Out of Boom and Bust, but where to now for geoscience departments?

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For most of the last 50 years, the fortunes of geoscience programs at the university level have waxed and waned with the health of the natural resources industries.  These industries, and petroleum in particular, have experience major boom and bust cycles, of which geoscience programs often mirrored.  This relationship began to change in the early 1990’s when many geosciences programs began to offer environmental concentrations.  This shift only lasted about five years before job opportunities began to decline in that field as well.  By the mid 1990s, for the first time, the fortunes of geoscience departments began to mirror the overall trend of the other physical sciences – and just at the wrong time.  The dot-com boom put negative pressure on enrollments, but since 2001, the geosciences, like many sciences, have now begun to experience 4-6% enrollment growth each year.  Through all of this a number of departments have largely remained strong, and continue to grow.  The trends of growth through the past twenty-five years gives us some insight into what healthy departments are doing right, and what opportunities exist for future growth for all programs. Two aspects of successful programs of particular note are those that retained strong, core basic geology academic programs, and those that continue to actively produce master’s students.  In particular, the master’s level poses a unique opportunity for departmental growth.   In other science disciplines, combined science master’s with MBA’s are generating substantial revenue for schools and enhancing the science program’s status within the university community and the potential employer pool.  However, though the number of master’s degrees awarded in the geosciences has remained relatively steady, the number of schools that are actually awarding degrees has shrunk substantially, with the historically strong departments producing a large proportion of master’s recipients.  The challenge is to now “read the tea leaves” of what future department success will require in an era of largely replacement-level hiring in the traditional geoscience job sectors and continuing shrinking federal research support.  Recent departmental successes point to what appears to be paths for strong a strong future.

  • Christopher Keane*
  • American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2005