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Tips on how to get into grad school

You've come to love the geosciences and would like to learn more by getting an advanced degree, certainly a Masters and maybe even a PhD. Great decision. If you're leaning toward graduate school then the time to begin thinking about it is during your sophomore or junior year. At that point you still have time to focus on maintaining a high GPA, taking all the right courses, and maybe even getting some research experience.

Female grad student at microscope.

At the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, a student examines fossils within a marine sediment core. Joe Proudman, UC Davis

As your thoughts about grad school evolve over the years, be sure to ask yourself the hard question of why you really want to get an advanced degree. Is it for career development? Are you interested in a future job in academia? Is it for the sense of personal achievement? Or do you simply want to avoid getting a job by staying in school a few more years? Be honest with yourself – do you really have the drive and discipline to complete an advanced degree within a limited time frame? You need to make this decision for the right reasons, so think hard about why you want to do it.

Sometimes students think that grad school is not for them because they can't afford to take on any more student loans. That may be a valid reason for those students looking for a higher degree in the humanities or social sciences, but it’s not relevant for those in science and engineering. If you get into grad school for the geosciences, it's almost certain that the school will pay your tuition and fees. And you can count on receiving a modest stipend as a teaching assistant or research assistant. If you really are qualified and want to gain an advanced degree, financial considerations should not stand in your way.

Male and female students standing in ice.

Graduate students exploring Antarctic lakes.

There are three main components to your graduate school applications:

  • Grade Point Average or GPA (the higher, the better, obviously)
  • Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores
  • Letters of recommendation (typically three from faculty members who know you well)

You'll want to spend two to three years of your college education working to make sure that all three of these aspects are as strong as possible. Working in a lab or with a research group or doing a research project with a faculty member are the best ways for the faculty to get to know you and to be able to write a strong and informative letter. Seek out those opportunities.

Expand your horizons: The best opportunities for graduate study may be in a different part of the country, or even abroad. Don’t limit yourself to the familiar, nor only places with interesting geology nearby (graduate schools in the western U.S. get a lot of applicant pressure for this reason.) This is an opportunity to experience a new place as well as to learn new things.

The application process should begin at the very least during the summer before your senior year, prior to the winter application season. That's when you'll schedule the GRE exam - be sure to give yourself sufficient time to study! And that's when you'll think hard about what field of geoscience you're most interested in pursuing. It's also during these summer months that you'll do your homework on prospective schools and mentors. These are not easy decisions and you should talk to faculty advisors in your chosen field to get an idea of who you may want to work with.  

Apply. For guidance on the initial process of applying to grad school, visit "The Grad School Countdown: A Special Feature for Undergraduates!" from the journal Science.

Mentors. During the late summer or early fall, you’ll want to reach out to potential mentors. There are some do's and don'ts to this step and you can learn about them in this article: "Dear Dr. Neufeld".  There’s also a very good blog on the topic written by a professor at Virginia Tech.

Letter of recommendation. During the fall quarter you’ll want to start lining up your application materials. Speak with those faculty who know you and may be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation. Read "Getting a great recommendation letter" for guidance.

Personal statement. You'll also be composing a personal statement as part of the application. Make it stand out from the rest. "Sell Yourself: Guidance for Developing Your Personal Statement for Graduate School Applications".

Workshops. Most universities, including UC Davis, have a number of very useful workshops and websites that you should visit for advice on graduate school. At UC Davis, these are:

"How not to apply to grad school". A humorous look at what not to do when applying to grad school.

We hope this short summary has supplied you with enough information to get started with your applications for grad school. Now it's up to you to maintain good grades, establish relationships with potential letter-writers, study for the GREs, fit in some research, and hit those application deadlines.