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What is Petrology?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Petrology is the study of rocks. This field is regarded as a subfield of geology or earth science, and people in this field are known as petrologists. There are a number of applications for petrology, including opportunities in the lab, field, and classroom for people with petrology degrees. People who are interested in working in this field can receive training at colleges and universities with petrology departments, and may want to consider obtaining advanced degrees so that more career opportunities will be available.

Researchers in this field are interested in how rocks form, what they contain, how changes in conditions during formation can lead to changes in composition and structure, how rocks weather, and how rocks can be utilized. In the field, petrology can involve identification of various rock types, along with study of rock strata and various geologic structures. Petrologists can use a variety of technologies to take core samples and conduct imaging studies which allow them to see into the Earth's crust.

In the lab, some petrologists do things like synthesizing rocks and manipulating conditions in the lab to experiment with formation in different kinds of environments. In this subfield, known as experimental petrology, researchers can test hypotheses or duplicate conditions found in nature to learn more about the process of rock formation. Laboratories also have equipment which can be used to analyze rock samples, such as mass spectrometers which can be used to identify the composition of a rock.

People may use the terms sedimentary petrology, igneous petrology, and metamorphic petrology to describe different areas of study within this field, which focus on the three major rock types. On occasion, there is some overlap between petrologists with different areas of focus, as rocks rarely confine themselves to neat categories for the convenience of scientists. Depending on one's area of interest, opportunities in the field can be found everywhere from active volcanoes to the desert.

In industry, petrology is applied by numerous mineral companies and in the oil industry. Specialists in this field can also act as consultants for people like sculptors and masons who want to learn more about the materials they work with, and they can work with engineers on projects involving rock. Petrologists can also work as curators in facilities which store rock samples for historic value or study opportunities, maintaining the collections and working with people who are interested in viewing collections of rock samples.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By SkyWhisperer — On Jun 28, 2011

@gravois - That sounds like a great profession. I knew that petroleum engineers made a lot of money but I had never heard about petrological studies or that you could graduate as a petrologist.

I suppose that the two professions would be somewhat related, as they both seem like direct paths into the oil industry, but a petrologist works more with the base materials at its most primitive stage-before it becomes oil.

By everetra — On Jun 26, 2011

Mineralogy is a fascinating field of study, and it’s especially fun when you can get your kids to start experimenting really early.

I helped my son study different rocks in the backyard as part of his science homework and we had fun classifying each rock into one of the three categories, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic.

I learned a lot myself in the process and was interested in how the minerals in different rocks were used not only for jewelry but also for other things like electronics components.

By gravois — On Jun 26, 2011

I had a friend who worked for Mobil as a petrologist and he had one of the sweetest jobs I've ever seen. He got to travel all over the world on the companies dime. He went to all kinds of exotic locations. He got lots of time off and he made great money. He was extremely smart and obviously very good at what he did, but who would have thought you could get such a sweet gig just by knowing a lot about rocks?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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