Executive Summary

The prolonged duration of the COVID-19 pandemic led to significant and unprecedented structural changes in social, economic, and educational systems worldwide. Frequent surges in virus cases and the emergence of new variants caused waves of disruptions and restarts in educational and business sectors. To adapt, academic institutions and businesses integrated virtual technologies, creating new working and learning models that ensured continuity throughout this volatile period.

In May 2020, AGI initiated a research project to investigate the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on the geoscience workforce and academic programs. The project's goal was to establish a comparison of pre-pandemic and post-pandemic environments to assess the magnitude and permanence of these changes. Initially planned as a 12-month study, the project eventually expanded into a multi-year investigation that concluded data collection in December 2022. Primary data were collected through a multi-cohort longitudinal survey between May 2020 and December 2022, focusing on five primary cohorts: geoscience employers, non-academic geoscientists, academic faculty, geoscience college and university students, and recent geoscience graduates from 2014 through 2022. Additional insights were gained in 2022 through oral history interviews and a three-part webinar series, gathering best practices from various study cohorts on how they managed pandemic-related impacts.

The study aimed to identify the lasting changes to geoscience programs, departments, employers, and workforce resulting from the pandemic. It explored how research conduct evolved, including identifying new opportunities that emerged from the pandemic, and closely examined skills and knowledge gaps affecting post-2020 geoscience graduates. Strategies employed by employers, academic departments, and graduates to address these gaps were also investigated, along with an examination of career trajectories for recent graduates to assess any variations from pre-pandemic trends.

Furthermore, the project sought to inform future areas of research, including those related to new approaches in digital learning and teaching. By providing insights into the short- and long-term effects of this crisis that necessitated rapid structural workforce changes, the study aimed to assist institutions, employers, and decision-makers in improving response and recovery planning for future crises of a similar nature.

Key Findings

The pandemic brought about widespread disruptions to the geoscience profession, affecting various aspects of academia, employment, and research. The results of this project highlight the common challenges experienced by the study cohorts, the strategies they employed to navigate those challenges, the new opportunities that arose as a result of the pandemic, and the new ways of working and learning that have emerged in the post-pandemic world.


Academic departments faced challenges such as budget cuts, staffing issues, limitations on fieldwork and travel, and declines in student enrollment. The rapid shift from in-person to remote instruction led to significant changes in research methods, mainly towards virtual and computational studies, and caused delays in degree completion due to alterations in project tasks, course availability, and presentation modes.

Geoscience employers struggled with financial and staffing impacts, regulatory constraints, supply chain problems, and limitations on travel and field activities. Hiring new talent proved difficult due to a lack of available skilled people for open positions. In addition, onboarding new employees into virtual working environments presented substantial obstacles, as new hires had difficulty with assimilating into the organization’s culture, and training also proved challenging as tasks more easily done in person could not always be replicated in an online setting.

The profession faced obstacles in fieldwork and laboratory activities, impeded by restrictions and increased health protocols. The swift shift to remote work affected families with increased caregiving responsibilities and led to reduced productivity, imbalanced work/life equilibrium, and supply shortages. Challenges with the lack of optimal remote work environments, especially early in the pandemic, were due to the lack of dedicated workspaces, internet connectivity, distractions, and not having the necessary resources and equipment as one would have at the office or on campus. In addition, the loss of in-person communication had a huge impact for many, with online platforms not able to fully replicate in-person hallway discussions.

For academic faculty, the lack of engagement with students in an online setting was a top issue, causing declines in student learning. Furthermore, the rapid shift to online and the push to maintain educational continuity left faculty scrambling to learn new platforms and convert as much as their course content as possible into online platforms. Later in the pandemic, faculty also juggled both online and in-person teaching modalities. This increased workloads and many faculty did not have the time to fully re-design course content for online learning which resulted in frequent comments about the diminished quality of online instruction.


Underpinning many of the successful strategies employed during the pandemic was a can-do attitude. With the restrictions on facility access and travel, projects were re-focused on literature reviews and modeling where possible, and others were redesigned to fit within pandemic-related constraints. Other strategies revolved around being resourceful, which included finding motivation and self-direction to keep projects, work, and research moving forward. Resourcefulness also was found within people's networks and communities, including finding ways to connect, share ideas, and learn new skills.

Integration of technological platforms served as a bridge for communication, collaboration, idea sharing, skill learning, and teamwork on projects. Supportive actions by employers, departments, and faculty were also vital, including providing equipment and financial assistance for the transition to remote work, and allowing flexibility in deadlines and work hours. These measures eased some challenges faced by employees and students, particularly with project delays, supply chain disruptions, and family care responsibilities. Other strategies included upgrading remote workspaces to be more conducive for working and studying, reducing distractions from others, increasing internet speed, acquiring better furniture, and finding/creating dedicated workspaces.

