7 November 2013

How to apply for grad school in geology

Posted by Callan Bentley

I had a conversation the other day with a former undergraduate student (now two years past the acquisition of a B.S.) who was considering graduate school. I shared some advice with the student, emboldened by the fact that previous students I’ve shared it with said it was very useful and helped clarify their thinking. And as I was relating it again (for the fifth time in as many years), it occurred to me that I could (and should) put it out there on this blog, so that it might experience some wider circulation, and thereby increase its utility. I offer this advice because it seems like critical information that most of the undergrads I’ve met are unaware of.

Caveat: The advice below is based on my experiences, and may not be applicable to everyone’s particular situation. Also: I’m a community college professor who supervises zero grad students, and who “only” has an M.S. in geology, not a Ph.D. So you should bear those comments in mind when you read what I’ve written below. More experienced professors who have active research programs might be able to add to, or contradict, some of the advice I offer here. Talk to them and see what they say.

First up: Graduate school isn’t like undergraduate college, and neither is applying for it.

The point of graduate school is to train you to be a researcher, first and foremost. You will get personal mentoring in the development of research questions, and the technical assessment of those questions. You’ll also get the opportunity to communicate your science orally and in writing. At the same time, most programs will have you take some classes, a few per semester for the first couple of years. The classes will go into geological topics in more depth than you did as an undergrad. But if your experience is like mine was, then you’ll essentially be “mining” these classes for tidbits, ideas, and techniques that can be used in your own independent research efforts. Grad school is less about breadth, and more about depth.

So the goal is different, and it’s centered around your development as a researcher. Though you’ll have a committee of multiple faculty members advising your project, the lion’s share of the advising is done by your adviser, a single individual who will guide the most important part of your grad school experience. Because this person will serve in such a pivotal, central role, you should be sure to find someone who you like/respect/admire. You should find someone you want to learn from. You should find someone who you get along with.

So: How do you find this person? 

Short answer: By any means necessary. You need to do some searching. This searching can take many forms. It could be reading journals and noting the authors of articles that catch your eye as particularly interesting or innovative (or, I suppose, with implications that could be lucrative). You could go to talks at a national meeting such as AGU or GSA, or a regional event, like (for people in my area) the Virginia Geological Field Conference or the annual “Geology of Virginia” Symposium at the DGMR in Charlottesville. Find people who articulate an interesting vision of some scientific question. The particulars of the research are less important, I think, than finding a viable personality to guide you along. Perhaps you could ask trusted faculty at your undergraduate institution or co-workers if you are lucky enough to have a job or internship during your undergrad years. See who they would recommend – they have a lot more experience than you do, and they might have some good ideas of who’s doing splashy research, or who just got funded (see below) and might have room for new graduate students.

Next up: start talking to multiple potential advisers.

E-mail them. Call them. Walk up to them after talks at conferences. Strike up a conversation on a field trip. Ask your trusted undergrad professor make an introduction on your behalf. Get the ball rolling.

Go into the conversation prepared: make sure you’ve at least taken a look at their university website, to get a sense of the scope of their research. Ideally, read a few of their papers. Yes, I get that you won’t understand everything in the paper, yet. That’s what grad school is for – but you’re smart enough to get a general sense of what sorts of problems interest your potential mentor, and how they go about addressing those problems. Are they field oriented? Do they do lab experiments? Do they run computer models? There’s a lot of different ways to do geology; some of which will be familiar to you, some of which won’t. Some will be stuff you yourself are attracted to, some might not be. But you won’t know (and therefore you’ll be at a conversational disadvantage) until you do some background reading. Do your homework, in other words. Be prepared.

