What Is a Stratigrapher?

A stratigrapher examines layers in the soil or rock to determine how the land came to be and in what sequence.

What Does a Stratigrapher Do?

Stratigraphy is the examination of layers in the physical places of the Earth. As the rock and soil of the planet settles, it can take years, decades or even millions of years to build up deposits. The fundamental shifts in the Earth's processes help us to identify those layers and what the life on the planet looked like at the time just a few decades, centuries or millennia ago. Three main disciplines use this type of science.

In archaeology, stratigraphy is used to examine the sequence of cultures, peoples or building phases using a tool called a Harris Matrix. They will look at soils for inclusions to see what the environmental biology may have looked like at the time and what people in the past may have exploited within the landscape. They will also attempt to determine at what periods the land was occupied and abandoned and by which cultures. Towns and cities evolve, and they are also interested in examining how a settlement was settled, its phases and time scale of abandonment.

In geology, it is used to understand the geological history of the site. Rock types can tell stratigraphers how the land may have looked in the past. A history of sedimentary rock will suggest swamp, ocean or lake, and the geologist may date this. We can date volcanic eruptions too.

In soil science, experts examine the different soil types including subsoil and clays, to examine what the more recent history of the site would have been. They will also look for natural changes in the landscape. Some plants grow better in some soils than others and they will define the ecological make up of the site.

Where Does a Stratigrapher Work?

Where they work depends on their area of expertise and their training. Students can train in stratigraphy at master's degree level, but prior to this, they must take a degree in a relevant subject (typically geology). They are a type of geoscientist, so we have used data from this area to explain employment opportunities.

According to 2015 data, the majority were employed in oil and gas extraction. This is a solid science required for geology and most professional stratigraphers will end up working in that area. Some 22% work in this area.

Engineering services employed the next largest proportion at 17%. Stratigraphers in this area will examine underlying soil and rock to determine whether the ground is suitable for development, looking at such things as the weight capacity, subsidence mitigation and whether the area may be prone to flooding.

15% worked in management, scientific and technical consulting services. This will include independent heritage services (archaeology), ecologists and other groups concerned with conservation and scientific recording.

State government employs some 8%. They will work typically in conservation at places such as state parks, national monuments and other protected areas.

7% worked at educational establishment such as schools and colleges. They are typically geography and archaeology teachers, geology lecturers at colleges and other school roles.

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What Is the Average Stratigrapher Salary?

The BLS reported that stratigraphers fall under the broader geoscientist category. As of May 2020, the median salary for these professionals was $93,580 The lowest 10% earned $51,890 and the highest 10% earned $201,150. Naturally, the highest paying area was oil and gas extraction with a median salary of $125,670, followed by the federal government with a median salary of $104,120.*

Stratigraphy Jobs & Job Description

A specific type of geoscientist that examines layers in the soil or rock, most stratigraphers work in the oil and gas industry. Requiring a strong foundation in geology, biology and physics, junior stratigraphers have the following job responsibilities:

  • Conduct field work, including archaeological testing and excavation under the supervision of a supervisor
  • Excavate using trowels, shovels and other hand tools as appropriate and recognize artifacts, features and basic stratigraphy
  • Record relevant data for items excavated using infrared theodolite or other available tools
  • Analyze and interpret data using computer software and prepare maps, diagrams, charts or reports, using results of fieldwork or laboratory research
  • Communicate findings by writing research papers, participating in conferences or teaching geological science at the university level

An experienced stratigrapher may add project management duties to his job description, including the following:

  • Design studies to examine the stratigraphy of a given site
  • Manage teams of junior staff at field sites
  • Provide training and mentorship to junior staff
  • Advise on exploration strategies as authority on stratigraphy
  • Lead and participate in quality assurance reviews of geoscience work
  • Network and connect with academic and industry contacts on advances in stratigraphy and keep informed on the best geological resources available

What Is the Job Demand for Stratigraphers?

Total expected growth for stratigraphy will be around 7% between 2020 and 2030.* As we begin to understand our world, and examine the topography as a living record (natural and cultural) we expect that this type of role will also grow in academia. In archaeology and ecology especially, we have moved away from seeing elements of the discipline in isolation.

What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Stratigrapher?

High school students should take geography, math, biology and physics as a matter of priority. The first will be essential to learning the discipline as it stands. The remaining three are essential to studying any scientific subject at college.

At college, students have the three main choices above. This will be archaeology or anthropology, geology and ecology. These three subjects will form the foundation of your career as a stratigrapher. Supporting minors and electives should reflect environmental science to fully understand the stratigraphy concept. Where possible, students should seek GIS minors as a matter of priority and perhaps even cartography. Mapping of any kind will be essential to topographic study.

No stratigraphy degrees exist at undergraduate level, but there are a growing number at postgraduate level. Not all colleges and universities will offer them. Where not available, students should follow their intended career path and tailor coursework to stratigraphy and their relevant discipline. Most master's degrees should put you in good standing for project and research-based jobs later in your career.

Students wishing to teach at school, or lecture and research in academia, should certainly study a doctorate. However, they will not be necessary in most other roles.

Stratigraphy - Related Degrees

What Kind Of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Stratigraphers Have?

Stratigraphy is an important subdiscipline and has the following relevant organizations.

  • Archaeological Institute of America: Although not primarily a stratigraphy body, they do bring together the USA's community of archaeologists to share information on the latest developments

*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for geoscientists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.

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