific position, you can measure the damage being done to our climate across the world and work on ways to halt it. This is something you can do in many of the earth science disciplines, such as oceanography, soil science or atmospheric science. Outside of science altogether, you can use your knowledge to educate and rouse an apathetic public. Entering into a career as an environmental officer or consultant can be an equally valid way of contributing to the cause.

If you’d rather venture into entirely different waters, going into something like geoinformatics could be useful paired with computer science or engineering. If you’re interested in something like paleontology, it’ll take some extra effort to break into the industry. You’ll need to start volunteering early at local museums or your university’s paleontology department to show your enthusiasm, as this is a profession of passion. You’re up against people who consider it their dream job.

If you’re thinking of entering a research-based field via PhD or master’s by research, you may have difficulties finding work. It’s by no means impossible however; we’ve even written an article about getting around this issue here.

Overall, job prospects vary. In many cases, if you can show employers you’re particularly passionate about getting into your earth science of choice, it’s far from impossible to get a job.

What’s the salary like?

The following salaries are from Payscale, stating the mean pay per annum in Australian dollars across a variety of earth science disciplines:

Where and how can I study it?

Earth sciences can be studied at all postgraduate levels. The following are a few examples:

  • Graduate certificates or diplomas are a great way of gaining specialist knowledge in one particular field. One of the greatest appeals of these is how short they are to complete. Graduate certificates take six months of full time study to complete and one year part time, with graduate diplomas taking twice that. A good example of the specificity these provide is the Graduate Certificate in Geostatistics from Edith Cowan University. This is for those with a background in mathematics and statistics, requiring applicants to have a bachelor’s degree that dealt with at least one of these disciplines. Course units include geostatistical methods, introduction to geostatistics, and modelling and simulation.
  • Master’s degrees tend to take two years of full time study to complete, or up to four years part time. They vary in their requirements, with the aforementioned Master of Science (Earth Sciences) from the University of Melbourne boasting quite strict requirements to others like the RMIT course that are far more lax. Whatever the case, you’re bound to encounter a research project in addition to coursework. This allows students to investigate a topic of their choice under supervision.
  • PhDs require students to undergo research over the course of three years full time or more if part time, culminating in a roughly 70,000 word thesis. This makes them the ideal study path for those who want to make a career of research.

Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of what’s available in the earth sciences regarding postgraduate study options and careers. It’s incredibly broad, so it’s worth investigating everything that’s available before committing to one or another. This alone may take some time, but it’s certainly worth it considering you’ll be dedicating a significant portion of your life. Wherever you choose to go with your study or career however, we wish you luck!