What should you say? If you’re cold-calling them or cold-e-mailing them, start off by saying who you are, briefly summarizing your background (i.e. “I just earned a B.S. in geology from Localville College”), and how you became familiar with their work. State plainly and clearly that you are looking into graduate school opportunities, and ask if they might have any openings in the years to come. Specify whether you think you’re interested in M.S. or Ph.D. programs*. Tell them how to contact you (phone, email, good hours to chat, etc.). Attach a résumé (also called a “C.V.”, short for curriculum vitae, which is basically Latin for résumé, or maybe “résumé” is French for C.V.?). Be sure to name your C.V. file with your name, like this: Callan-Bentley-CV.pdf, not merely CV.pdf. After all, the professor you’re writing to is going to be getting a lot of these inquiries, and you can make their lives easier by practicing good file naming procedure. You can also annoy them by failing to practice good file naming procedure, but since they potentially hold your future in their hands, you probably don’t want to do that.

* Some graduate programs admit B.S. students directly into Ph.D. programs, without the “stepping stone” of an M.S. in between. Ask what the rules are at each different graduate program you investigate. There are pros and cons to going into a Ph.D. right off the bat. It’s more efficient if you ultimately want to end up as a doctor of geology, but it’s a pretty big “bite” to take in when you have limited experience self-directing huge, complicated projects.

Also: pro tip – Proofread that résumé, that e-mail, and anything else written before you send it. Seriously. Typos happen, but smart people will go and look for them. Lazy, non-detail-oriented, or harried people don’t. Typos say “I’m lazy or not detail-oriented, or I’m in a rush,” and none of those are messages you want to send to the person who might help sculpt you into the geoscientist that you want to be. Some readers will judge writers pretty harshly if they write sloppily. So make an effort to present a clean front.

Great. So now you’re talking to several potential advisers. Hopefully you can meet with some of them in person. This is easier to do if you are talking with scientists in your area of the world, or if you set up an in-person meeting at a conference. The latter is probably your best “bang for the buck,” considering that a national conference like GSA or AGU draws a huge percentage of the nation’s geoscientists: a lot of the people you want to talk to are going to be in the same building for several days in a row. Capitalize on that. It’s a lot cheaper than taking multiple flights all over the country to meet with potential advisers and visiting their departments.

Ask about (a) living in the area where the university is located, (b) ask to talk with current grad students in the department, or in that professor’s lab, (c) support for graduate students (see below), and (d) what their philosophy of mentoring is like. Ask about (e) coursework, and what courses are “standards” in the department, and which courses they themselves teach.

So then there’s the question of costs: Paying for graduate school: Don’t.

You should not pay to go to graduate school in geology. Instead, you should get paid to go to school. Most programs will offer graduate ‘assistantships,’ which is basically a formal way of saying that they will pay you to go to school. There are two typical flavors of assistantship: a Research Assistantship (RA) and a Teaching Assistantship (TA). Both come with a tuition waiver (meaning you don’t have to pay for classes) and a cost-of-living stipend (meaning you can buy food and pay rent, but you won’t get rich).

The RA will go to a graduate student in the lab of a professor who has grant money. These professors have successfully written grants to fund their research, and one of the “line items” for which they request money is the funding of graduate student stipends. This is a standard thing that professors do – when they pitch a research initiative to a funder like the National Science Foundation (NSF) or private industry, they ask for money for research travel (if it’s a field project), equipment, special analyses (e.g., uranium-dating of zircons), conference travel, publication costs, and students. So what does an RA have to do in exchange for their free 2 to 5 years of grad school? Basically, research. And if it’s lined up right, it’s the same research that will be part of their thesis (M.S.) or dissertation (Ph.D.). Bonus: two birds with one stone!

TAs don’t come from the supervising professor, but from the geology department. The department needs people to teach undergraduate labs, or run reviews / discussion sessions for undergraduate classes, and grad students are an easy choice for them. So basically, in addition to doing your own research and taking classes, you’re going to have an extra duty that an RA won’t have: you’re going to have to teach. This means preparing for your weekly class or classes, conducting the class, and doing grading afterward. It’s more work, and so a lot of grad students want to steer clear of a TA and hope for an RA instead. My perspective on this issue is a little bit different: I hoped for a TA, and got one, and I’m very glad I did. My goal when I went to grad school was to end up teaching introductory geology at a community college (exactly what ended up happening!), and so I wanted (a) teaching experience at the college level (for myself), and (b) evidence of teaching experience at the college level (for potential employers). Yes, it’s more work, but you gain additional skills. You’re going to grad school to learn, and you know you’re going to have to work hard, so why not pick up another skill set while you’re at it?

