Total bachelor’s degree graduates in the geosciences have doubled over the past decade, increasing
competition for available graduate positions (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). Here, we
seek to equip applicants with an annotated timeline (summarized in Fig. 1) and referenced open-source
material for extended information, as not all students are equally exposed to this process through their
home institution. This guide assumes fall enrollment and is designed for prospective graduate students
regardless of current academic level.
Summarized timeline for outlined tasks. Target refers to the date listed here for each task; anticipated
refers to a plausible window outside the target; continued refers to ongoing task activity; and rolling
refers to programs with rolling deadlines (i.e., no formal deadline).
Task 1. Gain Experience
Successful applicants often highlight past experiences viewed favorably by a graduate selection
committee, such as independent research, professional employment, abroad studies, external teaching, or
even nontraditional activities. There is no recipe for the perfect applicant, but a common thread is
personal growth from past experiences. Many find success conducting research with a faculty adviser at a
home institution. Other popular options include the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for
Undergraduates program or Fulbright Program, which promote research and education with outside
institutions and laboratories. Target date: 1 September of the student’s last undergraduate
Task 2. Develop A CV
Many professional employers require a résumé, but academia operates with the curriculum vitae (CV). In
short, a résumé self-promotes skills and attributes, whereas a CV highlights what has been accomplished,
and it accumulates accomplishments over time. Critical to the CV at the applicant level are degree and
graduation date, relevant coursework and technical knowledge, any research or relevant experience,
internships, teaching assistantships, and conference proceedings or publications. Refer to Stark (2015)
and Smidt (2018b) for extended details. Target date: 1 September.
Task 3. Take the GRE
The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is currently the required entrance exam for most graduate programs
and is an opportunity to cement a strong application. Graduate departments looking to recruit top
applicants may offer scholarships and awards using exam scores as a metric for selection. The GRE is
measured across all takers regardless of discipline, so scores in the Quantitative and Writing
categories may be weighted more with geoscience programs than Verbal Reasoning. Students may also
consider a second attempt; attempts must be at least 21 days apart. Note: Some departments do not
require, plan to not require, or will waive the GRE. Refer to Educational Testing Service brochure (ETS,
2017) for extended details. Target date: Early September.
Task 4. Identify Potential Advisers
Selecting a program based on a specific adviser and faculty can be more valuable than selecting one based
on institution name alone, and programs should mirror the applicant’s professional goals. Department
websites or conference proceedings are great places to identify target advisers, and faculty members
often have personal websites with details on research and position openings. There are hundreds of
graduate programs, each with many faculty members (Wilson, 2017), and prospective students should
develop a list of target advisers based on interest. Students can also explore network and adviser
connections. Target date: Late September, although the list will evolve as new connections are
Task 5. Contact Potential Advisers
A contact e-mail is often necessary, as many prospective students have never communicated with a
potential adviser. Here, the goals are to succinctly (1) introduce yourself, (2) state the purpose of
your inquiry, (3) communicate your overlapping interests and motivation, and (4) establish a secondary
conversation. Some advisers may not respond immediately due to busy schedules, travel, or other various
reasons; anticipated reply times are about two weeks. Interested faculty will accept a request for a
follow-up conversation while others may not be accepting students. If no response is received after two
weeks, a polite follow-up email may be sent. Refer to Smidt (2018a) for a template e-mail. Target
date: Late September to mid-October.
Task 6. Network at a Conference
Attending a professional conference is an efficient way to connect with advisers and graduate students
from prospective departments. Students can attend the presentations of prospective advisers and schedule
in-person meetings. Department booths are also available in exhibit halls for further information, and
prospective students should make their interest known by leaving their contact information with the
department sign-in sheet; some advisers may contact students using this list. Target date:
October–December, although abstract deadlines are often several months before the conference.
Task 7. Submit Applications
Applications typically require five things, in addition to supplemental documents specific to an
institution: (1) undergraduate transcripts, (2) GRE scores, (3) recommendation letters, (4) a completed
application package, and (5) a statement of purpose (i.e., personal statement). There is often an
application fee, transcript request fee, and GRE score request fee. Applicants will also be asked to
select M.S. or Ph.D. program consideration (Toké and Arrowsmith, 2009). Applications are evaluated as a
package; notable deficiencies should be reconciled in the personal statement. Refer to Maher (2017) for
extended details. Target date: Deadlines are set by the department and may be as early as 1
Task 8. Visit Campus
Throughout the selection process, applicants may be invited for a campus visit. Campus visits help gain
insight into department culture and further develop working relationships with prospective advisers.
Most visits include conversations with other faculty and graduate students, a campus tour, and extended
time with an adviser. Prospective students often find these visits to be one of the most critical
deciding factors in selecting their eventual program. Target date: Early in the spring semester for
Task 9. Accept an Offer
A graduate offer will typically include three things: (1) tuition waver, (2) living stipend, and (3)
health insurance. An offer will likely designate a teaching assistantship (TA), research assistantship
(RA), or both. Each can provide excellent opportunities, although having time for research is often a
main priority for thesis-option students. Once a program has been selected, applicants sign and submit
the paperwork. In the case of multiple offers, applicants should notify rejected departments promptly.
If self-funded, students may elect to enroll while seeking external scholarships and grants or forgo
admission. Refer to Osmond et al. (2015) for extended details. Target date: 15 April for the
national acceptance deadline (CGS, 2019).
We thank past and present faculty advisers, colleagues, and reviewers for helping to develop the context
of this guide, including the editors of GSA Today for their valuable feedback.
- Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), 2019, Resolution Regarding Graduate Scholars, Fellows, Trainees
and Assistants: https://cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/CGSResolution_March2019Rv.pdf (last
accessed 1 October 2019).
- Educational Testing Services (ETS), 2017, The GRE® General Test Accepted at top-ranked schools
worldwide: https://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/gre_test_taker_brochure.pdf (last accessed 4 February
- Maher, H.D., Jr., 2017, Applying to graduate schools:
http://maps.unomaha.edu/maher/GraduateSchool.pdf (last accessed 4 February 2019).
- National Center for Education Statistics, 2017, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education
Sciences: https://nces.ed.gov/ (last accessed 4 February 2019).
- Osmond, J., Meado, A., and Cheney, A., 2015, Selecting and applying to geoscience graduate schools:
(last accessed 4 February 2019).
- Smidt, S., 2018a, Contacting a prospective graduate adviser:
(last accessed 4 February 2019).
- Smidt, S., 2018b, Writing a curriculum vitae:
https://www.geogradguide.com/general-tasks/2018/6/3/writing-a-curriculum-vitae (last accessed 4
- Stark, L., 2015, The Scientist’s Conundrum: CV, Resume or Something In-Between:
https://ocs.fas.harvard.edu/files/ocs/files/gsas-just-for-scientists-cvs-resumes.pdf (last accessed
4 February 2019).
- Toké, N.A., and Arrowsmith, JR., 2009, Selecting and Applying to Geoscience Graduate Schools:
http://arrowsmith310.asu.edu/Lectures/Gradschool_ApplicationGuide_Toke_Arrowsmith.pdf (last accessed
4 February 2019).
- Wilson, C.E., 2017, Directory of Geoscience Departments and Other Geoscience Organizations:
Washington, D.C., American Geosciences Institute, 52nd edition.