College Majors: A Student’s Guide to Earth Science

College Majors: A Student’s Guide to Earth Science

Earth science degrees are becoming more popular and lead to rewarding careers. Prepare yourself for an in-demand career studying our endlessly fascinating planet.

Science is the study of the characteristics of the natural and physical world. Science is commonly divided into three branches: social science (such as anthropology and economics), formal science (such as logic and math), and natural science. Natural science consists of what you most commonly think of when you think of “science”: the sciences that study living and non-living natural phenomena. Earth science is a kind of natural science that focuses on the structure, composition, and evolution of Earth, its features, its waters, and its atmosphere. Earth science encompasses astronomy, geology, meteorology, and oceanography.


Astronomy is the study of things that originate outside Earth’s atmosphere, including space, space phenomena (such as quasars, pulsars, supernovas, and dark matter) and celestial objects (such as galaxies, asteroids, moons, stars, and planets). It is one of the oldest sciences, with records of astronomical observations dating back more than 5000 years. The joys of contemplating a night sky notwithstanding, astronomy is more than stargazing. Astronomy has spurred innovations now applied in other fields and industries, including a computer language used by FedEx to track packages and technology used by airport security to scan luggage. Information gleaned from astronomy offers insights into terrestrial phenomena, like the origin of geological formations and the motion of tides, and provides useful information about near-Earth objects including asteroids and falling satellites. As an examination of the enormity of space, astronomy offers a valuable perspective on the place of Earth in the universe and the uniqueness of human life. In order to understand the origins and evolution of the universe and the properties, elements, and objects of space, astronomers must have a strong background in advanced math, physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, planetary systems, computer science, statistics, and data analysis. Astronomers must be able to reason well and solve problems and apply these skills to research in the field or in a lab. An advanced degree, usually a Ph.D., is required to become an astronomer or an astrophysicist. Students obtaining a bachelor’s degree in astronomy can become science journalists and technical writers. With a master’s degree, astronomy majors can become research scientists, meteorologists, planetarium directors, and climatologists.


Literally meaning “study of earth,” geology is the study of the materials that make up Earth and of the terrain and features of the Earth and the forces that shape them. Geology is the principal Earth science, so much so that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Geology is important because it advances understanding of the history and age of Earth and the manner in which Earth developed. Geological observation of the stratified layers of Earth inspired the concept of deep time, the understanding that the history of Earth dates back millennia. Paleontology, a branch of geology, uses fossils to study the geological past of living organisms. Geology also supports the development of models that predict erosion patterns, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanoes. Geology has commercial relevance as well. Geological analysis of soil pH and surface rocks and stones helps people to extract water, fuels, and valuable materials from the earth. To prepare for a career in geology, a student will need to take courses in chemistry and physics, advanced math, and data science. Geologists should also have excellent analytical skills, a keen sense of observation, and computer literacy. Geology majors can work in natural resource management, for conservation and environmental protection, as seismologists, as mineralogists, as petroleum geologists, as lead scientists in labs, as surveyors, as mining engineers, and as geophysicists.


Meteorology is the study of Earth’s atmosphere and atmospheric phenomena, including weather and climate. When people think of meteorology, they often think of weather forecasters. Weather forecasting is an important aspect of meteorology, using tools like Doppler radar, satellite data, and automated surface-observing systems. Through weather forecasting, meteorology helps people decide if a sweater is necessary, whether or not to carry an umbrella or reschedule a picnic, if they should winterize their faucets, or, in more extreme circumstances, if they need to take shelter or evacuate. Beyond short-term weather forecasting, an important aspect of meteorology is researching persistent trends in weather and climate, which can help people plan where and how to live. Meteorologists should have a broad technical aptitude, a curiosity about the workings of the atmosphere, and an appreciation for nature. An understanding of atmospheric physics and chemistry is central to meteorology. Additionally, meteorologists should be proficient in calculus, statistics, data analysis, and the use of sophisticated computer programs. Studying meteorology can lead to a job as a broadcast meteorologist or weather forecaster, climate scientist, forensic meteorologist, research scientist, or professor. Meteorologists often work for the federal government at the National Weather Service or in the military, for television and radio stations, or even for airlines and stock brokerage firms, which often have their own weather departments. A bachelor’s degree is the standard entry-level credential for many jobs in the field of meteorology, while an advanced degree is necessary for some positions, including jobs as a researcher or as an academic.


Water, nearly all of which is ocean water, covers approximately 70 percent of Earth’s surface. Oceanography is the branch of Earth science that studies the history and physical, chemical, and biological properties of Earth’s oceans. The work that oceanographers do is vital to understanding the connections between the marine environment and dry-land habitats and to fostering good stewardship of Earth’s oceans and seas. Oceanographers study coastline erosion, marine life extinction, and the impact of climate change and pollution on marine life and habitats. By mapping the ocean floor, oceanographers provide information about seismic activity that allows for more accurate prediction of earthquakes and tsunamis. Oceanographic research informs policy decisions about marine transportation and about the use of ocean resources for food, energy, and water. A career in oceanography begins with undergraduate studies in biology, physics, chemistry, and geology. Typically, students of oceanography earn an advanced degree in one of the four primary areas of ocean science: biological oceanography, geological oceanography, chemical oceanography, or physical oceanography. Many oceanographers conduct research for governments or oceanographic institutions either in a lab or in, on, or near the water, so it’s also important to know how to swim and have some basic boating skills. As one might expect, studying oceanography can lead to a job as a marine biologist, marine geologist, marine chemist, marine engineer, or climate scientist.