Janok P. Bhattacharya, Summer 2008
"Back in Business"
In 1981, the year I took my first job in the oil industry, with Esso Resources Calgary, oil hit $90 per barrel. Oil slowly tumbled to a meager $11 per barrel in 1998, the year I finally left ARCO, at one time the 7th largest oil company long-since absorbed by BP, to join academia. Student enrollments in geology were at an all-time low, hiring was limited, layoffs were the rule.
Geology departments took a major hit during this long price collapse. Many of the geology students graduating in the mid-eighties faced limited job prospects and rushed back to retrain as environmental geologists, reflecting the rather short-lived increase in federal funding for environmental cleanups. Geology departments began hiring environmental geoscientists and calling themselves “Earth and Environmental Science Departments”, eschewing older designations. In 1991, when I worked at ARCO Alaska, I was surprised at how many of my colleagues, some with PhD’s in Geology, were completing part-time environmental MS Degrees, in anticipation of imminent layoffs. Unfortunately, the expected vast increase in funding for environmental science never appeared. Enrollments continued to be flat or declining, and in response, several universities shrunk their geology departments, which were consequently subsumed into physics, or geography, or worse, disappeared altogether. Funding for geoscience research by the National Science Foundation (NSF), especially in applied areas relevant to the oil industry, has disappeared. Even the Department of Energy is no longer funding petroleum research, focusing almost exclusively on nuclear energy and on CO2 sequestration. For a while there it looked like geology was in danger of extinction!
In 1998 we had a mere 7 students taking Sophomore Mineralogy, at UT Dallas, where I taught until 2005. If you went to school in the late seventies you might remember Mineralogy as the classic “weeder” course used to cull students in high enrollment years. Given that we needed at least 10 students for an undergraduate course to ‘make” it was a nerve-racking time to be a geology professor, heavily scrutinized by senior administrators looking for departments to squeeze during a time in which there were severe academic budget cuts. SEPM dropped both “Paleontology and Mineralogy” from their name and are now the “Society for Sedimentary Geology”.
Last year, at the University of Houston, we had over 76 students in mineralogy and at the graduate level they are practically knocking down the door to get in. We have numerous companies tripping over themselves in the grab for new hires. The UH Geoscience department is currently searching for 5 new faculty members. UT Austin and Texas A & M are seeking even larger numbers of new faculty at the same time that several well known professors in our profession are leaving academia for industry. Outside of the oil-belt, many departments are still struggling.
So what’s changed? Obviously, the recent high of $108 per barrel has attracted everyone’s attention, whether you work for an oil company and are seeing your company stock rise, whether you are a customer griping at the pump, or a university administrator in an oil-rich state looking for opportunities for enhancing enrollment and research. The Internet has allowed students to quickly assess career options and many have noticed annual AAPG salary surveys showing starting salaries of $80,000 for newly minted MS students. We are also well aware of industry demographics, and the fact that most of us can see the retirement light at the end of the career tunnel with a large gap behind us that needs filling. After the dot-com debacle, students also no longer have the rosy view that some industries are safe and others volatile. I remember several of my colleagues who were downsized in the late 80’s and 90’s complaining about the huge salaries and fast bucks being made in the dot-com industries, but we know what happened to most of those folks! As volatile as the oil industry may seem, it is certainly no worse that any other US industry, and the work is simply more fascinating. I may be biased here, but the opportunity to take a field trip to Utah, or spend time in a dusty core lab looking at rocks always seems more exciting than spending everyday staring at a computer screen in a cubicle.
We are presently at a crossroads. While a few universities suddenly see the need for an increased focus on energy, for many others geology is completely off the radar screen. Given the projected hiring needs for industry over the next decade, all US universities combined can provide only about half the required new employees. Many of our students are from overseas, reflecting the great North American tradition that the world looks to the US for opportunity. I myself am Canadian/British. Although US immigration requires these students to commit to retuning to their home countries after we have educated them, many, like me, prefer to stay. Those that do go home, ideally, become cultural ambassadors for the USA, especially if their experience was favorable. Those of us that stay keep their expertise here and add to our economy as highly qualified scientists, engineers and professors.
As GCSSEPM members, we can help support those universities that are able to provide the next generation of petroleum geologists. GCSSEPM already have several scholarships in place, although interestingly, we do not have many students applying for these. It is important to keep in touch with your alma mater and let them know that funds are available for students interested in research of benefit to industry. We must continue to lobby for either federal or industry funding for basic geology research, which is the engine that drives graduate students. The loss of DOE funding for geology is a serious blow At the annual GSA/GCAGS/GCSSEPM meeting there will be the opportunity to visit with geology students and professors who may never have thought about a career in the petroleum industry as well as getting a flavor for what kind of research the federal agencies are funding. If you graduated from a school that may be unaware of recent trends in our industry, let them know that the boom is back and that jobs are available. Let them know about opportunities for students, such as attending conferences at very low cost, or attending AAPG Student Expos. Perhaps you can donate funds or better yet, get your company to support a university research program, scholarship fund, or help to sponsor a field trip.
GCSSEPM also have a number of Corporate and regional representatives, as well as student representatives. Our Vice–President, Dr. John Snedden, is primarily responsible for interacting with these representatives, but if you have ideas to improve communication and outreach, as well as to how to enhance geology education across the country, we would love to hear from you. Although many of us may be in Houston, we all have the potential to reach beyond our local boundaries and show the broader geological community that we are back in business.