Grad School 2: I want to go to grad school, so what should I do?

This post follows Grad School: A Primer, and is part of a series on graduate school aimed at my students. Other students are welcome to read it, but the focus is on UW Tacoma undergrads who are looking to do a thesis-based (a.k.a. research-based) MS or PhD in geoscience. Other grad school options – though maybe not all of the possibilities – are discussed in the first post of the series. Thanks to Bonnie Becker for her helpful comments on this post!


Suppose you’ve been mulling over graduate school, and you’ve decided that it’s for you. You have a good reason – maybe you like research, or maybe you want to teach, or maybe your plan to save the world (or maybe just a secure career with some hope of advancement) involves having an MS or a PhD – and you are OK with the commitment. Now: how do you actually do it?

Applying to a thesis-based MS or PhD program is much less standardized than applying to college. In some ways, it’s a bit more like looking for a job. Rather than taking SATs, writing a personal essay, and completing an application that’s more or less the same everywhere, the grad school application process involves making a personal connection with a potential advisor and submitting an application packet that includes recommendation letters, a resume, and a statement of purpose (a bit like a cover letter). Things like standardized tests (the GRE) and GPA matter, but much less so than the connections you make with faculty. However, different schools have different requirements, and the individuals involved can really make a difference.

Please understand that my knowledge of the grad application process comes mostly from my own experience, which was a long time ago, so take what I say here with a very hefty chunk of halite. I put together data from about 25 geoscience grad programs (not a random sample) as well as talking with with faculty and students in some of those programs. But there are probably some things I’m assuming based on my experience that might be different for you. Getting some different perspectives on grad school is necessary, and I’ll include some ways to do that at the end of this post.

The Long Game

It used to be that, if you wanted to go to grad school in geology, you had to take certain courses as well as the Geology GRE. As the geosciences become more interdisciplinary and graduate schools try to recruit students with different academic backgrounds – physics, biology, chemistry, and, yes, environmental science – the “standard” set of courses has become less of a requirement. This is really good for our students. After looking at admissions requirements, I’m convinced that students who graduate our Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science program can meet the requirements for admission to a lot of geoscience programs, with maybe a little work. Keep in mind that, in many schools, course requirements aren’t set in stone, and missing classes can often be taken after you get in. You may also be able to take some of these courses after you graduate, as a post-baccalaureate or nonmatriculated student at UW Tacoma or UW Seattle.

Many geoscience grad schools still place a lot of importance on the following sets of “traditional” geology classes:

  • Mineralogy, Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology (or Earth Materials), and possibly Geochemistry – identifying rocks and minerals and understanding how they form
  • Sedimentology and/or Stratigraphy – how to reconstruct past environments through geologic time
  • Structural Geology – folds, faults, and deformation
  • Geomorphology – recognizing and interpreting surface features
  • Field Camp – where you learn good practice in the field, how to interpret 3D relationships between rocks, and how to make maps

Of these, we teach Earth Materials, Sedimentology, and Geomorphology at UW Tacoma every other year, so be sure to look for them in the schedule. You may be able to get Environmental Chemistry to count as a geochemistry course  – it’s called “Aqueous Geochemistry” at many other schools.

Field camp is often a sticking point for students. It’s a big time commitment – usually 6 weeks in the summer, spent somewhere with lots of exposed rocks (I did mine in Montana and Wyoming). Although UW has a field camp, very few UW Tacoma students have taken it: the course (ESS 400) has stratigraphy and intro geomechanics/structural geology as prerequisites. You can do a field camp through another institution: look for one that accepts students from all institutions (many do), has prerequisites that you can fulfill, offers college credit, and is at a time that you can attend. Here is a list of field camps that you can check out. Southern Illinois University and University of Houston are good bets.

In addition, many grad schools require you to have a strong background in sciences other than geoscience. Many require a year of chemistry, a year of calculus-based physics, and a year of calculus. Chemistry isn’t a problem for our students – it’s required – but physics and calculus are beyond our degree requirements (although our pre-med students do take them). We’ve been trying to improve student support through the chem, physics, and calculus collaborative learning courses: those might be worth looking into to solidify your experience in these fundamental course series.

