How to get into graduate school




Graduate school is a natural next step after obtaining your undergraduate degree for those who are deeply interested in a particular aspect of geoscience that you'd like to explore more. Graduate school is not, however, a simple extension of undergraduate education. Graduate school involves elements of both advanced class work and hands-on, original scientific research that will eventually be put together into a thesis and/or scientific publications. The science that goes into these documents take significant time and effort to develop, carry out, and write, and so a key thing to think about when considering graduate school is whether you are really passionate about exploring a subject area where there is no ‘right’ answer (that is the fun of research!). Before applying, it is also good to consider what your future career goals are and align your studies with that (e.g., if your dream job requires only a Master’s degree, perhaps a PhD is not necessary).

You may pick a graduate school because of a single person that you are really excited to work with. You may pick a graduate school because it offers a program in the research field that you enjoy the most with several professors and students contributing equally. Both options are fine but think carefully about your motivations to work with certain individuals and what you would do if you decide to change tracks mid-stream.

What graduate schools want:

While there are fewer applicants for graduate school than undergrad, your application still needs to be compelling because most graduate programs are highly competitive.  Many schools receive hundreds of applications for a few dozen openings. Our advice below is specifically geared toward graduate school in Earth Sciences, which places value on independent research experience, critical thinking, data analysis, creativity, and writing skills.  Just like any employment scenario, admission often occurs when there is a clear match between the goals of the graduate student and the goals of the adviser that is seeking students to join her/his research group.  Every graduate program wants students that are successful and thrive in their program.  Thus, students must be cognizant of their ability to meet those programmatic goals.   


Before you apply:

One of the most important things you can do ahead of applying to any school is to engage with professors that you would like to work with.  This can be done in many ways including scheduling time to meet up during a national meeting or simply sending an email with a request for a phone call.  Many graduate programs receive hundreds of applications making it difficult to examine each applicant carefully.  By getting your face and name in front of a potential adviser you are crossing an enormous hurdle that puts you leaps ahead of the rest.  Also, keep in mind that new (pre-tenure) faculty are particularly interested in admitting students and often have a greater ability to do so.  So, keep your mind open as to who could be a great adviser.  If you feel intimidated about all the potential advisor options out there, talking with faculty at your current institution can be a great way to get a list of names of faculty doing research in your area of interest. 

Be sure to send potential advisers some information about you including your resume/CV, and some idea of what classes you’ve taken that prepare you for graduate school in your chosen field.  When initially contacting potential advisers, be sure to include some details as to why you want to work for them specifically. Did they write a paper you liked? Do you have questions about their research? Did you see a neat presentation they gave in your department? Since finding the right match is crucial for both the student and advisor, details like these can set you even further apart.

The next thing you can do ahead of any application to graduate school is to get deeply involved in some research.  Find a professor at your undergrad institution that you enjoy working with and/or a topic that you love and ask if there are any small research projects you can be involved in.  Search for Research Experiences for Undergraduates  that provide NSF-funded research opportunities around the world.  These efforts demonstrate two things to potential advisors: 1) your dedication to research and 2) your initiative to pursue opportunities.  Both of these are excellent qualities that all faculty look for in graduate students because a lot of success in graduate school is just perseverance and hard work.


The application:

Personal statements are typically required for all graduate programs.  Keep it short and be sure to list the topics and/or professor you are seeking to work with in bold.  Personal statements are used to understand if your research and career goals are aligned with the school and the potential adviser.  If you want to work on a topic that someone no longer works on, you will not likely be admitted.  This is why it pays to contact the professor ahead of time and get a sense of what types of projects she/he is working on at the moment.  Personal statements are also used to judge your ability to conduct research at the graduate level.  Thus, you should speak to the research experience you've had and what you learned from it (scientifically and personally).  If you have not been involved with research, you should be able to speak intelligently about research papers in your field of interest. Focus on one or two projects you'd like to pursue once you are in graduate school and include evidence that you have the intellectual tools to do what you're proposing.   

You will need several (typically three) letters of recommendation for entry to most graduate schools.  Be sure to choose your recommenders carefully.  Most excellent recommendation letters come from people who know you  well - typically because they have worked with you on research projects and/or taught you extensively (e.g., in multiple classes, including perhaps a smaller class).  Your letter writers will judge you on your ability to think critically and work independently, your communication abilities (both written and oral) and your ability to work with others.  Thus, you can see the ability to plan years in advance to cultivate a working relationship with your letter writer is advantageous.   

It is also common for graduate applications to require GRE scores. Many programs also have additional requirements (e.g., TOEFL scores if English is not your native language), so it is worth looking at the application website well in advance of the deadline to ensure you have all the required materials. Many larger programs also have graduate coordinators that you can email with questions about the application. Finally, many applications have a fee associated with them (typically in the range $50–100); however, if your financial situation would prevent you from applying due to this cost, some programs will waive the fee. Finally, be sure to stick to the application deadline. Your file will not be accepted late!