Preparing for and Applying to Graduate School

Graduate commencement

If you are thinking about going to graduate school, you likely have a lot of questions.

While the overall process of applying and general steps for preparing are summarized below, answering other questions will take some research, time talking to friends, instructors, mentors, and advisors, and time for self-reflection. Each student’s path to graduate school is their own, so there is no “right” way to learn about programs and prepare to apply. You may be interested in attending graduate school right away or you may decide to take some time off before applying. This page provides links to resources that help to guide you on the process. Some quick important facts:

  • In the geosciences, it is common to be paid either as a Teaching Assistant (TA) or Graduate Student Researcher.
    For example at UC Davis, these positions pay for tuition and pay a monthly stipend for living expenses during the academic year. For context, the
    UC Davis graduate student salary scales and broader information about financial support are available online. Funding differs between schools and departments, so investigate each program you apply to.
  • Graduate school doesn’t have to be a 5-year, research intensive Ph.D. program.
    You can do 2-year research-based
    Master of Science (M.S.) or Master of Arts (M.A.), or course-based masters. You may be paid during a research-based M.S. or M.A., but generally you have to pay for a course-based master’s program. Check with your potential program and institution.
    • In a research-based master’s program you’re expected to learn with less guidance than you had during your undergraduate degree. By contrast, a course-based masters will have a similar level of guidance as an undergraduate program.
  • For programs that are research intensive, it’s important to find a supportive advisor.
    Generally in Earth Sciences when you are applying to a program, you are really applying to work with your advisor. Your advisor (read: supervisor) should ideally be a good mentor, though those are
    not the same thing. A very brief overview of how to find a good advisor in Science Magazine. 
  • If you are an underrepresented minority student, a first generation graduate student, or a member of another marginalized group you will likely face additional obstacles as a graduate student.
    At most universities there are on and off campus
    resources to help you navigate obstacles and find community, however, this is not always the case. It’s best to speak with others in a potential program who share your identity and ask them about their experiences.


  • How important is a B.S.? Do grad schools or employers care whether I earn an Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science?
  • Graduate School admissions committees review applications holistically – by looking at all your education and experiences as a whole. A B.S. includes more coursework, but an A.B. paired with intentional experiences helpful for graduate school can prepare you just as well. These intentional, impactful experiences that will help you get into graduate school include high grades, undergraduate research that mimics the independent research you will do in graduate school, time to get to know people who will write you strong letters of recommendation, and well-written personal statements.
  • I want a PhD. Do I need to earn a Master’s Degree first?
  • No, you can enter graduate school for a Master’s or a PhD – or you can transition in your program after you’ve started graduate school. When you reach out to potential faculty advisors, feel free to discuss this with them so that you can find the right fit for your interests and the kinds of projects available to MS or PhD students in their program
  • What's the different between a Master's and a PhD?
  • A master's is generally two years and ends in a research thesis (in a research-based program) or a final exam or project (in a course-based master's). A PhD takes 4-6 years and ends with a research-based dissertation consisting of a couple chapters or papers worth of work. A master's may include a research project with a smaller scope than a PhD, more of a focus on courses, while a PhD might include various projects and papers over the year on the way to the dissertation.

    It also depends on where you want to work. For example, you usually need a PhD to teach at a university, or a Master’s to teach at Community College. With a bachelor’s degree you can join technician-level jobs. In government or private companies, there are positions appropriate for all levels of degree, while those at the head of the departments are likely to have a PhD. 

Preparing for Graduate School

You’ll notice that some resources give advice for how to start preparing for graduate school in your first year of college. That’s excellent advice to follow if, as a first-year student, you already know you want to go to graduate school. However, lots of people figure this out later in college or even after graduating. That’s okay – read the advice and think creatively, holistically, and personally about how you can gain the experience, training, or skills within your timeline and present circumstance.

UC Davis Earth and Planetary Sciences hosts an undergraduate research page providing a list of ideas for finding undergraduate research experiences at UC Davis and elsewhere. We also discuss paid and unpaid research. Participating in undergraduate research can help you learn to work independently and as part of a team to answer scientific questions. It is also good practice for research-based graduate programs.

Getting into Grad School Guide by UC Davis Physics professor David Wittman is a good place to start your preparation. It provides several self-assessments to help you answer questions like “Why do you want to go to graduate school?”, “What are my strengths/weaknesses?”, “What programs are right for me?” and guides you on how to use your responses in statements that will be part of your graduate school applications.