By the way, many grad programs have some sort of a GPA requirement, usually around 3.0 I didn’t note on my list of grad programs, but maybe I should have. This requirement is something to keep in mind, but don’t let it get you frustrated. Many programs consider only your major GPA, or only your GPA during your last two years of college. Honestly, GPA isn’t a great predictor of success in grad school, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes less and less important in admissions. This isn’t a reason to slack off, just an acknowledgment that your GPA depends on a lot of factors, some of which you don’t have control over.

Timing

Graduate school applications are typically due sometime between December and February. Every school is different. A few schools have a second deadline for students who want to start in the Spring. Some of the later admission deadlines come with the warning that students who apply late are not guaranteed financial support (whereas students who apply to the earlier deadline are).

Because grad school applications are due around the time of Winter break, it’s worth making a work-back plan for your application. As early as you can – up to a year before you apply – let your undergrad professors know what you’re doing and what your plans are. Starting in September (or even earlier), look into grad programs and start contacting faculty and students. Check the GRE schedule: you may have to register as early as September to take the GRE early enough to send your scores to the places you’re applying. Start writing your applications (and take the GRE) later in the fall, around November. Keep in mind that you may have one or two essays, in addition to a resume, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and maybe other materials, to send to the schools you apply to. If you’re applying to 4-5 grad programs, that may be a lot of work around finals and winter vacation.

Where should I apply?

This is a tough and personal question. You are trying to find an advisor who is a good match for you, at a program that offers the degree you want, in a school that fits your needs. At the MS level, I’d put equal weight on the advisor and the grad program itself. If you’re looking to do a PhD, I’d focus a bit more on finding the right advisor. This is because MS degrees typically involve more coursework (determined by the grad program) than PhDs do. PhDs are more focused on developing your independence as a researcher, which most programs do (for better or worse) through individual mentoring. In both MS and PhD programs, you also have to consider factors like geography – do you want to (or need to) be in a particular area? – and financial support.

The best way to find a good program is to use all of your resources. We, your undergraduate professors will usually be able to help you find at least a few options. Usually, professors are best suited to help you go to grad school in their field: if you want to go to grad school in geomorphology, it’s better to ask a geomorphologist than a geophysicst. But you can always get second opinions. Profs might also help you network, so that you can find someone else who can advise you on good schools for the field or question that interests you. If you’re going to a conference, you have even more resources: talk to students and faculty at poster sessions and in breaks after presentations. At big conferences (GSA and AGU, for example), grad schools set up information booths where you can go and talk to faculty, staff, or students. If you’re working on an undergrad research project or you’ve taken a course you really like and you read a paper that interests you, find out who wrote it and where the author is working (professors do move around, so double-check the information listed on the paper). Finally, do a search on the Web. Google your field of interest. Get a Twitter account and seek out geoscientists who do interesting work (there is a huge geoscience network on Twitter). There’s a lot of info out there. I linked to some on my list of grad schools.

As a side note: I’d recommend looking at schools that allow you to switch between advisors, or that encourage you to do a “rotation” (like med schools do). I arranged to rotate when I got to grad school – it wasn’t officially sanctioned at Scripps – but it was helpful. After working in three different labs – programming computer models of sand dunes, studying clays in fault zones, and cooking up synthetic magnetite – I found a good fit. It helped that I had a department fellowship my first year, so I wasn’t beholden to any individual professor for funding. This can really help if you end up with an advisor with whom you don’t get along (fortunately not the case for any of the labs I worked in), or, even worse, an advisor or labmate who is engaged in harassment or other unethical behavior (also fortunately not the case for me!). For me, it was a question of which field of geoscience was most exciting and which advisor was the best match for my personality. I had a tough time narrowing it down at first.

