Papers and Ideas

In yesterday’s lab meeting, students asked how I find out about new papers. This is the first installment of a series of posts with some ideas. These were inspired in part by Lateef Nasser’s Radiolab episode and Transom article about how he gets ideas for his stories (check those out for more inspiration!).


There are a few ways you can sign up for emails or other notifications when new papers that fit a particular search criterion come out. You could use these to search for papers by a particular author, papers that use a particular keyword in the title or abstract, or (using some tools) papers that cite a particular reference.

  • Google Scholar Alerts is one of the simpler ones: it uses the Google Scholar search syntax (e.g. author:p-a-selkin to search for my papers), and sends you emails when new material comes up. Some suggested uses are on the Google Scholar Alerts help page.
  • Web of Science (available through the UW Libraries website) can send you alerts, too. You’ll have to sign into Web of Science’s account system (in addition to signing in through UW’s library) by clicking the “Sign In” link at the top right of the Web of Science pages.
    • Once you’ve run a search, a “create alert” button will appear on the left side of the search results web page, as in the image below. Click it to get email updates when new papers are published that fit your search criteria. There are “secret” tricks in Web of Science (see also this) that let you combine terms to find publications that are particularly relevant. Examples include “detrital zircon” AND himalaya and Archean NEAR (paleomagnet* OR paleointensity) Once you learn these tricks, this type of alert can be particularly useful  to let you know about researchers whose work you weren’t familiar with. You can also search by author if you find a researcher in your field whose work you want to keep up with (see Networking, below).
    • If you want to be alerted whenever a particular reference is cited, search for that reference and click the title: the “create alert” button appears on the right side of the page for that reference. The latter type of alert is useful if you find a fundamental reference in your field that everyone seems to cite. New papers will often cite classic work in their field.
    • Journal Alerts: individual journals send out alerts when they come out with new articles. These usually include the whole table of contents, which can be quite extensive. Sign up through journal web pages, which you can access by searching for the journal’s name through the library catalogue. Some good options are Science and Nature, which are very general but have articles that often generate a lot of “buzz”; for general geo-related papers, try Geology and GSA Bulletin, Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, and Earth and Planetary Science Letters. For sedimentology/stratigraphy/paleo/climate-related papers, try Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Journal of Sedimentary Research, Sedimentology, and Marine Geology. For geophysics and paleomagnetism, try Earth Planets Space, Geophysical Journal International, and Journal of Geophysical Research. For mineralogy and petrology, try American Mineralogist, Canadian Mineralogist, and Journal of Petrology. You will find others as you read more. 



Looking for students

Hey UW students:

Are you looking for an undergrad research project, either for capstone credit (for UW Tacoma Environmental Science or Studies students) or for experience? We’re looking for new lab members! Here are a few ways you can get involved:

  1. We’re finishing up some work using magnetic properties to look at sediment transport in mud from the Bengal Fan. We need someone who’s interested in doing some electron microscopy, and someone else who wants to hone their lab skills by separating sediment into size fractions (sand, silt, and clay) and analyzing magnetic properties. Both projects involve fun with big magnets, getting muddy in the lab, and going to the Geological Society of America conference in October.  (The image from this post is a SEM element map from former student Aaron Burr’s capstone project; red is iron, blue is calcium, and green is silicon.)
  2. Anybody interested in using magnetism to answer local environmental questions? Starting in late August, I’ll be looking for some students to determine magnetite content in some soil cores for a groundwater hydrology study.
  3. We’re also hoping to start some experimental projects and fieldwork this year aimed at learning how transport through natural (river and dry grassland) and built environments might change the size distribution of magnetic particles in sediment. These projects are going to have some outreach and citizen-science components.

Contact me for further details: paselkin at uw dot edu.


A New Way to Look at Changes in Earth’s Magnetic Field Intensity?

