Advice on pursuing a graduate degree and choosing graduate schools

      (written with Geology students in mind, but applicable to all students considering graduate study)


Why pursue a graduate degree?

From a student's practical standpoint, a graduate (post-B.S. or post-B.A.) degree is a requirement for professional employment in many fields. For example, in geology the M.S. is generally considered the professional degree. Geologists with only B.S. degrees may find work as technicians, mud loggers, field assistants, and the like, but higher-paying, more highly respected, and more comfortable positions usually go to people with M.S. degrees.

Graduate study can also go on to the Ph.D. level for those interested in specialized study and/or interested in an academic career. In industry, people with Ph.D.s usually have slightly higher starting salaries than those with M.S. degrees. However, many employers in geology view a Ph.D. degree as a sign of such intense specialization that the person holding the degree may not be able to work in a practically-oriented, rapidly changing business/industrial environment. In other fields, the Ph.D. may essentially be the professional degree.


What graduate school is.

Graduate study typically differs from undergraduate study in several ways:

1) It's more specialized. The goal of a typical undergraduate education is to give the student a reasonable background in an entire field of study (although some programs have relatively strong biases and others may explicitly allow some specialization in "tracks" or "areas"). Graduate study is usually intended to develop expertise in one area. For example, whereas an undergraduate geology student usually has studied the entire range of geology, an M.S. student might take courses mostly in igneous petrology or hydrology or paleontology, and a Ph.D. student might specialize in magma-mixing or modeling of contaminant transport or paleobiological complexity of organisms.

2) It's supposed to produce, as well as consume, knowledge. Most M.S. degree programs and all Ph.D. programs require completion of a thesis (or "dissertation" for Ph.D.s) that reports on original research done by the student. This research is done under the direction of an advisor or major professor and with the counsel of an advisory committee. The point is both to produce new knowledge and to document that the student can indeed work sustainedly and systematically on a complex problem and can write a document reporting that work.

3) It requires more commitment. Unexcused absence from class is unacceptable, and shoddy work often leads to exclusion or expulsion from the degree program. Evenings and weekends are assumed to be available for work on class material or thesis research. The degree program's corresponding commitment to the student is commonly an assistantship, office space, and varying degrees of research support, and the major professor's commitment is more access than is typically afforded to undergraduates.


The criteria for admission to graduate school.

Most graduate programs consider at least three criteria in making decisions about admissions:

1) Grades in undergraduate classes. The graduate colleges of many universities have minimum GPAs for admission, and departments may have higher or different GPA requirements as well. These limits or expectations will vary from university to university, with the more prestigious programs exercising their ability to accept only those students with the strongest records.

2) GRE scores. The general Graduate Record Examination produces three scores ranging from 200 to 800 for verbal, quantitative, and analytical ability. Out of tradition, many programs sum the first two and ignore the third. As with GPAs, but perhaps even more strikingly, explicit minima and implicit expectations will vary from university to university, with the more prestigious programs again exercising their ability to accept only those students with the highest scores. Top schools may have virtual minima of 1300 or even 1400 (V+Q) for admission.
      Many fields have specialized GRE exams too. Some programs will require submission of a score on the field's specialized exam; others will not.

3) Letters of recommendation. Most programs will ask for three letters of recommendation by professors from whom the candidate has taken classes. Professors will usually try to write the most complimentary letters possible, but they can't be expected to lie, and they can't write much of a letter for someone whom they hardly remember. Letters by department secretaries, department technicians, family friends, and the like won't be taken seriously and will only raise questions as to why the candidate couldn't get a letter written by a faculty member.
      Two students with same grades can have very different letters. Consider this letter for Student X: "X was in my Petrology course and, while I don't remember X very well, she/he got a B in the course." Then consider this letter for Student Y: "Y was in my Petrology course and showed a real interest in the material. Y always asked questions that showed she/he was not only reading and reviewing but also thinking about the course material. Her/his work in lab showed a similar enthusiasm, and while she/he only received a B, I think highly of her/his potential as a graduate student.". X may actually have had a better grade than Y. However, if the professor can't remember X because X sat in the back of the room with the bill of a baseball cap pulled over his or her eyes, the professor can't say much.
       Most forms for letters of recommendation will ask the candidate to indicate whether the writer of the recommendation can be guaranteed confidentiality or if the candidate reserves his or her right to see the recommendation. Recommendations to which the candidate reserves that right are taken less seriously, because it's assumed that the person writing the recommendation may have been less forthright in their evaluation.

