A Recruiter's Perspective on the Employment Process for Geophysicists


   When I was asked to contribute an article on what a recruiter looks for in a geophysicist, I found the question difficult to answer because it seems every request we receive is unique. We must satisfy out clients' needs or convince them that their specifications should be modified. Of course, there are many types of geophysicists, varying with the type of company that employs them and their own specialization within the field of geophysics. Each specialization and each company's exploration style requires somewhat different attributes. Some companies want 'explorationists'; others want a 'team geophysicist'. Some have acquisition, processing and research groups that provide specialized services to their exploration departments. Then there are a whole range of service companies that fulfill this function on an 'outsourcing' basis. Individual consultants' talents are also utilized to provide expertise ranging from contract interpretation to design of seismic programs. Within the realm of geophysics there are also experts in gravity and magnetics, and whole industries devoted to earthquake seismology and environmental geophysics. Based on where they fall along this continuum clients will invariably have a slightly different slant on what they seek in an employee. The majority of my clients are oil and gas exploration companies, so most of my observations will relate to their expressed requirements.

   I would like to preface my comments with some remarks in general about employers seeking talent in the employment market we have experienced since 1986. Until recently it has been a buyer's market. Companies felt they could hire about anyone they chose, and as a result, often asked for qualifications well beyond the basic requirements of their positions. This time period also saw the introduction of workstation technology, and most employers demanded expertise with workstation interpretation - because they could. Specifications were also loaded with requirements for experience in certain basins or plays. The use of consultants became a popular way to supplement one's staff without increasing employee headcounts.

   Over the past two to three years, we have begun to see the employment market change.. Consultants are harder to find, and more expensive. Exploration spending has increased and the demand for geophysicists as well. Few geophysicists were hired over the past 12 years, and very few are coming out of school, so competition for those available, particularly in the two to twelve year experience range, has turned into a feeding frenzy in the marketplace. Many companies have instituted 'retention bonuses' and 'hiring bonuses' as they seek to hold their current employees and grow their own staff. This has led to a predictable rise in salaries and, sometimes, long delays in filling openings.

   Against this backdrop, what do clients seek in a geophysicist? Almost all companies would like to hire a young tiger, well versed in workstation interpretation on their own system of choice, perhaps with cross training on other systems as well, and with experience in the plays where they are active - often the deepwater GOM or subsalt. Some companies are seeking specialists in 3D interpretation or in the design of, acquisition of, and processing of 3D seismic. Their focus is more on the quality of the 3D data than the broader exploration aspects. Other companies want an individual who can be a geophysical specialist as part of an exploration team. Still others want an explorationist - someone who can handle the entire exploration process as an individual contributor. Obviously companies must make compromises. Not everyone can be a full-fledged expert in every aspect of geophysical exploration, nor can a specialist in just one aspect of geophysics carry the entire exploration load. A thoughtful company recognizes these tradeoffs as they design their organization. Larger organizations can afford to have highly specialized individuals - even groups of them - to handle the various components of geophysical exploration. Small companies must be wise in their use of outside consultants or service firms to supplement their staff's knowledge. The smallest firms may rely almost entirely on outside expertise, using a geologist with only a limited knowledge of geophysics as their primary prospector.

   In addition, there is a growing realization that all the exploration tools are interdependent - that good geophysics depends on excellent geology and engineering input to insure its success. How a company sets up its organization to handle these issues will impact the characteristics it is seeking in a geophysicist.

   Geophysics embraces a much wider variety of educational backgrounds than most other technical disciplines. A geophysicist may actually have a degree in geology, geophysics, math, physics, electrical engineering, petroleum engineering-- or even computer science or operations research. Their initial training may also vary considerably. Thus when a recruiter learns that a company wants to hire a geophysicist, a host of questions come to mind that might be asked to help define the search criteria. Will the individual be designing algorithms for the processing of specialized data? Will he or she be doing seismic modeling? Will he be assuring quality control of field acquisition? Processing? Will he be determining what type of geophysics should be done, and how the data should be acquired and processed? Will he be interpreting data acquired years ago? Or brand-new 3D data? Will he be working side by side with a skilled geologist or must he provide a stand alone interpretation? Will he have ready access to workstation technology? Does he have access to specialists to assist him with his workstation interpretation - to show him the ropes? How much training is available to fill in voids in his expertise? Does he have knowledge of special geophysical problems in the areas where the company plans to explore? Does he have an understanding of the basin and plays where he will be working? Will he be called upon to quickly move from one play to another that is vastly different? Does the company want someone with 'specific expertise' or a 'problem solver' (experts differ as to which is more desirable)? Must the new hire be able to 'hit the ground running' or will he have time to adapt to his new environment and duties? Many companies have dismantled their training capabilities and downsized their corporate memory to the point where they have limited resources to bring new hires quickly up to speed.