I noticed this article in EOS recently (thanks to Jon Mound and Nick Swanson-Hysell on Twitter for the heads up), and thought I’d comment. Although I’m framing these as caveats, please don’t take the comments to be an attack on anyone, either the article’s author or the authors of the study it describes. I’m just trying to outline my thought process and the kinds of questions a paleomagnetist like me might have when I look at coverage of something in the popular press (which EOS is, sort of…).

Caveat 1: Be careful of the source. My first impulse when I see an article on paleomagnetism in EOS or another responsible publication is to look for the original study. As someone who works in this field, I want to know the details: how was the data analysis done? What dataset was used, exactly? How does it fit into the context of work that’s come before? (I can usually figure this out by myself, but maybe I’ve missed something.) Were there any checks to make sure the result is plausible versus being an illusion of how the data were processed or a bias in the dataset? The problem here is that the results reported in EOS were described in a talk, not a peer-reviewed paper. The talk was by Kirschner and co-authors at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) conference a few months ago. EGU is kind of analogous to the American Geophysical Union conference here. The abstract from the talk, which is all I have to go on, is here. There’s actually a lot in it that didn’t make it into the EOS article, but not the details I’m looking for. (Also, there were some other neat talks in that session at EGU that I wish I’d heard!)

This isn’t to say that science journalists should never write about talks – of course they should. Conferences are where we share current work in progress. But as a reader, when you see that a story is based on a talk, know that there are some questions about the work that might not be answered – or answerable – yet.

Caveat 2: The Data.  Estimates of Earth’s magnetic field intensity are much harder to deal with than standard paleomagnetic data. This is in part because the intensity of a rock’s magnetization has a complicated relationship with the  intensity of the magnetic field in which the rock was magnetized. You can, for example, collect samples from two basalts that cooled at the same time, and so were magnetized in the same field. The magnetizations that you measure from your two basalt samples might be vastly different for a number of reasons. For one thing, one basalt might have more magnetite in it than the other. (Titanium-bearing) magnetite is the mineral that is mostly responsible for the magnetic record in basalt. Alternatively, differently sized or shaped or aligned titano-magnetite particles may have led one of the basalts to record the magnetic field more efficiently than the other. Alternatively, one of the basalts may have had its magnetic record wiped clean (by being reheated, for example, or chemically changed), or may have been remagnetized by a lightning strike, or may just have lost part of its magnetic record by sitting around in changing magnetic fields for a long time (we call that “viscous decay”). Over the years, various techniques have been developed to screen for these effects, and in some cases to adjust for them. But techniques do matter, and sometimes applying the wrong techniques or not applying the proper adjustments may bias estimates of ancient magnetic fields.

This is relevant because in the EOS article, the study is described as using “all available data”. The PINT database contains published results from hundreds of studies that attempt to estimate Earth’s ancient magnetic field intensity. This includes some from studies in the 1950s that don’t check for many of the problems that we know exist, some results that use different kinds of screening techniques, different ways to estimate amounts of magnetic material or the efficiency of magnetization, and different corrections for the weird effects I described. So it’s sometimes difficult to compare data from one study – one data point in the PINT database – to another. The usual approach to comparing paleointensity estimates through time is to come up with a set of criteria (based on the type of intensity estimate, or on the number of checks for a sample’s “ideal” behavior, or on agreement between different types of estimates) and look at data that meet those criteria. In fact, that appears to be what the authors of the study in question did in addition to the analysis of the whole dataset (From the abstract: “Spectral analysis of all palaeointensity data and a quality-filtered dataset obtained from the palaeointensity database…”).

Now, even if you decided to compare only the same kind of estimates of magnetic field intensity through time, there would still be some issues with the data. For example, different rock types may require different checks or adjustments, or may respond differently to the same estimation technique… and those rocks may be more or less common through different parts of the geological time scale. Intensity estimates from one particularly time-constrained rock type, basaltic glass, are really only available for the past 180 million years. Basaltic glass records magnetic fields differently from basalt (mainly because the magnetic particles are much smaller, and glass cooled more rapidly than basalt), and different adjustments for cooling rate (if you agree with them, which not everyone does) may need to be applied. Geology matters!

