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Graduate Study in Geology - Graduate Student Life

Professor Nicholas Pinter, Department of Geology, Southern Illinois University

So, you just arrived for your first day of Geology grad school. Welcome to the next 2-10 years of your life! Your program may be a major research department with 40 faculty members, or a small liberal arts schools with a little-used MS degree. You may be sitting on the beach in California or surrounded by corn fields in the Midwest. Alternatively, you may be a Geology senior wondering what to do next year, or a 7th-year PhD student trying to figure out where things went wrong. Either way, hearing how others have navigated the graduate student experience may help you maximize the educational, scientific, and life opportunities now open to you.

graduate study in geology
Soggy grad students - Coastal Geomorphology class trip,
Spring, 2004 - Southern Illinois University


Where do I want to be when this grad-school thing is over (and how long is it going to take me to get there!)? The answers to these questions depend, for starters, on whether you are in a Masters or PhD program. Many Geo departments with grad programs offer both MS and PhD degrees; some offer only the MS; and a few departments funnel in-coming students straight into the PhD, with or without a MS already in-hand. MS programs at most U.S. universities are designed to last about 2 years (but often go 3), whereas PhD programs may range from 3 years (overachiever student who already has an MS) to 6 years (typical student, starting straight from the BA or BS) up to . well . almost anything if unexpected obstacles or problems arise. The general rule-of-thumb is that a MS degree is an apprenticeship - a guided training experience for an advanced technical career in the field. The MS research project does not need to produce original science (though they often do), and it should be limited in scope and duration. In contrast, the PhD degree must break new and original ground so that upon completion, the graduate can join industry or academia with all the experience and knowledge necessary for a career in scientific research.

graduate study in geology

Speaking of industry or academia, it's never too early to be asking yourself what kind of a career you have in mind. The answer need not, and probably should not, be final, but there are distinctions that matter even now. Many grad students imagine themselves in their professor's place 10 years down the line, teaching a couple of classes, running fat NSF grants, and jetting around for field work all over the world. Truth be told, yes, it's a good life. At the same time, a dirty little secret of all the sciences these days is that academic jobs are relatively scarce, and the best university positions are extremely competitive. The Ivy League schools and first-tier research institutions are particularly sought-after, and doubly so if you want to live on a coast or close to ski slopes. The good news is that a broad range of great careers are open to Geology graduates (see http://geology.com/jobs.htm), including jobs in universities, government agencies and labs, and industry.

Phd Timeline


Between now and graduation, what major hoops will I need to jump through to get my degree? The answer depends on whether you're in a MS or PhD program, on the specific requirements of your department, and on the expectations of your advisor. Some very rough timelines are laid out in the illustration to the right. In general, students will spend their first year of grad school mainly taking classes. During that time, they should be moving towards a thesis topic. In almost all PhD programs, a formal thesis (dissertation) proposal is required, and in many MS programs as well. A good opportunity to get the proposal out of the way is to submit applications for the Grants-in-Aid programs from the GSA, AAPG, and Sigma Xi. These applications require you to think through your thesis topic and often can be the same document as your thesis proposal. No matter what, some sort of plan is essential for you to start field work during the summer after your first year.

Ah, field work - the reason most of us went into Geology in the first place! (No offense to seismic tomographers or experimental petrologists [you poor slobs]) The first question a student shopping for grad schools asks is where their field area would be. Faculty in my department here at SIUC have projects in Antarctica, South America, Europe, the South Pacific, and all over North America. Foreign travel is great, although the finances and the logistics make for some additional challenges. For a MS student to finish in the prescribed two years, most or all field work needs to be done in the summer after his or her first year. That leaves time for sample prep and/or lab analyses early the next fall, with time for writing after that. The PhD schedule is stretched relative to the MS, with two or more field seasons typically expected and a couple more years to wrap things up. If a PhD student can fit a full semester or quarter of field work into the 1st or 2nd year, I highly recommend that, especially for work in the Southern Hemisphere.

PhD students also need to plan and schedule to take "Comprehensive" Exams or whatever their program calls this milestone. These exams may be oral, written, or both, and will typically include questions on the student's graduate classwork, their research focus area, and potentially anything else across the full spectrum of the geosciences and related fields. The mission I was given studying for "Comps" was to be able to explain anything and everything in Press and Siever's book, Earth - not every obscure detail from every dusty corner of research specialization, but the cornerstones of geoscience. Successfully passing the Comprehensive Exam means that the student has "advanced to candidacy" - a term which I've never understood. (If you're only a "candidate" for the doctorate after 3 years, what were you before?) In addition, some PhD programs have additional hoops to jump through, such as a separate exam in the student's area of specialization and/or a defense of the dissertation proposal. Finally, for both the MS and PhD, the show ends with the formal defense of the thesis or dissertation.


Potentially the most important relationship you will have during the next few years of life in grad school is not with your Mom, not with your dog, but rather with your thesis advisor. And with the possible exception of your girlfriend or boyfriend, no other relationship makes as much difference whether you will remain a balanced and reasonably contented human being or be completely miserable. Advisors - like ice cream - come in a variety of flavors and textures. A few sample flavors are listed below, as viewed by the advisor and by the advisee:

According to the Faculty Advisor
According to the Student
Absent-Minded Prof.
Lots on my plate
You lost my thesis!?!
Distinguished Chair
Paragon of science
Prof. Who?
The buck stops here
Get off my back
Benign Neglecter
Room to grow
Freshly Minted Asst. Prof.
New ideas & energy
You want it by when??
Nearing Retirement
Wisdom and experience
Dr. Miogeosyncline

Now for equal time, grad students also come in a variety of flavors:

According to the Student
According to the Faculty Advisor
Overworked and underpaid
Overpaid and underworked
Party Animal
Department morale officer
It’s only Wed., and this is not FSU
Environmental geology!
Tofu in the mass spec
Rocket Ass
The Heir Apparent
Too big for his/her britches
Disaster Annie / Andy
That was a $20,000 gravimeter!
Mr. / Ms. Right
Here’s my next chapter, 2 weeks early
Can you have babies and send them to grad school?

The truth is that it's typically not a matter of a good or bad advisor, or a good or bad student, so much as a good match between personality types. Another key element seems to be a mutual and clear understanding of advisor and student expectations. An outstanding resource for in-coming graduate students is "How to Get the Mentoring You Want" at the University of Michigan website and the corresponding guide for faculty advisors. These guides recommend an initial meeting at which the student should talk about his or her background, goals, and work style, and at which the advisor should talk about expectations for research progress, requirements for continued funding, policies on authorship of abstracts and papers, turn-around time to edit student manuscripts or write recommendation letters, etc.

Extracurricular Activities

Don't tell your advisor that I said this, but... Go get a life! I look back at my own grad-school experience as the best 15 years of my life (just kidding, it was 2 MS + 4 for the PhD; maybe I should have taken longer). When everything's going well, the school and science can mesh with travel, lots of the outdoors, and plenty of quality social interaction. On the other hand, some people talk about grad-school experiences that range from trying to miserable. I attribute my own positive experience to taking advantage of outside activities, having advisors who were tolerant of those outside activities, and a great group of peers and friends with whom to share both the geological and extracurricular opportunities. Where else but Geology grad school are you going to find a bunch of smart, young, single, good- to great-looking, outdoorsy people all within a few office doors of you? No more life coaching here, but you get the idea - enjoy the full range of opportunities available to you within the constraints of steady and systematic progress towards your graduate degree. These two goals are not irreconcilable.

Thanks to Professor Nicholas Pinter of Southern Illinois University for contributing this article to Geology.com

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