The Finder and the Minder

The metals mining industry offers geologists two distinct career paths – the exploration geologist and the mining geologist.  Between these roles there is an overlap of required knowledge and skills, but the job requirements are different and the personality which makes a good exploration geologist seldom makes a good, or a very happy, mine geologist. And the reverse, of course, is true.  There are exceptions, but in my experience, this rule broadly holds true.

The Exploration Geologist

Exploration geologists seek new ore in Greenfield or Brownfield [1] sites. There are no detailed steps set out in a manual, no pull-down menus in a software program which explain how to do this.  Good geological thinking, the kind you get from training, study and experience will suggest a standard way of setting about the job of finding an ore body, but that is seldom enough, especially today, when most easy-found deposits have already been located.  Consider this: almost everywhere you might look there have been previous prospectors and explorers.  They were armed with much the same set of standard tools and ideas as you (maybe better ones) and they did not find an ore body – so why should you do any better?  The skilled explorationist has to bring something more to the task if she wants to find that ore – to the standard procedures she needs to add innovation, lateral thinking, creativity, optimism, opportunism, self-belief, proseltising skills, individuality and energy.  You cannot learn these things, although practice will hone and bring to the fore whatever is innate. They are part of one’s personality.  You either have these attributes or you don’t. If you possess them all in full measure of course, you are superwoman (or man).

Geologist in field

How Exploration geologists see themselves: superman

A profitable mine is the  joint production of a large team of people – geologists, mining engineers, metallurgists, financiers etc. – but the very first step in the process of the making of an ore body, the creative spark that begins the process, often involves just one person. The potential ore body begins as an idea in that person’s mind – he or she has to believe in this idea, fight for it, sell it to others, take risks and work to make it happen. That person is the exploration geologist.

The exploration geologist is likely to find himself working alone, or in small groups and often in remote areas. Senior management seldom bothers him – indeed sometimes it seems that senior management does not even know that he exists.  Even as a junior he might have to take quite important (i.e. costly) decisions, such as where to site the next drill hole. He will almost always find himself located at the steep part of any learning curve. This is not a job with fixed working hours. This is not a job that suits two weeks on, one week off work cycles. Some would say that it is not even a job that suits normal social relationships or family life. As a result, the majority of exploration geologists reach their peak after 10-15 years experience, after which they often move to fill less demanding roles in management, or even to become Mine Geologists, where they at least have the chance of getting home most nights. Those that push past that limit can become seriously weird human beings.

The minder and the finder

How Mine Geologists see Exploration geologists: seriously weird

 The Mine Geologist

Mine Geologists are the key professionals on any mine. Their primary job, taking precedence over all other, is to outline ore blocks in advance of the miners to ensure that the ever-hungry mills are fed 24/7. To plan a mine, engineers need to know not only what they will mine today, but also next week, next month and next year.  In order to provide this information the mine geologist has to acquire extremely-accurate and detailed-scale knowledge of the geometry and the distribution of grade in his ore body.  He does this through large-scale geological mapping of exposed faces in his mine and close-spaced, grade-control drilling and sampling.  He is responsible for defining ore and waste, not just on plans and sections but also physically, by painting lines on rock and ensuring that machine operators work within those lines. Close liaison with samplers, drillers, miners and engineers is essential.  Because of the huge mass of spatially-referenced numerical data which the mine geologist has to work with, he uses powerful mine-oriented GIS software.  Observe any operating mine today and the geologists are mostly to be found sitting at desks and staring at monitors, a task they intersperse with much shorter forays to the pit, the underground workings or the core yard.


How Exploration Geologists see Mine Geologists: computer nerds

The Mine geologist is necessarily a team player. His observations need to be accurate, precise, quantitative and, above all, collected within established parameters and expressed with a well-defined and limited lexicon of terms and symbols.  There is little scope for innovation or creative new ideas here. The data the geologist handles and attempts to integrate will have been collected by many geologists over many years.  All of these professionals, if things are to work in harmony, must sing from the same song sheet.  Understanding the geology of the ore body, its broad shape and structure, the critical parameters which need to be measured in its description (the song-sheet, to continue the metaphor) will have, or at any rate should, have been established long before.  Indeed, it was this understanding, gained through early exploration drilling, that provided the level of confidence to advance the deposit through feasibility to mining.

Unlike the Exploration geologist who lacks any easy way of knowing how successful he is, and finds it all too easy to credit success to  cleverness and failure to bad luck, the Mine geologist gets constant, objective feedback on his performance, most notably when he reconciles the monthly returns from the mill against his predictions.

It necessarily follows that the mind and personality of the Mine Geologist:

likes working with precise measurements

values accuracy and order within defined frameworks

is careful and conservative in prediction

has a good grasp of structural geology

can visualise 3D relationships

works well with large groups of professionals

likes (or at least, tolerates) order, regulation and rules

can handle pressure and deadlines

does not mind spending hours every day sitting at a desk staring at a monitor.

Most competent geologists can learn to do these things, but it takes a certain personality type to revel in this role. And for those who do, the rewards are great. The Mine Geologist is the key professional in a mine. All mining decisions begin with the data he or she collects, collates and presents. For a high-grade mine with many years reserves, the pressures are not so great, but for small marginal mines the fate of everybody hinges on the daily professional competence of their mine geology team.

In Conclusion 

I have described two extreme personality types: the lone, risk-taking lateral thinker and the careful meticulous team-worker. There is, of course, a continuous range of personalities between these two end types.  Most people, geologists working in Industry included, have personalities that fit somewhere along the bell curve distribution that lies between these extremes. The lone, risk taking creative thinkers are the ore-finders, but most company mineral exploration – particularly at the post-discovery, ore-proving advanced stages - requires working in large teams under conditions of tight regulation and control that approach those of the mine environment. Conversely, mine geologists are often tasked with the discovery of new ore shoots that can be accessed from existing mine openings, or Brownfields exploration, and these tasks require the skills and aptitudes of the exploration geologist.  As a result, the majority of geologists can find a successful career for themselves in either the operating mine or exploration environment, or can readily switch between these roles.

I maintain, however, that the majority of geologists successful in exploration will tend to have personalities that are skewed towards the antisocial risk-taker end of the curve, and those successful and happiest in mine geology roles will tend to have personalities at the meticulous-observer, rule-follower, team worker end of the scale.

[1]Greenfields exploration takes place where there are no known existing or former mines: Brownfields sites are within sight of such mines.


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