Caveat 3: The analysis. OK, so even if the data are filtered so that they are all reliable and comparable in terms of technique, estimates of past magnetic field intensity are unevenly spaced in time. Not all rocks are appropriate to use in intensity experiments. The older the rocks are, the fewer usable ones there are that have withstood the ravages of weathering, metamorphism, reheating, lightning strikes, and tectonism. This makes for a dataset that unevenly samples the magnetic field through time. One of the assumptions of digital signal processing- which the authors of the study in question do – is that the data are (at least close to) evenly spaced in time. There are ways to get around this requirement, say by fitting a smooth curve to the data and re-sampling it – but those require some assumptions about the data and the underlying process. Because this study was reported in a talk, I’m not sure what those assumptions were. Nonetheless, any smoothing, fitting, or filtering done to the data could strongly influence the cyclic behavior that the authors describe. I’m not trying to imply that the study’s authors are signal processing newbies – they may very well know more than I do about it. I’m just highlighting a question that I’d ask if I were trying to evaluate the study.

By the way, more than the signal processing aspects, I’m interested in the authors’ work on the change in the distribution of intensity estimates through time. This isn’t mentioned in the EOS article, but is in the abstract – I’m not sure why. Here’s my summary: When we talk about a “distribution”, we’re imagining that the intensity estimates are like students’ grades in a class: a random bunch of numbers to an outsider. If you take all of those grades together, they fall within some range of a middle value, with some grades are more frequent than others. If you taught the class again the same way, but with a different set of students, the pattern of grades would probably look somewhat similar even though the specifics would be different. In statistical terms, the underlying pattern of numbers (grades or intensity estimates) is a probability distribution. The authors, in their abstract, note that they see a change in the probability distribution of intensity estimates around 1.3 billion years ago, ” coincident with the time that geologic and palaeogeographic evidence suggests the onset of quasiperiodic assembly and fragmentation of supercontinents.” It’s also within the time frame that recent work (if you believe it) has suggested that the inner core began to grow. So is the cause of the change external (tectonic-related), internal (inner-core-driven), or neither? I’m not sure, but it adds another intriguing possibility into the mix! (I guess that’s Caveat 4: The Interpretation.) The approach that the study’s authors take to look at changes in probability distributions isn’t described in the abstract, but it might work better than the signal processing approach with data that are unevenly scattered through time.

Caveat 5: Is it a New Result? The idea that tectonics influence Earth’s magnetic field has been popular at least since the late 1990s, when geodynamo simulations suggested that different patterns of heat flux at the core-mantle boundary – due to patterns of cold, subducting lithospheric slabs – could influence magnetic reversals (see Glatzmaier et al., Nature, 1999). Since then, there have been a number of studies looking for tectonic-related cycles in intensity data (see here and here for example; both studies’ authors are quoted in the EOS article). So the research problem isn’t new, but I’m not sure that anyone has succeeded at the signal processing approach.

I’m sure other people have other ideas or concerns about the study or the way it was reported in EOS. The things I’d like to know about the Kirschner et al. study represent my own perspective as someone who used to do this stuff. Maybe you have a different set of questions? Please comment below!


Geology as Quilts

Sometimes you make the darndest connections on Twitter. Like a few weeks ago, when Nadine Gabriel tweeted this:

Here is a tweet from a geologist halfway around the world about an art exhibit less than an hour from me. That’s a fun connection. But also: how often do you get to see a geology-themed art exhibit? I had to go.

I had the chance to go to that exhibit (The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada by Ann Johnston) today, the day before it closed. The Bellevue Arts Museum was mostly empty, and I went alone, so I got to take my time and look closely at the fabric art, which spanned the entire third floor of the museum. The exhibit benefited from close inspection: there’s even more geology in the works on display than I’d originally thought. Plus, downstairs was an exhibit of new works by emerging glass artists that had some interesting petrologic parallels.

