Why Apply to Study Earth Sciences? (Why on Earth Not!)

By Charlie (Earth Sciences, Oxford)

Earth. Everything we eat, drink, breathe and use in any way is ultimately derived from and cycled through this floating watery rock, third from the sun. In fact, its precise chemical composition, derived from ancient stardust, is reflected in everything we do right down to the operation and makeup of our cells. The multitude of scientific fields that overlap in studying this miraculous planet (and others), equip students with a breadth of knowledge and skills relevant to careers in scientific research, engineering, finance, government, consultancy and everything in-between.

So What is Earth Science?

The easiest way to describe the subject is as geology with a grounding in science. Yes – it’s rocks, dinosaurs, volcanoes, earthquakes, mountains and other topics you’d associate with geology. It’s applying the principles of fluid dynamics to ocean currents or moving lava, using our understanding of forces and mechanics to estimate dinosaur running speeds or mountain growth, making use of chemistry to study the origin of the solar system and the beginning of life, and utilising computer modelling to hindcast and forecast wholescale earth system changes, among many other incredibly interesting fields. Earth Science involves the investigation of everything within, atop and surrounding the Earth since its formation and through to its future.

The range of topics under the umbrella of an earth scientist’s study is one of the best things about the subject. Originally applying to university, I ultimately wanted to study climatology and oceanography, but unexpectedly became more interested in rocks than computer modelling and took a U-turn in my interests. This illustrates how broad the subject is and how varied the skill set you learn is – I have experience in coding, lab work, petrology, map-reading and fieldwork.

At the University of Oxford, the Earth Science course lasts four years and results in an undergraduate master’s degree (Master of the Earth Sciences – a grand title!). The first three years are essentially a bachelor’s degree in Earth Science/Geosciences, while the fourth year is more equivalent to a taught masters involving four seminar-based courses and an independent research dissertation. In my experience, the course is continually evolving to reflect the latest research and applications of the subject, with several differences even between consecutive year groups.

At the University of Cambridge, the Department of Earth Sciences runs four year undergraduate courses as part of the popular Natural Sciences Tripos. 4 subjects are taken in 1st year, one of which must be a mathematical option. The other three modules are chosen at the applicant’s discretion and one of the options is Earth Sciences (Biology of Cells, Chemistry, Computer Science, Earth Sciences, Evolution & Behaviour, Materials Science, Physics or Physiology of Organisms). Some students choose the course specifically to study the Earth Sciences and would therefore choose the subject as their number 1 option. Others wish to specialise in another science, particularly physics, for which Earth Sciences helps in broadening your general scientific understanding. Students graduate with a degree which is fully accredited by the Geological Society of London.

Why study Earth Science?

I applied to study earth science because I love science and at the end of the day it is a field of scientific study. I also spent the majority of my childhood outdoors, climbing trees, building dens, walking, hiking, camping, catching fish and all manner of other activities which led to me having a strong appreciation for our environment. I was drawn to the fact I would have the opportunity to combine my fascination with science and the environment, and apply these interests to real, tangible problems facing humanity such as climate change and resource shortages. Ancient, ongoing and the future of Earth systems effect everyone. The knowledge gained by an earth scientist is invaluable to understanding and successfully managing natural hazards, resources and our impact on the planet. In this sense, there is a demand for graduates of earth science for careers in weather forecasting, natural disaster planning, mining and hydrocarbon evaluation and sustainable engineering as well as in more surprising job sectors such as policy-making and lobbying, construction, insurance and extra-terrestrial exploration industries. As the Earth’s population and the stress we place on her continues to increase, such knowledge of this vulnerable planets’ reserves and thresholds will undoubtedly remain in high demand.

However, the contributions an earth scientist can make are not limited to their field of study. The course equips its readers with key skills in teamwork, communication, critical report writing, problem solving and leadership that are sought by all employers. Specifically, at Oxbridge, students are encouraged to think for themselves, question research findings and to apply their learning in order to solve unfamiliar and unexpected problems. It’s true that similar notions apply to many university courses, but what sets earth science apart is how interdisciplinary problem solving is at the heart of the subject.

Why not to study Earth Science?

Earth science is not for everyone. The rigorous training across a variety of scientific disciplines can be challenging so you must have a passion for science and a motivation to apply your knowledge to genuine problems. The subject stretches a student’s ability in physics, chemistry, biology, maths and computing in addition to teaching new skills in research and fieldwork. The latter is perhaps one of the most stimulating aspects of earth science and also one of its more mentally and physically exhausting. Field investigations are a vital part of training and understanding the history of and ongoing processes on Earth, and often take place overseas as well as in the leading fieldsites across the UK. I’ve engaged in fieldwork in everywhere from Northern Scotland and the Pembrokeshire coast, to Bermuda and Japan. As exciting and inviting as this may sound, courses take place across all kinds of terrain and in all weather conditions. Having said that, the team spirit this invites into the group in facing these adversities together is well worth it and most geosciences departments are active and sociable, which is a definite highlight of the subject. Personally I would say fieldwork and mapping is my favourite part, and being able to unravel the geological history of a set of rocks is incredibly rewarding, enough so that I have stayed within the field.

If you would like to learn more about Earth Sciences, we’ll pair you with a u2 graduate in the subject who can give a deeper insight into the specifics of the course/s, key tips for preparation and give you exposure to specific subject areas of interest. Our Extra-Curricular Concierge also offers work experience opportunities and has links to u2 mentors working in exciting fields relating to Earth Sciences - sustainability, scientific research etc.