Do you want to become a volcanologist?

Many volcanologists believe they have the best jobs in the world. They have the exciting chance to study active volcanoes in beautiful and often exotic places. The volcanologist's work advances science, but also has direct importance to the lives of people who live near volcanoes. If a volcanologist says a volcano is not going to erupt, but it does, many people may die in the eruption. But if the volcanologist warns that it will erupt, many people will temporarily move away from their homes to safety.

Volcanoes are complicated phenomena that can't be understood without knowledge of the structure and chemistry of the Earth and its rocks, and the interaction of volcanic materials with air and water. To really understand volcanoes it is necessary to study a number of sciences, but the most important is geology - the study of the Earth's rocks.

To be prepared to study geology at a university or college, students must take math and science classes when they are in high school and even in junior high school. It seems unfair, but it is true, that how much you learn when you are in grade school and high school usually determines what you will be able to do during the rest of your life. If you want to become a volcanologist you must concentrate on your classes, even if other kids seem to spend all their time with sports or dating or other pastimes. Don't be a nerd; enjoy life, but also be serious about your studies!
EDM Indonesia

Here is a list of the types of courses to take in high school so that you will have the option to study volcanoes later in college if you want to. Take biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth science if available. Take algebra, trigonometry, and pre-calculus. And learn Basic or some other computer language so you can use a computer without being frightened by it.

Where should you go to college? Very, very few colleges offer even one course in volcanology, but the basic information you need is taught in geology courses at many universities. seismic Major in geology, taking courses in geomorphology, geophysics, geochemistry, petrology, structural geology, sedimentary geology, and remote sensing. If you go to a college in the American West, or in Hawaii or Alaska, you will probably see a lot of volcanoes and volcanic rocks during geology field trips.

If you want to be a volcanologist you can't stop with just a bachelor of science degree in geology. With a B.S. your career choices are pretty much limited to being an assistant or technician. This might get you a chance to map volcanoes or analyze rock chemistry under somebody else's direction, but your salary will be low and you will not have the chance to decide for yourself what volcano problems to study. You have to go back to school to get a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in geology. This will probably take four to five years of additional study and research after you have completed a B.S.


The good thing about getting a Ph.D. is that you will be working with a group of other students and professors who are as excited about volcanoes as you are. After about a year of classes you will probably become involved in volcano research, and at the end of your graduate student days you will know more about one volcano or some volcanic process than anyone else in the world! You will write scientific papers and present talks to other volcanologists at scientific meetings. And you will start to look for a job.

Many volcanologists in the US work for the U.S. Geological Survey, the government agency responsible for studying the nation's geology and finding ways to utilize geologic resources, and ways to mitigate potential geologic hazards. The USGS operates three volcano observatories. The oldest is in Hawaii, on the rim of the Kilauea volcano. Volcanologists there predict, monitor, and closely study the eruptions of Kilauea and the nearby Mauna Loa volcanoes. Another volcano observatory is at Vancouver, Washington, where Mt. St. Helens and other Cascade volcanoes are monitored. The third observatory is in Alaska, where geologists from the USGS and the University of Alaska work together to monitor the 100 active Alaskan volcanoes.
gas sampling

In addition to working with the USGS, some volcanologists work in state geologic surveys, especially in states like California, Oregon, and Washington, where volcanoes are plentiful. But probably the largest number of volcanologists teach in university geology departments. Besides teaching occasional volcanology courses, most volcanologists teach other traditional courses such as petrology, geochemistry, and geophysics. University faculty have to be on campus most of the year, and thus they tend to do volcanic fieldwork during summer vacations.

For more information about what it like to work on volcanoes check out the following sections:

Volcanologist FAQ
What Type of Education Do Volcanologists Need?
What are Some Personality Traits that Most Volcanologists Have?
What Does a Volcanologist Do?
Where Does a Volcanologist Work?
What are Some Typical Daily Routines of a Volcanologist?
How Much Do Volcanologists Make?

For more details on the instruments Volcanologists use and daily work and life, check out Scott Rowlands, Working on Hawaiian Volcanoes.

Photo credits (from top to bottom):
1. Volcanologist collecting a lava sample. Photo by R. Tilling, U.S. Geological Survey, 1974.
2. Volcanologist using electronic distance measurements (EDM) to monitor an active volcano in Indonesia. Photo by J. Dvorak, U.S. Geological Survey, 1982.
3. Seismologist using a portable seismometer to assist volcanologists in their study of lava tubes. Photo by C. Thornber, U.S. Geological Survey, 1994.
4. Volcanologists measure ground deformation on the south flank of Kilauea volcano, Hawaii. Photo by S. Mattox.
5. Volcanologist collects a gas sample, Kilauea volcano, Hawaii. Photo by S. Mattox.

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