The Contact: Sheepherder's Ledge (2016) - A geologic map of part of the Eastern Sierra, in quilt form.
The Contact: Sheepherder’s Ledge (2016) – A geologic map of part of the Eastern Sierra, in quilt form. A stitched curve outlines the artist’s family’s mining claim, and stitched “x” marks are prospects from the 1860s-70s.

What struck me was the degree to which an understanding of the geology informed the artwork. These quilts weren’t simply illustrations of geology: they were a way to deeply understand a landscape, both through analysis and creation. Apparently, Johnston’s family own the rights to a mining claim in the Eastern Sierra Nevada – it’s delineated with a thin thread on this quilted geologic map. I can imagine that , having grown up with this claim in the family, someone who is both an artist and a geographer (as Johnson is) would want to explore it from both perspectives.

A lot of my own work deals with fabric in the geologic sense: the arrangement of mineral crystals in a rock. In this sense, fabric is a three-dimensional thing: something that pervades a rock but may change from one part of an outcrop to another or even across one hand sample. Fabric is also something that, most of the time, you need to look closely at to be able to interpret. I was impressed by the detail and three-dimensionality of the (textile) fabric in this exhibit. In most of the pieces, the stitching added a layer of information beyond the fabric’s dye and reflectivity – in the same way as a rock’s fabric gives a geologist information beyond the rock’s composition.

For more images, click the gallery below.


Coming Autumn 2017: Earth Materials!

Are you curious about how volcanoes work, what’s inside a mountain belt, and what would happen if the oceans dried up?

Earth Materials (T GEOS 347, SLN 22043) explores the rocks and minerals that make up our planet: how they form, what they mean, where they’re found, and how we analyze them. We will investigate all parts of the rock cycle, through our focus will mostly be on igneous and metamorphic rocks, the processes that make them, and the minerals in them.

Earth Materials is a prerequisite for many graduate programs in geoscience, as well as a required course for a WA professional geologist’s license. It counts as a geoscience lab course (“List G”) for the Geoscience Option in the Environmental Science BS curriculum.

Things you will get to do in Earth Materials:

  • 3-D print crystal models
  • Examine thin sections – paper-thin slices of rock – in a polarized light microscope
  • Make your own thin sections
  • Wow your friends by being able to identify hundreds of minerals and rocks
  • Use an electron microscope and an x-ray diffractometer
  • Walk on Earth’s mantle and ocean crust (field trip!)
  • Distinguish between types of asbestos
  • Tell a countertop salesperson which slabs are really granite
  • Expand your knowledge of geology by connecting it with physics and chemistry

Earth Materials has T GEOS/TESC 117 (Physical Geology), TESC 151/ T CHEM 152 (Chem II), and T MATH 110 (Intro Stats) as prerequisites. Contact me if you are enrolled in Chem II or Stats and want to take the course.

Here is a tentative course schedule:

The class meets Tu/Th 12:50-2:55 in SCI 209, and F 1:30-4:00 for lab. Please register ASAP so that we can make sure that the class fills!


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.


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.