Furthermore, I think a fundamental flaw with modern geology graduate school is that it emphasizes research at the expense of everything else, at least as it’s formally set up. A good adviser will go beyond that with their students, and guide them towards writing cleaner papers, delivering more effective talks, managing their time, networking with fellow professionals, and so on. But really, there are very few programs that formally place an emphasis on effective teaching. The assumption is that a research-savvy Ph.D. will also be able to teach, but I’m pretty sure we all know that to be baloney. Both you and I have had professors who were talented researchers who could teach well, and we’ve both had others that gave awful classes. So there’s something screwy with the way the academic system works now, and you’re the solution. If you’re going into academia for your career, use graduate school as an opportunity to learn how to teach as well as an opportunity to learn how to research. If enough of the rising generation of geoscientists embrace thoughtful educational practice as a valid use of their time, then eventually the departments they comprise will see teaching success on equal footing with research success. Once that idea is institutionalized (in tenure decisions, for instance), hopefully the “crappy professor” phenomenon will decline.

An additional “pro” to consider for the TA as compared to the RA is this: research assistantships are tied to specific projects and specific grants. If you get into the weeds and decide your project is not for you, then you don’t get to change your project. It’s “take it or leave it.” On the other hand, a teaching assistantship is project-agnostic. The support for the graduate student isn’t linked to any particular grant or study. So a person goes to grad school, starts one thing, realizes it’s not for them, and then, if they’re a TA, they can switch to something else in the same department. It’s trickier for an RA to do that.

Okay, now what?

You’ve gathered information, gotten a sense of which advisers would probably work well with you, who has attractive amounts of money to offer, which departments have good student support, which institutions you want to be associated with, and maybe you’ve started forming a vision of what it would be like to live and work in Place X or Town Y for several years while you professionalize yourself. Now you apply to grad school. This is the first formal, official thing you’ve done in the whole process. You’ll probably have to take the GREs, and submit undergraduate transcripts, and stuff like that. Then you wait.

At some point, all the professors in each department to which you have applied will gather for a meeting. They will cluster around a table and review applications to their program. You want to have an advocate at that table. At least one (preferably more) of the professors needs to have the information and motivation to speak up on your behalf. You want someone to say “I spoke to Sally, and she seems like a great candidate,” or “I met Bill at a conference last week, and I think he would be a good choice for my petroleum research group.” If the professor has money to support you as an RA, they will say that at this meeting, and the decision is done: “I’d like to have Ian in my lab.” If your project isn’t funded, then it gets competitive: there are only so many TA spots available, after all. This is when it really helps to have some professor making the case about why you should be one of the lucky recipients. In the pile alongside your application will be the applications of people who have applied to grad school as if it were undergrad — that is to say, without talking to anyone first. Those people may have higher GRE scores or a better undergraduate GPA than you, but the personal connection with potential advisers carries more weight. Just like you wanting to know your adviser before you commit to 2+ years under their gaze, the professors also want to have some quality control on the students who will be enacting their research vision. A professor wants grad students they can trust, not “unknown quantities” who have applied without talking to them first. If they know you and like you, they’re more likely to speak up for you in that moment of critical decision-making.

And then what?

Then they make you an offer. If you’re a smart, charismatic student with a solid academic history who has fostered a series of exploratory relationships with potential advisers at different programs across the country, hopefully you’ll get multiple offers of fully-funded graduate school. I would encourage you to wait until all the offers come in before making any decisions. The departments may pressure you to make a decision quickly, but you owe it to yourself to wait until you know all your options before committing to one. The ball’s in your court now!

Good luck. I hope this was useful. If you have additional queries (or additional advice to offer), the comments are below…