Additional advice when preparing for graduate school:

If you are a Latinx, Black, Native American, Pacific Islander, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian student applying to geoscience graduate programs and are not accepted in the first round of applications, or enter the application process late in the year, consider the AGU-Bridge Program.

Applying to Grad School

View advice from the Coastal and Marine Sciences Lead Mentor on applying to graduate school

Applying to Graduate School

Most graduate school applications have similar components. Understanding the function of each component is important for guiding how you will prepare your responses. However, each university has its own application process, so you will need to look at each program's appropriate pages for their specific admissions requirements.

Faculty Mentors. When you’re getting ready to apply to graduate school, it is helpful to reach out to potential graduate school mentors. One reason is to find out which mentors are accepting students for the upcoming admissions cycle; but it is also valuable to find out about research opportunities, funding, mentoring style and department culture. You may have space on your application to list the mentor(s) you want to work with in order of preference. Visit the UC Davis Earth and Planetary Sciences Graduate Program application page for advice on reaching out to mentors and an email template for contacting our faculty.

Coursework and grades. Your coursework and grades are reviewed to determine the scope and depth of foundational knowledge you have related to your stated research objectives in graduate school. For example, if you are majoring in geology, but want to pursue research in geochemistry or geophysics for graduate school, have you chosen elective courses that provide the foundational knowledge in chemistry or physics? It is also common to switch disciplines going from undergraduate to graduate school. In this case, you’ll need to talk with someone about which disciplinary courses you might need to take to be accepted into the graduate program. Your grades in your courses are a reflection of how well you learned the material from the course. However, they can also be affected by external circumstances, such as illness, family struggle, or working while going to school. Many students experience a quarter or more with a low GPA, or struggle early on as an undergraduate student. Do not let this stop you from applying to graduate school. The personal statement provides an opportunity to provide context and to demonstrate your readiness for graduate school. 

Research Statement/Statement of Purpose. Unless you are applying to a “course-work” only Masters program, graduate school is focused on learning through doing research and independent study (e.g., teaching yourself from journal papers or books). In contrast, most undergraduate learning is done in a classroom through guided learning, which may or may not provide small research or independent learning opportunities. These modes of learning are quite different, therefore, gaining some research experience before graduate school is important both for you to find out if you like learning through research, and for you to demonstrate to potential advisors that learn well in a non-classroom environment. This research experience is also an opportunity for letter writers to get to know you. However, there are many ways in which research experience can be attained as an undergraduate or after graduation. For example, if there is a class topic you are really intrigued by, tell the course instructor that you’d like to do some independent reading on the topic, ask if they could recommend some research articles to start with, and ask if they’d be willing to read your summary and give you feedback at the end of the quarter.

Personal Statement. There are an infinite number of paths to graduate school and your particular experience shapes the contributions you will make as a graduate student. The purpose of the personal statement is for you to tell the program who you are and how your experiences have prepared you for graduate studies. This is where you can describe your academic achievement in the full context of your lived experiences, the challenges you faced, how non-traditional educational experiences have shaped your thinking and approaches to learning.

Letters of Recommendation. These are letters written by people who can speak to your potential as a graduate student. Because graduate school is research-based, the purpose of this letter is to provide an assessment of your potential to carry out independent research, as well as other components of doing research, such as working with a team, writing, critical reading, and overcoming challenges or failures. These letters can be from any mentor including faculty, employer or internship supervisor in a job or field related to your discipline, a postdoctoral researcher, a faculty instructor (who can comment on more than your course grade), or an academic advisor. The more interaction you have had with the letter writer, the more examples the letter writer has to assess your potential and to share in the letter as evidence. Therefore, engaging in activities outside the classroom, such as following up with an instructor on a topic you are intrigued by during office hours or by e-mail, can lead to more informative letters of recommendation.

Test Scores. The purpose of the test scores is to provide a summative assessment of learning at the end of the undergraduate program. However, studies show that scores on the GRE are not strong predictors of success in graduate school. Therefore, many programs (including the Earth and Planetary Sciences Graduate Program at UC Davis) no longer evaluate GRE test scores. You will need to check the programs you are applying to and plan ahead to study for and take the exam.

A last bit of advice. Start the preparation of these materials early if possible (end of junior year, early summer) and ask fellow students and mentors to read your statements and give you critical feedback, on both the content and the writing, before you submit your application. Plan for several rounds of writing and editing. This is because both statements are also assessed as writing samples.

  • Writing in the Professions: Science | UC Davis
    This upper division writing course provides experience in writing abstracts, research proposals, scientific papers, other forms of scientific communication.