In addition, degree programs often ask for a written statement of the candidate's goals and aspirations, and they may require a formal writing sample to evaluate the candidate's writing ability.
      Extracurricular activities (athletics, performing musical groups, and the like) on one's record are not an asset for admission to graduate programs. Participation in academically related activities, such as a geology club in the case of geology students, won't hurt, but it probably won't count for much either. Participation in an academic research project will be an asset, and it will almost inevitably lead to familiarity with a professor who can then write a good letter of recommendation.


Criteria in choosing a graduate program.

Choosing a graduate program is not like choosing an undergraduate institution. The criteria should include

1) Whether the program is traditionally strong in the candidate's area of choice. Most graduate programs have areas of strength (for example, sedimentology and paleontology are common strengths at geology programs located in coastal areas or in large areas of sedimentary bedrock) and areas of lesser strength (perhaps igneous petrology at those same schools).
      Professors should be able to tell a student what schools are strong in the student's area of interest. Many graduate programs produce fliers or booklets advertising their faculty and specialties, and they'll gladly send them in response to a request by mail or email. Most programs also have information available via the World Wide Web. Most fields have directories listing the faculty at academic institutions, and some will even indicate the specialties of faculty members.

2) Whether there is a faculty member whose specific interests are similar to those of the candidate. One way to determine where such faculty members are located is to search a bibliographic data base (GEOREF in geology) to see who has published recently in the area of interest. The candidate then needs to call or write to see if the faculty member is (a) still alive and at that institution, (b) still interested in the area of interest, and (c) willing to take on new graduate students.

3) Whether the program is a healthy place to be. A visit to the program to meet with faculty members and graduate students can be invaluable in giving a sense of whether the program is friendly or hostile, if graduate students are enthused or disgruntled, or if prospective advisors are considerate or homicidal. If a visit isn't possible, at least phone calls to graduate students in the program can be very helpful. Those graduate students will have been in the same position a year or two or three ago, and they will be willing to say what they think.


How to get into graduate school.

1) Do well in college classes, especially classes in the major. Both a strong GPA and good reputation with potential writers of letters of recommendation are key assets that one begins accumulating, or not accumulating, well before one begins thinking about graduate school.

2) Take the GREs early. Many students wait to take the GREs and thus don't give themselves the opportunity to retake the GREs, or (worse) they don't get their GRE scores reported in time to be considered for assistantships. Taking the GREs in the spring of one's junior year is a good idea to allow time for a second try. Even students who don't want to go to grad school immediately after their undergraduate work should take the GRE's, because the exam will never be easier.

3) Apply well before deadlines, and make sure all the pieces of the application get there. Many programs have deadlines for fall admission in December or January. Writers of letters of recommendation will need to time to write and send their letters. An admissions committee will not see a last-minute incomplete application as a sign of a good prospective graduate student.

4) Apply to multiple programs, and choose the programs reasonably. Students with 2.2 GPAs and GREs in the <40 percentiles are probably wasting their time and money applying to the top programs; students with 3.9 GPAs and GREs in the >90 percentiles are doing themselves a disservice applying to weak programs. Many advisors recommend applying to one "fallback" school to which the candidate has considerable confidence that he or she will be admitted, as well as to programs that may be more desirable.

5) Write a clear statement of intent or cover letter. Many if not most graduate programs want to know the student's specific area of interest and the faculty member with whom the student wants to work. This helps an admissions committee make sure that there is a professor who will serve as the student's advisor, so that the student does not spend a year adrift without progress toward their thesis project and graduation. Applications with letters that do not indicate the student's intended professor are commonly dismissed without further attention.

Timeline for getting ready for grad school
Time Activity
Spring of junior year Identify several schools of potential interest and phone/write/email for information.
Spring of junior year Take GREs.
Fall of senior year Call, write, or email one or a few potential advisors.
Fall of senior year Retake GREs if needed.
Fall of senior year Apply to graduate programs.
January-March of senior year Assistantships are offered.
February-March of senior year Visit potential graduate program(s).
May-August of senior year Graduation with B.S.
Following autumn Entrance into graduate program.


None of this should seem overwhelming. Remember that graduate programs are looking for good students, and graduate professors are looking for good advisees. The only challenge is to make sure that you get a good match of interests so that you're happy with the program you enter and the program is happy with your performance.


A series of pages on "How to be a good graduate student".

Two allegedly contrasting pages from a Berkeley debate between allegedly cynical and acynical views of how to be a grad student. (Both are good).

A page of advice for graduate students from a chemist's perspective.

A page of links to pages of advice for graduate students, including some of the links here.

A short page of dissertation advice (good advice for theses too).

A series page of advice for graduate research written for MIT artificial intelligence students but potentially useful for all.

A Railsback page with advice to students about academic careers as professors.

Back to Railsback's main page

Back to the UGA Geology Home Page