Graduate Programs in Geology

The mission of our Department’s graduate education is to:

  • Establish graduate training and research in the Department, among the top Earth and Environmental Science research departments in the country, by carrying out nationally and internationally recognized research across the broad range of geoscience disciplines;
  • Train students for productive careers in industry, academia, and government by providing innovative teaching and mentoring and opportunities for participation in cutting edge research activities; and
  • Connect with the broader UMass and scientific community concerning research in Earth processes, global change, and human geography.

The Department has a strong track record of career placement, strong faculty mentoring, and prides itself as being a collegial department without a strong hierarchy. A major strength of our graduate and postdoctoral training programs is strong faculty mentoring and professional development opportunities. Students have training opportunities in a wide range of field, laboratory, and numerical approaches. Many of our graduate students and postdocs take on leadership roles in planning and organization. Across the department, a strong emphasis is placed on science communication and outreach.


Who are we?

This pie chart shows a snapshot from 2018 of the distribution of graduate students in the different graduate programs across the department. Nearly half of the graduate students in the department are enrolled in the Geosciences PhD program, which includes students who completed an MS in Geosciences and are continuing their graduate studies at UMass Amherst. About one quarter of our department’s graduate students are enrolled in the Geosciences MS program, which includes students in both the MS thesis and project tracks.

From 2008-2018, women comprised 50% of enrolled graduate students and over 60% within the last few years of this timespan. Our department attracts and enrolls a greater portion of women graduate students than the national average for geology (AGI currents #110 42% women). Over the past 10 years, minority graduate students (Asian, Black, Hawaii/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Native American and multiple ethnicities) have comprised, on average, 14% of our enrolled US citizen and permanent resident graduate students. This is comparable to the national average of PhDs conferred to under-represented groups across all US Geosciences departments (16% NCSES Survey of Earned Doctorates in 2017).

Group photo of department members from Geosciences Spring Picnic 2019

What are Geosciences graduate students working on?

Geoscience MS and PhD students pursue a wide range of research questions using world class approaches and tools.  Their research spans topics in solid earth, surficial processes, hydrogeology and climate studies. You can learn more from the listing of graduate students that includes their research area and their advisor(s). See our Twitter Feed and/or our listing of News and Events for projects involving our graduate students.

Geosciences graduate students are also engaged in a wide range of outreach, science communication and diversity and inclusion efforts. Our commitment to the importance of outreach efforts in the development of well-rounded PhD scientists is highlighted by our recent decision to require the inclusion of a broader impacts section in PhD dissertation proposals, mirroring the style of an NSF proposal.

Some examples of outreach:

Professional Development

In addition to the many excellent professional development offerings of the UMass Graduate School, the Geosciences graduate program includes several seminars, opportunities and resources for professional development.

  • 1st year MS and PhD seminars (1 credit): Each Fall,we offer 1st-year MS and PhD seminars (GeoSci 797A for PhD and GeoSci 797R for MS) that provide an overview of the graduate requirements and discuss various tools and strategies for success (e.g., proposal writing, research methods and ethics, science communication, time management, non-technical skills, advisor management, networking, and preparing for the next career stage).
  • Professional Seminar Geo-sci 701 (1 credit): Studies show that scientists with broad knowledge of different sub-disciplines in addition to expertise in their trained field are more resilient to changes and opportunities that arise during their careers. The department’s brown bag series features research talks from across the department that give everyone the chance to learn outside of their research niche.  Additionally, once a month, the geo701 seminar features professional development topics such as avoiding jargon, outreach and broader impacts, how to use reference managers, CV/resume swap, how to create accessible materials.
  • Communication skills: All graduate students are required to present their MS/PhD research either at the Professional Seminar (GeoSci 701) or at a professional meeting. Our students take advantage of abundant opportunities to present their work in professional settings.  In addition, many students participate in a wide range of outreach events with area K-12 groups and the public that strengthen their science communication skills.
  • Leadership opportunities: Geosciences graduate students are leaders within the department, on campus and in our communities. Within the department, graduate students can hone their leadership skills by participating in and leading various committees, such as hiring committees, the Workplace Climate committee and the Bromery speaker committee.  
  • Graduate travel fund: The Geosciences program receives a small allocation from the graduate school each year to support travel to conferences for students presenting research who do not have other means of travel support.
  • Alumni Grants: Each Spring, graduate students apply for research funding from various funds established by alumni to support the department. We are very grateful for the generous support of our alum. The funds go to support research expenses, travel to the field etc.

