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Seismologists study the genesis and the propagation of seismic waves in geological materials. They are involved in the scientific study of sudden violent movements of the earth connected with earthquakes. Although earthquakes have fascinated people for centuries, the roots of modern seismology date back only about 100 years to the development of the first instruments capable of recording seismic waves. So many fundamental questions about earthquakes still remain unanswered: How do earthquakes start? What controls their timing? How do they stop? Although most seismologists are pessimistic about the possibility of predicting earthquakes, a better understanding of fundamental physical processes of earthquakes will help improve seismologists' assessments of earthquake hazards.

With tremendous research and observation, seismologists have been able to determine the locations at which earthquakes occurred most commonly in the past, and therefore are expected to be most likely in the future. Using statistical analysis to extrapolate answers, they study the various fault lines in our Earth's structure and track data about past earthquakes through time as a source of determining the location of future earthquake activity.

Seismologists conduct seismic tests in which controlled explosions or vibrations create sound waves in the earth's surface. Besides studying earthquakes and earth movements, seismologists also work in the petroleum and mining industries. The most important commercial aspect of seismology is the search for oil. Before oil companies decide to drill a well in a new location, they usually require information from seismic tests to analyze the underground rock formation and its potential for holding reserves of oil or gas. Using the same basic principles to explore the interior of the planet using earthquake waves can be applied on a much smaller scale to the detailed mapping of subsurface oil and minerals. These studies use waves generated by small explosions or mechanical devices to detect oil sources.

A great deal of time and money is spent on seismic operations and major decisions are made on the basis of seismic data. Yet in the long run it is more economical to perform the test and find an insufficient amount of oil for drilling, versus past practices in which engineers would randomly drill in hopes of striking oil.

The collection of seismic data involves sending shockwaves into the ground and measuring how long it takes the subsurface rocks to reflect the waves back to the surface. Shockwaves are generated by pounding the earth with a vibrator truck or by exploding small dynamite charges in shallow holes. Boundaries between the rocks bounce the waves back, and seismologists listen for these waves using detection devices called geophones. Computers process the geophone data and convert it into seismic lines, which are nothing more than two-dimensional displays that resemble cross-sections. This tells geologists how much oil is in the ground. This seismic data, collected in this fashion may be used to help create three-dimensional computer models of the underground geometries of the rocks.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
What does it take to become a seismologist? As with any earth scientist, curiosity and a thirst for knowledge are essential to the seismologist. Moreover, a meticulous nature, an interest in computer science, and in certain cases, in outdoor activities, is necessary. Seismologists must be able to work effectively with a team but also individually. Seismologists should enjoy working with sophisticated instruments and equipment at tasks requiring precision. They must also like compiling data and assisting in various technical and experimental functions.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Operate and maintain expensive electronic equipment used to record seismic signals
  • Perform daily and monthly instrument tests
  • Document recording operations
  • Monitor equipment during explosions and tests
  • Ensure that safety precautions are followed
  • Maintain an accurate inventory of explosives
  • Ensure the quality of recorded data at the field level
  • Supervise the work of line truck drivers and technicians as they prepare areas for seismic tests
  • Handle any major problems that may arise
  • A typical workday will vary for the seismologist, depending on what kind of work they do. Those performing research on earthquakes in a laboratory or teaching at a university will generally work standard hours, with occasional longer hours. Seismologists who work in the petroleum industry or an earthquake monitoring center may have to work night shifts and on weekends. Especially in the case of an earthquake, seismologists may be on call 24 hours a day. There is usually a good mix of indoor, office work and outdoor fieldwork.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Seismologists are commonly employed by geophysical companies, oil and petroleum companies, and independent data processing companies. They also work for geological and earthquake survey departments in the government and teach at the university or college level. Some may be self-employed and own their own consulting firm.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Seismologists who study earthquakes are few and far between, therefore those working in that sector of seismology usually advance in their research and experimentation of earthquakes. With further education, seismologists can become professors at the university level or work as a senior seismologist for a petroleum company. Their roles then turn into more managerial or supervisory positions and they generally perform less technical duties.

  Educational Paths  
The minimum educational requirement for seismologists is an undergraduate honors degree in geophysics or a related seismology degree with courses in geophysics, chemistry, geology, mathematics and computer science. Those interested in doing research, conducting fieldwork projects or teaching at the university level will require a master's degree or a PhD. Many employers provide additional training in the specialized techniques of oil and gas or mineral exploration.

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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