Making Contacts

Once you’ve found a school that interests you, you’ll need to make contact with faculty there to find a potential advisor. This is really the beginning of the application process itself, and is often the hardest part of applying to thesis-based grad programs. Jacquelyn Gill has some great suggestions in a blog post from 2013 called “So, you want to go to grad school? Nail the inquiry email”. Read her post and the comments! Brian Romans at Clastic Detritus also has a pretty good guide with some similar suggestions. What follows are a few of my suggestions that really just embellish on what Gill, Romans, and their commenters wrote.

Typically, a well-crafted email will be your first step in contacting potential advisors. I’d highly recommend that you put the kind of attention into your email that you do into a good paper. Don’t send your message out until you have someone, preferably your undergraduate advisor, look it over. This will help you catch spelling and grammar mistakes, and it will help you write with the right level of formality. Running your letter by people who know academia well – and especially people who know your field well – might also help you with details that can either help or hurt your chances of getting a response.

Generally, in that first email, you don’t ask a potential advisor if you can work for them. Sometimes people use the phrase “opportunities in your lab” (Dr. Gill’s recommendation). I remember asking potential advisors whether they were “taking on new graduate students” (be sure to specify MS or PhD!). There are all kinds of reasons why a faculty member might not be interested in taking on more students. The faculty member might be close to retirement, they might be running low on grant funding, they might be getting ready to go on sabbatical or maternity leave, or they might have too many current students to pay adequate attention to one more. It’s often worth following up with faculty even if they aren’t taking on new students or don’t have opportunities in their lab, though: sometimes, faculty members can point you toward someone else at their university – or even elsewhere – who has opportunities in their lab.

By the time you write your introductory email, you should have done some background research on the faculty member to whom you are writing. You should at least have thoroughly read their webpage or the lab’s website, looked through the school’s website (particularly at the graduate curriculum, admissions requirements, and application process), and read some of your potential advisor’s papers. Try to figure out how their work fits with (1) what you’ve already done either in research or in class work, and/or (2) what you hope to do with your academic life. The more specific you can be, the more powerful your letter. However, realize that no one will make you do any specific projects you propose in your original email.

Consider that you are emailing a human being – one who works at a university. If you email during finals week, your message may get lost. If you email over the summer, your contact may be on vacation or in the field. Your potential advisor may be taking care of kids or aging parents, may have had a disaster in the lab (or a personal one), or may be juggling conferences, grant proposal deadlines, committee work, car repairs, house repairs, advising grad students (!)… any of a bunch of other things – just like you. Maybe more than you. If you don’t get an immediate reply, be patient, but do follow up. You may want to give your contact a week or so, and then send a compassionate and polite reminder that you are still interested in hearing from them.

The point of a first email is to begin a longer term conversation. As you email (or call) back and forth with your potential advisor, there are a couple of things you’re going to want to find out. First, does your potential advisor have funding – or are they willing to apply for funding – for a student who wants to work on the kind of thing you want to do? Funding is critical, because it pays not only research expenses, but your tuition and (usually) salary. Some schools don’t let you in unless your advisor has funding. Others guarantee financial support to all incoming students, but it may come with a catch – you may have to be a teaching assistant or a grader, or you may need to work on a project different from your own. Getting through grad school is much harder if you have to work another job, even if that work is being a teaching assistant or grader in the same department as your grad program. A better alternative is to apply for fellowships for grad school, which make you much more flexible in terms of the projects you can work on. Potential grad advisors really like it when you get to them with a fellowship, but it’s not possible for everyone to do.