Where do Geosciences graduate students get jobs?

The following pie charts show where recent graduate alumni are employed. Data are for alum who graduated from 2012 through December 2018. Our MS and PhD students go on to jobs within both academia and industry/consulting.

A bulletin board across from our department office features the business cards of various alumni.  Our alumni typically retain strong ties to the department, and we are looking into different ways to increase their engagement with the graduate program.


What degrees are offered?

Master of Science in Geosciences

In addition to the general admission requirements of the Graduate School, the requirements for admission to the Geosciences M.S. are equivalent to our Geology or Earth Systems undergraduate degree.

The Department of Earth, Geographic, and Climate Sciences offers two alternative tracks toward the master’s degree: the thesis track and the project (non-thesis) track.  Either track can prepare students for employment or for a PhD. The advisor and student together decide whether to the student will take the thesis or project track.

  • The thesis track is appropriate for those with strongly focused research interests.  Coursework of students in the thesis track is typically focused on the broad field related to the planned thesis area.  The student completes an in-depth research project and writes a thesis summarizing that study. Students in this track have a MS thesis defense at the end of their program.  
  • The project track is appropriate for those wishing to emphasize breadth of geological or interdisciplinary knowledge.  Students in the project option may take courses covering a wide range of topics within the field of geosciences. The student does a research project that has smaller scope than usually required for a thesis would and writes a final report on the research project.  An oral comprehensive exam is required and is normally taken in the spring semester of the second year of residence, near the end of completion of the research project.  
  • The project track hosts the 1-year hydrology M.S. concentration. Students in this concentration take their M.S. credits in coursework related to hydrogeology.  In lieu of a research project, 1-year hydrogeology students take 2 independent studies focused on field hydrogeology methods and data analysis.  Additionally, many students take an additional independent study or project focused on advanced hydrogeologic analysis. The final comprehensive exam occurs in the second semester of residence.

The average time to degree for MS students over the past 10 years (2008-2018) is 2.5 years.  This average includes both 1-yr hydro students who typically take 1 year and students who take a leave from their studies and finish their MS while working full time. Graduating students rank the Geosciences MS program high (greater than 1 standard deviation from the mean of all UMass MS programs) in the following areas: 1) If you were to start your doctoral studies over again would you select UMass and 2) overall quality of program.


Semester 1:

  • first year MS seminar GeoSci 797R
  • Decide on thesis or project track (set up thesis committee or project examination committee)
  • GeoSci 701 Professional seminar and other courses

Semester 2:

  • Write thesis proposal
  • GeoSci 701 Professional seminar and other courses
  • Apply for department alumni grants to support summer research

Semester 3:

  • Give a research presentation to the department or a professional meeting
  • GeoSci Professional seminar and other courses

Semester 4:

  • GeoSci Professional seminar and other courses
  • Defend thesis

Doctor of Philosophy in Geosciences

In addition to the general admission requirements of the Graduate School, all candidates for the Ph.D. are expected to have a background approximately equivalent to our M.S. degree in geosciences or geography, although this by no means precludes individualized programs for those with special strength in another discipline. Additional requirements include completion of sufficient course work or independent study to prepare the candidate for the preliminary comprehensive exam (research proposition).

From  2011 to 2018 the Department of Earth, Geographic, and Climate Sciences has graduated 28 PhD students with an average time to degree completion of 5.5 years. Doctoral students rank the Geosciences high (greater than 1 standard deviation from the mean of all UMass doctoral programs) in the following areas:

  • Overall quality of academic experience ,
  • If you were to start your doctoral studies over again would you select UMass
  • Intellectual quality of faculty
  • Quality of academic advising and guidance
  • Training received prior to undertaking independent research

Timeline (Fall start)

Semester 1:

  • first year PhD seminar GeoSci 797A
  • Set up preliminary exam committee
  • GeoSci701 Professional seminar and other courses

Semester 2:

  • Preliminary exam (perform a literature review and critical analysis of a paper). Passing this exam qualifies students as PhD candidates.
  • GeoSci 701 Professional seminar and other courses
  • Apply for department alumni grants to support summer research (each Spring)
  • Annual PhD student self-assessment due each year on Sept 1.

