Students discuss rock fragments and take notes.

Graduate Program

Geoscience Graduate Study: An Overview

The primary objective of obtaining a graduate degree in the Department of Geoscience is to learn to conduct scientific research suitable in quality and scope for publication in peer-reviewed journals or books. Research involves exploration of the unknown, which makes it fundamentally different from undergraduate or graduate coursework. The goal is to create a new understanding of some part of the natural world, and to communicate this understanding to the broader community of scientists via professional interactions, presentations, and publications. If you are pursuing a career in academia, your future success will hinge on the quality and quantity of these publications and the insights they provide. If you are pursuing a career in industry or government, research publications are also important for enhancing your professional visibility and credibility.

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Graduate Study Expectations

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Publication expectations for an MS degree

Because of the relatively short time frame available to complete a MS degree, it is imperative that a thesis topic be selected (in consultation with your research advisor) as quickly as possible, and no later than the beginning of the second semester. In most cases it is expected that the topic chosen will have the potential for yielding publication-quality research, and students are highly encouraged to write their MS thesis in a format suitable for publication. Ideally this manuscript is submitted for publication by the end of the MS program, but it is also recognized that in some cases this might not be possible due to the short time frame or to unanticipated research developments. In such cases the thesis work may be submitted as a UW–Madison publication after completion of the degree, either as a stand-alone study or as part of a larger collaborative effort.

An MS diploma typically serves as a “professional” degree for careers in industry or government. Although such positions may not explicitly require that you publish your work, publication is nonetheless important because it helps to establish your credentials as a leading and independent professional. Many organizations encourage peer-reviewed publication because it implies a higher level of credibility and professional reputation. However, proprietary concerns in some industries may make it difficult or impossible to publish work done there. Publication of your prior graduate work is therefore that much more important. Outside publication is also an excellent insurance policy against future job instability. You can greatly enhance your professional visibility through publication, attendance at meetings, and participation in professional societies, all of which help to ensure long-term career stability.

Publication expectations for a PhD degree

The Department expects that all PhD students will publish the results of their research in peer-reviewed journals or books. A PhD may serve either as a “professional” degree, or as a prerequisite to an academic career. The market for university and college assistant professors has been gradually improving over the past decade, but landing a job is still an extremely competitive endeavor. The importance of publishing early and often cannot be overemphasized if your goal is to find a faculty position at a university. For most faculty searches, candidates who are about to receive or have recently received a PhD will need to have at least two to three high-quality papers accepted or in print to be considered seriously. If you don’t meet this minimum it is very likely you will need to spend one or more years in a post-doctoral position while you build up your publication record. Note however that these positions are also highly competitive. For applicants who are several years past the PhD the expectations are considerably higher than for recent graduates; a typical “formula” for determining adequate research productivity is three publications per year since receiving the PhD. The level of publication expected at teaching-oriented institutions is somewhat lower, but virtually all such schools expect that you will also maintain some level of independent research (typically around one to two publications per year). They will therefore look for evidence of your future research potential in your past record.

Coursework Expectations for Graduate Degrees

Coursework undertaken as a graduate student primarily serves to support your ability to conduct scientific research in your chosen field or to strengthen your background as a professional geoscientist. You may also be required to take certain courses if you have not yet met all of the requirements for admission to graduate study. For PhD students, coursework taken outside the primary area of study is intended to add breadth, in recognition of the fact that significant research achievements often require an ability to think beyond the bounds of one discipline.

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Teaching Expectations

You may be required to teach while a graduate student as a condition of your financial support. This is an opportunity to gain valuable experience that will help you if you choose to pursue a career in academics. Ironically, there is normally no formal teacher training given to university professors, so this may be your last opportunity to develop your abilities under the guidance of a “qualified” instructor. Furthermore, your contributions as a TA can often have a major impact on the future of your students, who will look to you for leadership as well as knowledge. It is therefore expected that you treat teaching as an important part of your professional career development while maintaining a balance between teaching and research efforts.

Satisfactory Progress and Degree Requirements

In addition to the broad goals for graduate study outlined above, graduate students are expected to maintain satisfactory academic progress as outlined in detail in the “Requirements for MS and PhD Degrees in the Department of Geology and Geophysics” (Staff Document 2017–06). Additional requirements may be imposed on degree candidates by certain specialty groups within the department, or by the Graduate School.