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What are the Branches of Geology?

Updated on July 14, 2013
geologist at work
geologist at work | Source

If you are planning your career and are thinking of becoming a geologist, you may be wondering what are the different branches of geology.

As a geologist, you will need to have studied a little of each branch in order to get your degree.

Afterwards, you will probably find yourself specializing in just one or two branches of geology, as no-one could possibly spread themselves so wide that they become expert in every field.

Geology is a huge science.

It encompasses chemistry, physics, mathematics, history, geography, biology and engineering, and so you should have studied those subjects in school if you plan a career as a geologist.

At university, you will be expected to learn a little (quite a lot actually) about the following branches of geology.


Also known as historical geology, stratigraphy is a huge field that takes in the evidence collected by all other branches of geology.

Stratigraphy is the science that is at the heart of geology.

As the name suggest, it is about deciphering rock layers or stratification, laid down by millions of years of evolution.

Stratigraphy is further divided into the following spheres:

  • Lithological stratigraphy -
  • Biostratigraphy
  • Magnetostratigraphy
  • Archaeological stratigraphy
  • Chronostratigraphy

From studying these layers, geologists can tell the whole history of the earth since the planet was formed.


The study of fossils is known as palaeontology. This is where geology borders with biology.

Fossils are the footprints of previous life held within rocks.

Palaeontology is further subdivided into:

  • palaeobotany - the study of plant fossils
  • palaeozoology - the study of animal fossils

Fossils are of vital importance to geologist as they can use them to date rocks.


Physical geology or geomorphology deals with the study of landscape and erosion. While this broad subject also comes under geography, it is a vital importance to geologists.

Studying the landscape shows many marks that reveal the past geological history of the area.

The nature and structure of the rocks control the rate of erosion, both past, present and future.


Petrology is the study of rocks that concentrates on their age, composition, structure and distribution.

This is the science that will require you to look at rock samples under a microscope to determine the cellular structure and chemical composition.

Petrology is further sub-classed into:

  • Igneous petrology
  • Metamorphic petrology
  • Sedimentary petrology
  • Experimental petrology


Mineralogy is the study of minerals, their crystalline forms, chemistry and physical forms.

You will be required to learn how they are formed, where they come from and the conditions under which they are formed.

In addition, you will need to know where in the world they are found, and their uses in industry and commercial applications.

Structural geology

Structural geology, tectonics, is the study of rock structure.

It is the mechanics of geology, and is more concerned with how rocks are folded, deformed and broken, than with the rocks themselves.

Structural geologists can tell how rocks came to occupy their present positions, and where they came from (or were developed), originally.


As the name geophysics suggest, this is the study of applied physics as regards the interior of the planet.

By measuring gravity, seismic waves, electrical resistance and magnetism, geophysicists can analyse data to determine the physical structure of those deep areas in which man can never set foot.

Engineering Geology

Engineering geology is the application of geology to engineering problems.

Underground water supplies, bridges, dams, tunnels and major new road or above-ground structure building will require the expertise of a geology engineer.


Geochemistry encompasses the chemical composition of the crust of the planet.

The carbon-dating of rocks is the responsibility of the geochemist, as well as deciding on the likelihood of useful minerals and ores in rocks and subsoils, by the study of the types of plants and soils in the vicinity.


The study of water movements and distribution in the earth's crust.

Several branches of geology cross over, and the geohydrologist and geology engineer have similarities.

The building of dams, tunnels, underwater tunnels and bridges may require the expertise of the geohydrologist who has specific knowledge of how underwater streams flow as well as their underlying bedrock.


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