Working as a geologist behind a drilling rig is definitely not glamorous, unless long days in the heat or cold, smelling like funk and looking like you just fell into a mud pit are something you find attractive. Depending on the type of site, you could end up wishing you had gotten a wastewater treatment plant operator license rather than surviving another day of hell behind the rig. And you’re not even the driller! To them, you have it made.
But if you insist on this career path, you might want to consider staying in the water supply or water resource management industry (having not worked on an oil rig, I cannot speak to this). Unless you are absolutely desperate and would have to move back to your mother’s to survive, stay away from the contamination assessment arena. At least with the former industry, you will be dealing with clean water, so you may still look and feel like you just mud-wrestled a gator, but at least you just smell like your deodorant gave up a few hours ago, rather than the lovely “perfume” of gasoline or creosote that you will share with those who pass by. You’ll never be the same after you walk into a hotel and see the awkward expressions of the attendants, as you leave mud tracks, weeds and God knows what on the floor of the lobby. Or for that matter, watching small children walk through it with excitement as they start their vacation.
The method of drilling depends on the type of work. So, if you’re working at say a Superfund site (the word “super” in this name does not depict a positive), most of the work will probably be shallow and smaller equipment will be used such as something that’s called an auger rig or direct push technology (at least if you work in Florida). For deeper work, more powerful equipment and drilling methods are used such as sonic, coring, mud rotary and reverse air for example. The type of rig really depends on the available space, depth to rock, lithologic material, costs, purpose and other factors, but no matter which is used you can depend on taking samples of some sort. The geologist is usually present for two reasons: 1) proper data collection, and 2) well design and installation oversight.
Data collection can include several activities, but most of the time, you will perform exploratory sampling and testing to evaluate the situation. For example, if it’s a contaminated site, you may perform soil and groundwater sampling with a mobile laboratory to determine the extent and depth of the contaminants. Soil or lithologic samples can be collected by digging with a bucket auger or by a rig that will collect the samples in core barrels or other samplers and you will transfer the material into appropriate containers following regulatory guidelines. If the chemicals are strong or have a high risk of cancer, you may be required to wear a respirator or other personal safety equipment. For groundwater samples, tubing is used to collect water using a pump and the method of sample collection will depend on the type of contaminants. If the site is not contaminated and the purpose is to identify a good location for a water supply well, water quality, lithology and aquifer testing are primarily evaluated. No matter the situation, all sampling has to be in accordance with the state’s environmental protection agency requirements, so get that manual!
Once the exploration is completed and it is decided well(s) are needed, you will normally remain at the site to oversee the installation of the well(s). The depths, number and diameter of casings, etc. are determined from the previous testing and lithology. If you are a junior-level geologist, you will most likely be working with a Professional Geologist to design the well. Once the well installation is complete, it will be up to you to oversee the well development and make sure the well is pumped until the water is sediment-free. You will also probably come back at a later date to sample the water and collect water levels, but that’s for another topic.
No matter what area of geology, you can expect to have to don the hard hat and steel toed boots if you are behind a rig. Your work will also include preparing for the field work such as researching the background of the upcoming site, becoming familiar with the site location and nearby activities, getting forms and laboratory bottles together, checking and gathering any needed equipment (i.e. pumps, tubing, batteries, etc.) and meters (i.e. pH, conductivity, temperature, organic vapor analyzers, etc.) and coordinating with the property owner and hired contractors. The locations of work can be anywhere including residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, parks, government centers, residential or in the middle of freaking nowhere. Get used to spiders, snakes, bees, ants, mosquitoes, wasp, frogs, sweat, blood (ok – just occasionally if you don’t know how to properly use a knife), lightening, prickers, sunburn — oh yeah, and beer.
So, why do it? It’s actually rewarding. The data collected helps the environment and society. You will be the unsung hero of many high-level presentations and decisions made my manager-types that will be used to clean up contaminated sites, provide drinking water for the future or help in some other way. But you really won’t care about that — you’ll be too busy at the next site. Just get yourself some good sunscreen and bath soap!