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Tips for applying to graduate school programs in the geosciences

Even though it’s only October, it’s definitely prime-time for thinking about applying to graduate school programs if you haven’t already. As someone who went through the grad school application process last year (and is currently in a Ph.D. program), I thought I’d share a few application tips that might assuage any fears/make the process a bit easier. Since I’m in a geoscience program, I’ll be specifically talking about a U.S.-centric geology/Earth science track, but these tips can also be generally applied to applying to programs in other sciences.

1. Research programs and professors – This first tasks requires taking the time to look through school websites and faculty research profiles. First off, start broadly. Is there a specific area of the country that you’d like to attend school in?

This website organizes all geology programs by state, and it can be great for searching through based on locations that offer a regional research focus (i.e., Texas for oil and gas,  Pacific Northwest for volcanology, Florida for coastal/ocean, etc.) Make sure the location is somewhere you can see yourself being for at least the next five years, if you’re planning on a Ph.D. Look through all the course and application requirements the the program websites list to ensure that you’ll be a qualified candidate. Peruse the research areas to see if there’s active research in what you want to do, then find the faculty who are in those areas. See what current projects specific faculty have, and if they have a CV available, look through those to see if there’s a good fit between your research interests and their previous/present projects. [Complete this step during the summer and early fall.]

2. Take the GRE – Standardized testing is never fun, but pretty much every institution requires GRE scores. Many programs don’t say the specific GRE-score range they’re looking for, but essentially all are looking for combined GRE scores above 300 as the base minimum. If you’re not the best at taking standardized tests, know that this is only one portion of your application; just be sure to emphasize your strength in other areas, such as a high GPA or extensive research experience. [Complete this step during the late summer and early fall.]

3. Make contact with your POI – A POI (person/professor of interest) .is the faculty member that your would be directly applying to. More so than applying specifically to the school, you really will be applying to a professor and their research group. Whether or not a professor can accept a student is often dependent on whether or not they have funding, not just if the school finds you a qualified applicant. Once you’ve identified potential POIs at various schools, send them an inquiry email. Let them know that you’re interested in applying to their program and ask if they’re currently accepting new students. It’s a good idea to send along your CV, so that the professor can immediately gauge whether or not you have appropriate experience and will be the right fit. Mention a specific research focus that you might be interested in, or a component of their research that really intrigues you. Don’t overwhelm in this initial email, but let them know that you’re an interested candidate. [Complete this step during early and late fall.]

4. Meet with your POI if possible – Once you’ve made contact with a POI and have ensured that a.) they’re accepting students and b.) would be a good fit, see if there’s any way to meet in person. Generally, this step means seeing if they will be attending the Geological Society of American (GSA) or American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting. However, meeting at a conference requires that you are at that conference and will most likely be presenting. If your POI has a poster session or talk, go and attend that. Talking with a POI at their poster is great to not only gauge how they are as a person (you want to be sure you can get along well with the professor you’ll be working with for the next couple of years), but also to directly learn about their research–just be sure not to monopolize their time. If meeting at a conference doesn’t work, see if they might be willing to have a short Skype session, which will give you an opportunity to ask more questions and virtually meet face-to-face. [Complete this step during late fall and early winter.]

5. Complete your applications – Each school’s program is going to have a slightly different application process, but you’ll most likely be writing a Statement of Purpose (SOP) for each. These SOPs are a way to tell your story and sell yourself as a candidate. In these, be sure to establish why you’re interested in pursing graduate studies and specifically why you’ve chosen to apply to the program you have. Also be sure to cover your research experiences so that they know you will be a fully qualified applicant. Showcase any other experiences that also make you a strong applicant; if a professor is going to be funding you, they need to be fully confident in your well-rounded abilities. Make sure your SOP begins in an engaging manner, but try not to be too cliche; they’re looking for unique, well-qualified candidates. Certain schools may require other supplementary material, but generally they have an online component and will require official/unofficial undergraduate transcripts. [Complete this step in December and January, but check on your program’s specific application deadline.]

6. Wait – Probably the hardest part is playing the waiting game to hear back from schools. Acceptances can come from late February through May, potentially even extending earlier or later depending on the school and professor. They often begin with a first round of acceptance offers and have a candidate reply date before they extend a second round of offers to fill remaining spots. If you feel like you should have heard back from a school, but haven’t yet, you can contact the Graduate Coordinator or POI to see if your application is still being considered. However, don’t hound them too much, but do let them know if you have to say yes or no to another school by a deadline that’s coming up soon. [Complete this step during late winter and the spring.]
Enjoy the next five years of your life in grad school! (Or two if you’ve decided just on a master’s.)

General Tips:

  • Don’t accept a program’s offer unless you have guaranteed funding and tuition covered. Through either a teaching assistantship (TA) or research assistantship (RA), the program/professor will provide you with a living stipend and the school should waive tuition.
  • Be sure to apply to a range schools (i.e., aim for reach, mid-level and safety schools). Don’t bank everything based on a school’s ranking, but understand that certain programs are inherently more difficult to gain admittance to, based on the sheer number of applicants they receive.
  • If you don’t get accepted to any of the programs you’ve applied to, don’t be discouraged; it may have come down to a matter of funding, or the fit just wasn’t right. You can just as easily apply again next fall. As well, you can ask the POIs you contacted generally why you weren’t accepted or what else you can work on to make yourself a more competitive applicant for the next round.
  • Understand that grad school is a serious commitment, and be sure that you’re ready for that. Don’t just apply to grad school as a means to put off finding a ‘real-world’ job, make sure that it’s the path that you really want to–and are ready–to take.

Check out this document for some more thorough detailed advice on applying to  geoscience graduate schools.

Have any more specific grad school questions? I’d be happy to answer them!

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