Semester 3:

  • Prepare for Prospectus defense - independently developed research proposal including broader impacts
  • GeoSci 701 Professional seminar and other courses

Semester 4:

  • Defend dissertation prospectus
  • GeoSci 701 Professional seminar and other courses
  • Annual PhD student self-assessment due each year on Sept 1.
  • Apply for department alumni grants to support summer research (each Spring)

Semesters 5-8:

  • Develop research, present at meetings and department venues.
  • Write papers
  • Assist in proposal writing
  • Engage in outreach and/or broader impacts that expand the impact of research.
  • Defend Dissertation


MS/PhD program

The Geosciences program does not accept students without a MS degree into the PhD program. Students with a bachelor’s degree who wish to pursue a PhD can apply for the MS/PhD track which allows students to go straight from the MS to the PhD program upon completion of their MS. Some students in the MS/PhD project follow the project track of the MS where the PhD preliminary exam serves also serves as the MS comprehensive exam. The advisor and student together decide whether the student will pursue the project or thesis track.


How to Apply?

Graduate School information for all applicants (U.S. Citizens, Permanent Residents, and non-citizens) may be found on the Graduate School website.

January 5th is the deadline for the receipt of application materials for acceptance into the Geosciences M.S. or Ph.D. program beginning the following September.  We do consider students for January start (application due in Fall) but we seldom have TA funds available for students who are admitted ‘off-cycle’. Applications will be considered complete and the review process starts when the graduate school receives:

  • Application with Personal Statement
  • Application Fee
  • All Transcripts
  • Minimum of Two Letters of Recommendation
  • Responses to four supplemental prompts (listed below) are entered at this link
  • Residency statement (if applying as Massachusetts resident)
  • Social Security number (if claiming tax education credit)
  • International students should check the graduate school's web page for additional requirements.

Supplemental questions for applicants to the Geosciences MS and PhD programs

The required supplement at this link asks about your potential research interests and collects your responses to four prompts. We ask about research interests to make sure that faculty with interests that overlap yours see your application. We ask for responses to four supplemental prompts in order to learn some specific information about you that you may or may not have included in your personal statement.

We have found that the following traits bode well for success in our graduate program and for the past few years we have been assessing applicants based on these traits: 1) perseverance, 2) independence, 3) curiosity, 4) ability to work in teams, 5) maturity and, 6) communication skills (written and oral). To be admitted we don’t expect each candidate to excel at every one of these traits; we recognize that you will hone and grow your skill set while in graduate school. To be admitted, we do expect candidates to show strength in many of these traits and to recognize the value of these skills for success in graduate school.

The four prompts in the supplemental material provide an opportunity for you to describe in a paragraph or two how you demonstrate strengths that can serve you well in our program. You may copy and paste elements directly from your personal statement. You might also share these prompts with your reference letter writers so that they can speak to your strengths. The character limit for each response is 32,000 characters.

  1. What motivates you to apply for our program?
    Graduate school is a multiyear commitment to learning and to a research project. The decision to attend graduate school is a major step in your career. Please tell us what motivates you to go to graduate school and why you think the Department of Earth, Geographic, and Climate Sciences at UMass is where you would like to go?
  2. Tell us about your perseverance and maturity
    Completing graduate-level coursework, independent study, and research definitely requires perseverance in handling deadlines, challenges, and even failures along the way. Briefly describe a challenging time (one where you did not fully succeed in achieving a goal or completing a task) and describe how you responded to that and what you learned from that experience. Then, briefly describe an experience where you struggled through a challenging time but eventually succeeded. What helped you get through that struggle and the stress associated with it?
  3. Tell us about how you work in teams
    As a graduate student, your research will often involve working as a team with your advisor and other collaborators. Think about a past experience being a part of a team (academic or extra-curricular), and please answer the following questions:
    • What was the purpose or goal of your team?
    • What role(s) did you play on the team (leader, synthesizer, heavy-lifter, etc.) that contributed to its success?
    • What did you learn about successful teamwork and/or team culture through the experience?
  4. Tell us about your independence, curiosity and problem-solving skills
    Conducting research as a graduate student requires curiosity in developing a question or hypothesis and independence along with creative problem-solving in conducting self-directed research. Please describe a time when you took initiative on something, either academic or outside of academics, that highlights some of these qualities.