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

  • Follow these accounts to get an idea of active research topics in academic geoscience (and help in finding potential advisors):
    • Earthquakes and seismology: @DrLucyJones, @PNSN1, @seismoguy, @IRIS_EPO, @paleoseismicity, @MikaMcKinnon, @seismogenic
    • Volcanism, igneous rocks, hard-rock geochemistry, and planetary science: @MeagenPollock, @AlisonGraetting, @StrangeIsotopes, @volcanojw, @davidmpyle, @volcanoclast, @eruptionsblog, @Tuff_Cookie, @sumnerd
    • Paleomagnetism: @Orocline, @NanoPaleoMag, @ltauxe (my advisor!), @beckestrauss, @smtikoo
    • Climate: @PdeMenocal, @ClimateofGavin, @coralsncaves, @ClumpedIsotopes
    • Tectonics, deformation, metamorphism, geophysics: @seis_matters, @rapiduplift, @KeepItRheol, @TectonoAndy, @OpenTopography, @CPPGeophysics, @callanbentley, @allochthonous, @stressrelated, @metageologist
    • Paleontology: @TomHoltzPaleo, @leafdoctor, @IceAgeEcologist
    • Groundwater and surface water: @highlyanne
    • Sedimentology: @clasticdetritus, @ZaneJobe, @climbing_ripple, @bedform, @zzsylvester
    • Marine geology: @deepseadawn, @theJR
    • Rotating-curator and variety accounts: @geoscitweeps, @RockHeadScience, @OnCirculation
  • Grad students: @LaraMani, @hmcarro (UWT grad!), @TinySpaceMagnet
  • On academic survival: @youinthelab, @researchwhisperer, @raulpacheco, @smallpondscience, @hormiga
  • Groups: @VanguardSTEM, @BLACKandSTEM, @UWTFellowships, @SACNAS, @UWsacnas

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.




Grad School: A Primer

I’ve had a few students discuss grad school with me lately, so I thought I’d offer my thoughts via the blog and open it up for comments. This is the first of a series of posts where I’m going to try to address some of the concerns that our students might have, specifically when applying to geoscience or oceanography programs. I’m going to start at the root of the problem: do you really want to (or need to) go to grad school? Please leave some comments if I’ve missed anything, or if I’ve got something wrong!

First of all, what is grad school? When I say “grad school”, it might mean a bunch of academic things you can do after you get your BS or BA. Usually, professors mean masters (MS) or doctoral (PhD) work – the standard “academic route.” Often, people get a MS and then, if they decide to go on, a PhD (I wish I’d done that). Sometimes students enroll in a PhD program directly after graduating college (I did), maybe getting an MS as part of it (I didn’t). An MS usually focuses on applying existing knowledge to a more or less well-defined problem. MS projects are in some ways like more complex, in-depth, super-sized capstone research projects. A PhD focuses on developing an independent research focus and expanding your field of science significantly beyond what’s already known. Besides the standard academic route, however, you might consider other graduate programs: there are graduate degrees in education (a teaching credential or an MEd), law (JD), medicine (MD, DDS, PharmD, DVM, MN, etc.), engineering (MEng), and technical degrees or certificates (GIS Certificate, Certificate in Wetland Identification and Delineation, Masters in Geospatial Technologies…), all of which can help get you into different careers – even ones with a geoscience focus. For the most part, though, I’ll be talking here about the MS/PhD route because that’s what I’m familiar with. I think students also need the most help with that pathway.

You need to decide whether grad school is right for you. So far none of my students have been lukewarm about grad school plans after graduating: either they want to go, or they don’t. Either is OK with me. I don’t want to see students deciding to go to grad school because it seems like “what you do” after college. If you have a plan, and go in with open eyes about what you want after your grad degree, you’ll be much happier. Unfortunately, many of my students want to go to grad school, but can’t do it right after college. Sometimes that means they never go. I’m going to address that in a separate post, because it’s kind of a big deal.

But figuring out whether grad school is right for you might be tough, particularly if you’re not familiar with what you can do with a geoscience degree. Are you interested in getting out into the field? An undergraduate degree, with field experience, might be OK for field technician jobs, such as those with the USGS. Experience does count, and it is possible to advance toward a career with a combination of a BS (or maybe a BA) and on-the-job experience. Developing some specific technical skills as an undergrad – in the context of your capstone project or in your classes – will help you get the foot in the door as a college graduate.

Are you interested in working as a consultant or at a state or federal agency? An MS, in those kinds of positions, shows that you are able to work independently and to take the lead on projects, making you more employable. You may additionally need a Professional Geologist’s (PG) certification – a subject for a later post. Are you interested in working in or managing a research lab? An MS or PhD is usually required for managerial-level and skilled lab positions (for example, operating an electron microscope or a paleomagnetic lab). MS-level positions are typically higher-paying than BS-level positions.

