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There is a cornucopia of information buried in the liquids, gases and mineral deposits of rock. Geochemists study the chemical makeup and interactions of these earth materials and make informed decisions about these natural and chemical elements in the earth. Their studies are crucial both environmentally and economically to various geology-related industries. For example, understanding the chemical composition of rocks tells oil companies where to drill for oil, which enables scientists to put together broad based theories about the way the earth is changing and thereby helps environmental management companies decide how to dispose of a toxic or hazardous substance, and it steers mining companies towards use of natural resources with a minimal environmental impact.

Geochemists are concerned with the distribution of elements in exploration applications or with the cycles of elements in basic science. They help to solve earth science problems by using the physical and inorganic chemistry of major and trace elements in rocks and minerals and the organic geochemistry of hydrocarbon deposits.

Geochemistry focuses on two broad areas of study: high and low temperature geochemistry. High temperature, or high pressure geochemistry studies the formation of minerals and rocks deep in the crust or in volcanoes. Low temperature geochemistry studies the behavior of minerals or elements reacting under conditions near the surface of the earth. These exploration methods help geochemists search for buried ore deposits by detecting trace amounts of metals and minerals in water, plant, soil, sediment and rock samples. Geochemists can identify where minerals are located by analyzing trace quantities of chemicals. This is particularly valuable for mining engineers and mineralogists.

Geochemistry helps determine the nature, origin and distribution of specific types of oil and gas in the subsurface. Each zone of oil accumulation has its own particular chemical composition, reflecting its specific origin. Detecting this is very helpful in studying the patterns of migration of oil or gas from one bed or trap to another. Analysis of oil is important in determining suitability for production and assessing the cost of its extraction.

Geochemists are hired by the mining industry as economic geologists and usually assist in exploration. They help geologists understand the distribution of ores in relation to specific chemical makeups, explaining why mineral concentrations occur in some areas, but not in others. Geochemists work hand-in-hand with structural geologists to unravel the secrets of specific ore deposits, and, in doing so, provide valuable clues to the discovery of new deposits.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Because geochemists spend a significant amount of time in the field, this is also a career for people who enjoy the outdoors, camping, hiking and climbing. Geochemists describe themselves as always having had a natural curiosity about the way the Earth works and the way our environment is affected by the Earth's processes. Some describe geochemistry as solving a puzzle with a team of other professionals, each of whom contributes an expertise towards putting together all the pieces.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct research and analyze the quantity and distribution of chemicals in rocks, minerals, fluids, and gases
  • Examine interactions between rocks and fluids and gases and any changes to their chemical makeup that result
  • Classify and identify fossilized life forms and minerals, chemicals and biological composition to assess depositional environments and geological age
  • Assess the size, orientation and composition of mineral ore bodies and hydrocarbon deposits
  • Collect and analyze soil and sediment samples in geochemical surveys
  • Study the effects of erosion, sedimentation and tectonic deformation
  • Consult with scientists and engineers about projects
  • Write reports and present papers to help plan mining and petroleum operations, environmental programs, and resource management
  • Geochemists spend the majority of their working time in the field, collecting data, and analyzing samples on site. There is some time is spent in the lab, but this is a field for people who like to work outdoors. Travel can be quite extensive and foreign, particularly since much of the new exploration work is happening overseas. Those working for the government will generally work standard hours, however those in private companies and in environmental management will find themselves working long hours, which may include weekend emergency work.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Geochemists work in both the public and private sectors. They are employed by geochemical companies, petroleum and mining companies, and geology, geophysics and engineering consulting firms. Some geochemists are self-employed and own their own research and consulting businesses. In the public sector they work for all levels of the government and also teach at postsecondary institutions.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Geochemists with master's degrees and PhDs will have no problem advancing in the field of geochemistry with experience to bigger research projects and supervising other entry-level geologists or students. Some may become full-time, tenured professors and continue to advance in the academic world. Other geochemists may decide to specialize their focus in other areas of the geochemistry or geology fields, such as paleontology or oceanography. Geochemists with extensive field experience could work as "expediters," which are people who provide geological and geochemical expeditions with equipment, supplies, maps and other necessities.

  Educational Paths  
A strong background in math, science, English and geography is necessary. Geochemists usually take the four-year degree program in geology, with a minor in chemistry. There is often a strong orientation in inorganic and organic chemistry. Some may take a combined chemistry-geology program. Most geochemists have a master's degree and/or a PhD in order to teach at the postsecondary level or do full-time funded research.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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