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Behind the Scenes: A Career for Principal Geologist

Uncovering a career as principal geologist

Undertaking effective ground investigation is not without its challenges, and each new project presents different technical and logistical requirements from the one before. Ultimately, ground investigation is about delivering geotechnical information for designers to use for the construction of safe and serviceable structures, in an efficient, economic and environmentally considerate manner. As such, deriving an understanding of the geology and ground conditions - and conveying this within a technical report - is fundamental to the final stage in the overall delivery of a ground investigation.

Failure to adequately identify geohazards is commonly cited as a cause of construction project overruns and cost escalations, so providing a technically reliable ground investigation report ensures the ground related risks are minimised. SOCOTEC understands the importance of having a strong technical team involved in all stages of the ground investigation, from initial client contact, through the fieldwork and laboratory testing stages, to reporting.

With a focus on high service delivery, the role of the principal geologist is crucial in leading the technical team, as discussed by Clare Chapman, operations director for Ground Investigation, who also introduces three members of the SOCOTEC GI team who have recently been promoted to the Principal Geologist position.

Communication is key

Often those involved in procurement of ground investigation services do not have particular geotechnical expertise and will rely on the specialist providers for guidance. The GI technical leaders therefore need to have an understanding of construction processes to be able to discuss how the proposed development works will influence the ground, both in the longer term and often, equally significantly, in the short term during construction and execution of temporary works.

This is coupled with their expertise in knowledge of the ground in terms of its general behavior to changes imposed by construction, such as stress changes from foundations, excavations, construction of slopes - to name a few examples. They will be aware of the potential geohazards associated with particular geological formations and geomorphological conditions, such as swelling clays, slopes, and compressible soils, and the individual issues relating to materials like Chalk, London Clay and Mercia Mudstone.

Setting out on the career path

The development of the principal geologist role usually starts with a technical university education in engineering or geological sciences. Career progression includes both academic development, often with a post-graduate qualification, and many years' involvement over a wide range of projects to achieve John Burland’s “well winnowed experience”. Acquiring chartered status with a professional body would also be the expectation.

Recently promoted principal geologist, Melody Wareing, joined the industry as a geology graduate. She explains: “I started working as part of a field testing unit and assisting with the production of reports, processing large quantities of raw data to interpret ground conditions. Eighteen months later, I moved into the main ground investigation business as an assistant geologist within the team on a variety of site investigations, which broadened my experience and enabled me to develop, as I built on my existing skills.

“Promotion and more responsibility meant taking a bigger role in projects, liaising with the client to ensure the GI work was bringing the right information for them. I was getting involved in new technology areas, such as laboratory testing and providing digital data. I started making use of the GI data, not simply providing factual information but carrying out interpretation, writing desk studies and interpretative reports – all of which helped me towards my position as senior and then principal geologist.

“My roles really have spanned the geotechnical spectrum, and now I am mentoring junior staff. Every career step change meant I took on more responsibilities and I still continue to learn new things.”

For newly appointed principal geologist, David Beskeen, undertaking water sampling and the fun of driving 4x4s around in his role as a monitoring technician was the starting point of his geotechnical career. Dave soon became involved in site supervision, learning on the job and taking on new responsibilities.

He comments: “there are so many aspects to carrying out a ground investigation contract. It becomes second nature, but the most important part is to trial something for the first time. I’ve now been involved in a variety of ground investigations on highways, railways, Ministry of Defence sites, and large scale infrastructure projects, with increasing levels of responsibility for ensuring the work is carried out in accordance with the project specification, standards and best practice. Motivating and supporting the team remains a vital part of delivering the technical element, and the most rewarding.”

Knowledge in depth

The Principal Geologist will be knowledgeable in many ground investigation methods, including field exploratory techniques by various types of borehole (eg cable percussion boring, dynamic sampling, rotary drilling); in situ (field) testing methods (eg probing, permeability, CPT); instrumentation and monitoring of ground movements, gas and groundwater; and laboratory testing.

Understanding the advantages and limitations of the different approaches and how they can best be employed together to provide a suitably focused and efficient investigation comes only with years of applied experience. They also need to be sufficiently aware of specialised techniques, eg geophysical and advanced laboratory testing, so that an informed judgment can be made on bringing in further expertise. And also having sufficient knowledge to make critical review of the information obtained ensures the delivery of expected information.

Taking the lead in delivering cone penetration (CPT) and pressuremeter testing interpretation, principal geologist, Ian Campbell, comments: “I’ve been a part of both technical and operational teams during my career, starting as a junior site engineer and progressing my way up to project manager overseeing large prestigious ground investigations.

“Having a thorough knowledge and deep understanding for all aspects of ground investigative works ensures all outputs of the job are consistent in quality, while fully in line with undertaking project delivery.”

From a client's perspective, the principal geologist's skills ensure delivery of a GI report which is reliable, accurate and relevant, in accordance with the specification and industry standards, and mindful of the programme and budget. Remaining focused on this within a commercial, contractual, health and safety conscious environment, where pressures on carrying out the fieldwork risk eclipsing the actual primary technical purpose of the investigation, is key.

David Beskeen comments: “Having to keep up to date on a diverse range of topics from the latest groundwater monitoring equipment to provision of AGS4 data means we’re always learning. It is rewarding to strive for quality and standards which exceed the clients’ expectations.”

Promoting succession

The principal is also an ambassador for their own organisation and the industry as a whole, promoting their work and maintaining the company and industry reputation. They remain looking to the future; in terms of ensuring the organisation remains up-to-date with development of standards (particularly with the many different ones now present and still being published under Eurocodes) and promoting innovation of GI methods and data interpretation.

Not least, the principal is heavily involved in the development of the more junior staff, to encourage them to develop their careers so that there will be a succession of equally talented and enthusiastic geotechnical experts ready to step up to the mark when their turn comes.

With now over 18 years of experience, Ian Campbell adds: “Steering the quality of deliverance and adherence to standards means that we can maintain a consistent, quality and technically complete approach. Part of the role involves acting as logging supervisor and mentoring Soil and Rock logging carried out by the more junior staff. By advising on technical aspects of the project, not only are we guaranteeing quality, I am also imparting my knowledge to my colleagues to aid them in their own professional development, as was done for me when I was in their position.”

Find out more about SOCOTEC's ground investigation capabilities here

View our blog on Standards and Sample Quality for Ground Investigation

To take a look at SOCOTEC's career vacancies, you can click here

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