Do you want to teach? Elementary through high school education requires an education degree after your Bachelors. Several of my students have gone on to K-12 education, and it makes me incredibly happy to see UW Tacoma graduates teaching in the Tacoma Public Schools (particularly in science). Teaching science at the K-12 level requires a science degree and a teaching credential. If you want to teach in a 2-year college, you’ll need at least an MS; 4-year colleges typically require a PhD for tenure-track (more secure) positions, and may require it for non-tenure-track (often more precarious) positions. If you want to teach college, try getting teaching experience as a graduate student. Also be aware that any full-time college faculty job involves more than teaching.

I intended this post to lay out the foundation for a series on grad school. Keep an eye on this space for posts focused on the courses you need to take as an undergrad, how to apply to grad schools (including timelines!), how grad school classes are different from undergraduate classes, and a list of helpful resources. In the meantime, you can answer these questions in the comments below:

  • If you’ve been to grad school, what do you wish you knew beforehand?
  • If not, what are you most concerned or curious about regarding grad school?

Image: Lock and key, from Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson, eds. The Book of Knowledge (New York, NY: The Grolier Society, 1912). Honestly, I can’t find a good grad school image, so this metaphor will have to do.


Undergrad Research Symposium Abstracts: Coming Up!

Presenting at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in Seattle (the “URS”) is a great opportunity to show off your work, and to get useful feedback from a broader range of perspectives than you’d get in the UW Tacoma program alone. It’s a good chance to network, too, if you are interested in a job or grad school in Seattle. The first step in participating in the URS is to write and submit an abstract.

By the time you are ready to present at the URS, you’ll have had to write an abstract in TESC 310, and maybe even in 410 and some other courses, so the idea of an abstract is probably not a new one. But the specifics of URS abstracts need a little bit of explaining. Fortunately, the Undergraduate Research Program has a good website about abstracts, and runs workshops on abstract writing (including one that has been recorded in case they don’t have one at UW Tacoma). Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • Abstracts have to be 300 words or less. That’s SHORT!
  • Abstracts should be written for a general audience. Don’t assume the audience knows the context you’re talking about: try to focus on the big picture. Also avoid jargon (if you have to use a technical term, such as “magnetic anisotropy”, use it when you describe your methods).
  • One nice way to indicate the sentence where you’re reporting results is to use a phrase like “Here we show that…” (you don’t need to use those words exactly).
  • We usually talk about an “hourglass” structure to an abstract. If you’re really ambitious, consider your abstract as a story. Science communicator Randy Olson boils it down to the “And/But/Therefore” framework. Could you describe your work in this format?
  • The sooner you have your abstract done, the better. The URS staff send back abstracts that are poorly written or not for a general audience. You’d have to rewrite it if you do. I will read your abstract before it’s accepted, too, and if the facts aren’t right or the interpretation isn’t justified, I’ll make you rewrite it. So: better to get that done in the draft stage!

Good luck! And let me know if you have any problems.


Moving the blog!

I’m moving my blog content to my faculty website for a few reasons. First of all, Science 304 is no longer just my lab. I now share it with Dan Shugar, of the WaterSHED Lab. Second, it will be easier for me to manage the WordPress software if I’m just taking care of one site instead of two. I’m hoping that this will light a fire under me to write those posts I’ve been talking about for months…

Blog Uncategorized

Lab Fun

Lest you think all we do in my lab is mess around with magnets, I’m posting a few tweets with photos of today’s lab barbecue! Bonnie and I have an annual summer party for students, alums, and associates in our labs. Unfortunately, my camera is broken, so I have to rely on photos taken by Bonnie and her student Megan, at the links below. Geoduck! Grilled oysters with bacon! Chocolate Olympia oysters, ammonites, and trilobites! A good time was had by all.