   So, how should a company approach the hiring process? First they must take inventory of their own needs, resources, capabilities and exploration style. From this inventory will emerge the picture of the perfect candidate. Of course, in today's market, the company will probably have to compromise somewhat from its ideal. However, those compromises should be made with an eye towards the long range view of the problem and with a realization that a newly hired employee will need time to become fully functional.

   It is easier to teach an experienced, seasoned individual to operate a workstation than it is to provide years of exploration savvy to a "computer whiz". It also can be dangerous to assume that either a skilled interpreter or a workstation expert necessarily has a solid understanding of the theory of geophysics that will enable him or her to reliably design geophysical programs. It seems to me that it is all too easy to be seduced by the spectacular presentations made possible by modern workstation technology and conclude that the interpretation presented is necessarily correct. Exploration management must be keenly aware of the limitations of the various tools they are using, and ensure proper quality control.

   Over and above technical considerations, teams are a large part of today's work environment. There is limited room for the eccentric scientist who must work in isolation from the rest of his co-workers. Even consultants and specialists have 'clients' they must satisfy. Thus, a person's interpersonal skills become highly relevant. On the other hand, some employers may overemphasize the 'team player' approach, forgetting about issues such as professional integrity, and the natural quirkiness that sometimes comes with true genius. Most individuals are well served by developing a manner that allows them to skillfully disagree when necessary without becoming disagreeable. The true team approach should encourage healthy disagreement over legitimate issues, rather than encourage a "yes-man" mentality that can lead to meager or even catastrophic results. It has been my experience that a client is generally better served hiring individuals of high integrity, with superior intelligence, a strong work ethic and broad experience, and then providing the specific training necessary to perform the tasks required. In many instances companies have wasted extensive periods of time holding out for the perfect candidate, when they could have easily had a willing if less ideally qualified candidate, productive long before they found their paragon - if they ever were able to find such an individual.

   My advice to companies is to enhance their employees' training capabilities.

Some ways to do that are:

  • cementing relationships with service companies and suppliers;
  • reinitiating corporate training programs;
  • seeking outside training capabilities;
  • possibly hiring some very experienced 'mentor' geophysicists with a primary work assignment of providing an experience base for their less well-trained co-workers.


   My advice to an individual thinking of testing the job market, or currently actively involved in a search for a new position, is similar. As painfully introspective as it may seem, think about your career goals. Take stock of what you do well. Do get whatever additional training you need to enhance your marketability.

   In preparing support materials, give careful consideration to their impact on how you will market yourself. When writing a resume, provide sufficient information on your skills and past work assignments to allow another professional in your field to really understand what you have done, can do, and have accomplished. Err on the side of more detail than brevity. Prepare an individual cover letter that directly addresses why you have an interest in a particular company or position.

   But more importantly, focus on your strengths. Look for potential employers that need those strengths. Examine the company's exploration philosophy to be sure that it is compatible with your objectives. Do not try to make the foot fit the shoe. Find another shoe! Keep in mind your own personal development needs. Do you want to work new areas or learn new techniques? If so, find out if a potential employer can provide such opportunities. By all means, work on your interpersonal skills. They can and must be developed.

   Be cautious about seeking new employment. From my perspective, a job change should bring more than an increase in salary. Long term career growth, an opportunity to see one's ideas tested, a more satisfying life style - location, time with family, etc., the chance to work new areas or gain new skills, or gain management experience are far more important objectives. And, sometimes, a little patience with one's present employer may pay huge long term dividends in career advancement. Conversely, if one is totally stymied in his or her career progression, procrastination, particularly waiting for one's employer to seize the initiative, can be disastrous. It is almost always easier to find a new position while still employed.

   From my point of view as a recruiter, I am looking for an individual whose technical skills are generally in demand; who can represent himself or herself well - has a polished appearance and good communication skills; who can provide excellent references - (because I rely heavily on references to assess a candidate's capabilities); who has a clear and realistic idea of his objectives in changing jobs; who is 'coachable' regarding the employment process; and who will keep me "in the loop" as the process continues.

   It is also important that individuals realize that a recruiter primarily works for the employer. While I would like to help every applicant find a better position, or in some cases return to the industry, I must put forth most of my effort toward satisfying active search requirements. Unfortunately, my timing and yours may not always coincide. Nor can a recruiter overlook deficiencies in a candidates background. We will not misrepresent someone's capabilities and risk alienating the client. At best, sometimes all we can do is help identify one's 'problem areas' and suggest ways the individual can compensate. This might entail retraining or seeking a position that allows development of the necessary skills.

   In summary, a recruiter is seeking an individual who can be successfully marketed to meet a client's real needs, has a clear understanding of his or her capabilities and desires, and can communicate that information to the client. Lastly, I am convinced that most clients will hire a sharp, likeable individual with the potential to do their job over a lackluster, but technically qualified individual. In short, enthusiasm coupled with substance will carry the day!

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