The second thing you want to figure out is what kind of a mentor your potential grad advisor might be. I’ve seen a number of people write that it’s more important that you have a good advisor than a good project. I’ve certainly found this to be true. However, I don’t think you can ask an advisor what sort of a mentor he or she is and get a straight answer (there are exceptions – mostly people who have thought a lot about mentoring). There are a few ways to get an idea indirectly. You might ask whether your potential advisor sees themselves as hands-on or hands-off in terms of their students’ research (another way of asking this is, “how often do you meet with your students as a group? How often do you meet one-on-one?”). In programs that have few course requirements, some faculty prefer you to take fewer classes, while others think it’s better for you to choose on your own: ask your potential advisor what they see as a typical or ideal student pathway through their program. Their answer can give you some insight into how much coursework they’d like you to take, and what kinds of classes they think are necessary. If possible, try to talk to current grad students. Either you can ask your potential advisor to introduce you, or you can look them up on the Web (many lab websites list grad students on a “personnel” page). They may raise red flags about their grad programs or individual faculty, or they may convince you to go somewhere that wasn’t your original top choice (that happened with me). In either case, their experience will be more or less like yours if you go to the same school. Faculty, on the other hand, lead a different life and have a different perspective. Try to get both points of view.

Securing Letters of Recommendation

Nearly every grad program requires letters of recommendation. I suggest that you ask early, around when you start your grad school search, and keep your recommenders updated on your search. That way they can tailor their letters to your specific applications – more specifics are always a good thing. Along the “more specifics” line of thinking: ask for letters from faculty who know you well. Your undergraduate research advisor is a good choice, as are professors you’ve taken more than one course from. Faculty from whom you’ve taken one class, particularly if it’s a big class or one with a lot of sections, might not be able to write as powerful a letter of recommendation as faculty who can write a lot of specific things about how awesome you are. If you’re choosing to ask a faculty member from whom you’ve taken one course, choose someone from whom you’ve taken a small, upper-division course, such as a field course. Having several conversations with the faculty members who are writing your recommendation letters will also give them more to go on.

The GRE

Nearly all of the schools I looked at require you to take the general GRE. While the GRE doesn’t factor into graduate admissions as heavily as the SAT does into college admissions, it is still required. Many schools have a minimum score required for admission, but that’s not always a hard-and-fast rule. Do prepare for the GRE, though: our Writing Center, for example, offers workshops to prepare you for the written portion of the exam. There are also plenty of books available that give you an idea of what to expect from the rest of the exam. It’s not worth spending a lot of money for a prep course, but it is worth spending some time preparing so you’re not caught unaware.

I took the subject (geology) GRE when I applied to grad school, but that was in 1997. It was tough: there were a lot of questions about hydrogeology and economic geology, and I’d never taken those courses! Now, fewer grad schools require subject GRE scores. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any of the schools on my list with a geology GRE as a requirement. So I would not bother with the time, money, and stress of the subject GRE.

GRE scores are valid for five years after your testing date, so it’s best to take the test when you’re close to graduating, even if you’re planning to wait a year or two to go to grad school.

Closing Thoughts

Graduate schools and the faculty in them want motivated students like you to apply. Most good advisors consider training grad students – like you – to be an investment in the future of their field, and many consider it a personal honor to have a grad student go on to become successful. So they want you to succeed. But they are also risk-averse, and many faculty at research institutions are hesitant to accept students from institutions they don’t know (read: from places other than big research schools). This means that as a student from UW Tacoma, you will probably have some extra work to do in order to convince potential advisors that you are motivated, and that you are likely to be successful. Building a network of people who know you, know your work, and can support you in the application process (and afterwards, in grad school) is therefore crucial.

Further Reading

Before you apply, it pays to find out as much about grad school in general and about the specific schools you are applying to. I haven’t read it, but Bonnie recommends Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. by Robert Peters [Amazon, UW Library].

More about grad school applications by Callan Bentley.

Whatever you do, don’t go to a grad school on the basis of the US News rankings!  I won’t even post them here because they aren’t worth reading. Grad school is an individual, subjective choice: one school or advisor may be good for one person, but terrible for another.

I plan to add a separate post with a resource list as I find more.

Accounts to follow on Twitter – These are just to get you started. There are LOTS more out there.

Twitter Accounts

Here are a few articles in case you’re curious what am thinking about when I try to guide you through the grad school admissions process. Note that some of these are really in the weeds from your perspective as a student, but they’re what’s on my mind while writing this series… in case you want to know.

Articles