Geological and geophysical engineering programs prepare people to use math and science to study geology. Students learn the impact of forces such as earthquakes on land and structures. They also learn to assess sites that contain resources such as oil.
Every year you hear about an earthquake somewhere in the world, and of the damage sustained by the people living where it hit. Earth's surface is not perfectly stable, nor is it always "solid as a rock." Structures sometimes need to be built on the earth of a river delta or on a sandy beach. Builders also may want to know whether they will tap into veins of water as they dig for a foundation.
That's why there's a need for geological and geophysical engineers. As you study this field, you learn about the properties of rocks and soils. You learn how to determine what structural loads a site can bear. As a design project, you might suggest a kind of structure that can take advantage of the geological properties of a certain building site - or that can avoid possible hazards.
You learn how to evaluate a site by drilling to take rock samples or to detect water. And you also learn how to explore conditions deep underground. These techniques are useful at sites where you are concerned about earthquakes or are exploring for oil or minerals. You learn how to detonate explosives and measure how the shock waves reflect off underground layers. You study how the magnetism or heat flow of the rocks can reveal information. Since you are applying the principles of physics to geological engineering problems, this is called geophysical engineering.
Often you can start working in this field with a bachelor's degree. This represents four or sometimes five years of full-time study beyond high school. About 25 colleges in the U.S. offer a bachelor's program in geological engineering. Only a few offer the degree specifically in geophysical engineering. But in either field, much of the course work overlaps. You can expect to study a lot of physics when you study geology. Similarly, you can expect to study a lot of geology when you study geophysics.
A master's degree may let you specialize more and also may provide access to higher-level jobs. At some universities you can take a combined program and earn a bachelor's and master's after five years. If you pursue the master's degree separately, it will probably take one or two years beyond the bachelor's. About fifteen universities offer a master's degree in this field.
Still another possible entry route is to get a bachelor's in geology, or in some other field of engineering, and then a master's in this field.