If interested in graduate studies in Geosciences at UMass, contact potential advisors about potential research topics and also ask if they are taking new students. Our faculty have expertise in a wide range of topics as evidenced from the short descriptors next to each on the faculty listing. Individual faculty web pages offer a good place to start learning about research opportunities but keep in mind that these pages could be out of date, so it is always a good idea to contact Project Investigators (PIs) about ongoing projects and plans for future projects. Due to the competitive application process, we do not admit any graduate students without a PI sponsor who is willing to mentor and advise the student. When you contact a faculty member about sponsoring you, be sure to include your resume and a brief (and specific!) description of why you would like to join their group.

Note that faculty are extremely busy and sometimes get behind in responding to emails. It is your responsibility to follow-up either by phone or another email.

Acceptance into the Geosciences graduate program depends upon meeting academic standards, having faculty support and securing funding. Competition is stiff; even highly qualified students are not necessarily guaranteed acceptance. Stellar students who secure grants or fellowships are particularly appealing to advisors, as they already have a proven track record and bring their own funding. Students with research experience, excellent letters of reference and publications are also at an advantage.

After submitting your application, potential advisors may reach out to you to schedule an interview. Here are some potential questions for applicant interviews

  • What characteristics are most important in a good advisor?
  • In what kind of work environment are you more comfortable?
  • What characteristics do you think are important to be a good teacher?
  • How would one of your professors describe you?
  • Read the attached file before our interview and prepare some questions. I want to know what interests you about the paper and what wasn’t clear. I don’t expect you to understand everything in the paper.
  • Interests outside of school?
  • In just a few sentences, tell us about a recent geosciences paper that you read. What was the paper about and what did you find really interesting about the study or its findings? (Please don’t choose a paper authored by one of our faculty)
  • If you could, would you have changed anything about your academic experience so far?
  • Describe one of your role models. Why do you look up to them? How have they influenced your thoughts and/or actions?



How does funding typically work?

Each year we receive applications from 50-75 students, most of whom are academically well-qualified. Of those, we are able to fund only 5-8 students. Our program does not accept students for whom it cannot provide financial support, thus many admission decisions come down to availability of funding.

The Geosciences program has limited means to provide financial support. The faculty member who sponsors your application must agree to provide a substantial portion of your financial package through their research grants. It is therefore important to convince prospective advisors that you are a good investment.

Most Geosciences graduate students are supported by a combination of Teaching Assistantships (TA, provided through the Geosciences program) and Research Assistantships (RA, provided by advisors). Typically we offer 2 years of support to MS students and 4 years of support to PhD students. Students to the MS/PhD program are typically offered 2 years of funding for their MS with an additional 2 years of funding conditional on completion of the MS. This support may be TA, RA, fellowship or some combination. Students who take longer than 2 years for the MS or 4 years for the PhD can be funded on RAs when available from their advisor. Whether a student is supported by a TA or an RA, their tuition and most fees are waived.

A number of Geosciences students have their own support, such as NSF Graduate Research Fellowships. or Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants, or other extramural funding. These programs provide wonderful opportunities for students and also free students from obligations associated with specific TA and RA appointments. We strongly encourage both incoming and continuing students to apply for extramural funding.

Each year, one or two new graduate students are partially funded by one-year University Fellowships. These fellowships are allocated at admission and the details are explained in the offer of admission.


Fellowships for students from URM groups

In the 1970’s pioneer geophysicist Randolph ‘Bill’ Bromery led the department of Geosciences and afterwards went on to lead the University as chancellor. A generous donation from Bill and Cecile Bromery has established the Bromery fellowship for students from under-represented (URM) groups within geology and earth sciences. The Geosciences program is very proud of the accomplishments of its past and current Bromery fellows.

The UMass graduate school offers Spaulding-Smith fellowships for graduate students from URM groups. Nominations for these highly competitive fellowships are made by the Graduate Program Director during the admissions process.

The Department of Earth, Geographic, and Climate Sciences also participates in the The School of Earth and Sustainability's NSF-supported ELEVATE fellowship program.  PhD students conducting research at the intersections of climate science, social equity, energy economics and policy, and electricity technology are encourage to apply.

We are honored to be part of the inaugural group 14 AGU Bridge partner programs to increase the number of underrepresented students obtaining a Ph.D. in the geosciences. AGU Bridge is part of the larger IGEN netway to develop, adopt, and share inclusive practices for recruiting, admitting and retaining women and underrepresented students in STEM graduate programs.

Please contact the Geosciences Graduate Program Director (Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette) for any questions or more information about these programs