Departments also adjusted promotion and tenure guidelines, with most departments extending the promotion clock, and waiving student and teacher evaluations during the first year of the pandemic. Departments also supported students by adapting degree requirements, such as waiving course requirements, allowing substitutions such as alternate courses or independent study for courses that were cancelled, and giving students who could not complete field courses prior to graduation the ability to take the course once they were offered in-person. Many non-academic employers implemented remote-first work policies to allow employees to choose whether they wanted to work in the office or at home on any given day, thus providing employees with the flexibility to adjust their schedule to maintain productivity.


During the pandemic, new opportunities for research and collaborations were reported by over a third of survey participants, including collaborations between departments within an organization, as well as collaborations with other organizations. Of those indicating new opportunities, over half indicated that they were pursuing new work and / or research projects.

With the increased familiarity with virtual platforms, people leveraged the ability to connect with others more easily. As a result, some faculty developed collaborations with colleagues around the world to be guest speakers in their courses, and departments did the same for their colloquium series. Researchers connected with others using virtual platforms to develop new projects and collaborate on existing research.

The pandemic provided the opportunity to rethink curriculum and departmental / organizational culture around the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. While virtual platforms were able to increase accessibility by providing an alternative to in-person experiences, there were caveats related to internet access. Furthermore, as faculty gained experience with curriculum design and delivery across the different in-person and online modalities, some incorporated virtual resources developed during the pandemic into their curriculum to provide more opportunities for learning for those unable to attend in person.

The pandemic also provided many with opportunities to learn new skills, especially related to modeling and software programming. In part, new skills development was driven by restrictions on facility access and travel which resulted in employees, faculty, students, and researchers pivoting their work to computational research activities.

Lasting changes

The pandemic has brought about lasting transformations in the geosciences, particularly with the incorporation of virtual technologies into working and learning environments and brought to light the criticality of frequent in-person interactions and the consequences of isolation on social interactions and interpersonal communication. Beyond the challenges it posed, the pandemic also enabled an increase in technical proficiency across the geosciences, opening new opportunities in virtual work and collaboration that many have seized.

Academic departments have embraced virtual instructional methods, using them to enhance student learning or accommodate those who could not attend in-person sessions. This has increased accessibility and content retention for students and allowed faculty to use new skills and instructional modalities learned during the pandemic. Primarily, virtual components are being integrated as supplemental materials or as preparatory or follow-up materials for in-person instruction. Departments have also begun allowing hybrid and virtual options for their students' defense / final capstone project presentations. In addition, some departments are allowing course substitutions in degree plans.

Employers have also adopted virtual technologies, leading to more flexible work conditions, and allowing employees greater leeway in their work location and hours. Concurrently, employees have upgraded their home workspaces to be more conducive for remote work. The increased flexibility has improved morale, as employees can more easily balance personal and work commitments, and the reduction in commute time also helps to increase work-life balance.

In addition, there has been an increase in employers hiring at the doctoral level, whereas pre-pandemic, employers tended to hire primarily at the bachelors and master’s level, while doctorates primarily tracked into academic careers. Employers are now also expecting new hires to have proficiency with virtual platforms for communication and collaboration, database and data visualization skills, and project management.

The pandemic has left a lasting imprint on the geosciences, but also has provided new opportunities for the geosciences in support of society, shaping the future trajectory of the geosciences discipline. Integration of virtual technologies has opened many doors for research advancements, collaborations, and new ways of teaching and learning. The immense challenges posed by the pandemic in terms of the limitations on in-person activities, including lab and field work, has provided the opportunity for geoscientists, employers, and academic departments to think strategically about how to be more efficient in how they work and learn going forward.

Key Observations

  • Resilience prevailed within the geoscience profession despite the immense challenges from the pandemic.

  • Successful strategies for adaptation to changes in work and learning were underpinned by a willingness to look for solutions to navigate the challenges faced.

  • Supportive actions, such as adjusting project deadlines, assistance with the set-up of remote workspaces, and changes to promotion and tenure guidelines and degree program requirements were key for easing stress and challenges for employees, faculty, and students.

  • The pandemic made clear the importance of having a home workspace that was conducive for work and learning, including a dedicated space with proper equipment, furniture, fast internet connection, and one that was free of distractions.

  • The prolonged duration of restrictions on in-person activities during the pandemic emphasized the criticality of in-person social interactions.

  • Virtual platforms enhanced curricular activities, increased accessibility, and increased content retention as students could review recorded lectures and course materials in addition to their notes.

  • Virtual platforms broadened professional networks and increased collaboration among researchers, faculty and employees.

  • The pandemic provided many with the opportunity to learn new skills, especially related to computational research, programming, database management, and other related technical skills.

  • In addition to integrating virtual components into instructional activities, some academic departments are now allowing more flexibility in the mode of students’ final research presentations and providing some flexibility with respect to degree program requirements.

  • Employers have shifted to more flexible working environments, allowing for flexibility in hours and work location.

  • Employers are increasingly hiring at the doctoral level and are also expecting new hires to be proficient with virtual platforms for communication and collaboration.