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How to Correspond with Potential Graduate School Advisers

August 21, 2015

UPDATE: Make sure to also read the comments at the bottom of this post for some additional and different perspectives.

Disclaimer About This Post: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reaching out to potential grad school advisers. If there was one magical method that always worked, you would know about it by now. Each student, adviser, department, discipline, and overall situation is unique. My advice below is based on my perspective, experiences, and biases. I’m just one person. Also, please realize my advice is specific to geoscience and may not be valid or relevant for other scientific disciplines. I encourage students to seek advice from a diverse pool of mentors and peers. Finally, this advice is not comprehensive, one could write a book about this. 

It’s that time of  year where undergraduates at my institution want my advice about how to apply to graduate school. I figured it might be useful to write this post and share it more broadly.

(1) Start Early 

Sometimes I get an email from an undergrad in our department around mid-December saying “Hey, do you have any advice for applying to grad school? Thanks!” If you haven’t even started the process and it’s December, it’s too late. (Not to mention that you’ve given me very little time to respond, and it’s final exam time, good luck with that!) Okay, maybe the application deadline is still a few weeks away, so it’s technically not too late. Sure, it’s possible that things will still work out for you, but you’re not maximizing your chances by waiting this long.

Start researching potential advisers/departments (more on that below) in August at the very latest, which would be approximately a full year before you would start. Yeah, that’s right, at least a full year before. You’re not deciding which toppings to get on your pizza, this is your life. Not only does starting this early allow sufficient time to learn as much as you can about the adviser/department, but it takes time for correspondence to happen. Additionally, you might learn that a potential adviser will be attending a conference in the fall where you could meet them in person. If you start too late, you could miss that opportunity.

(2) Do the Research

This is going to take some time and effort, at least to do it right. First, there’s the easy stuff. What’s the application deadline and process? What are the departmental requirements in terms of grades, scores, etc.? Most departments have this information on their websites — don’t email a potential adviser with a laundry list of basic questions that can be found on a website with a little bit of effort. Find it yourself, you’re an adult, get it together. In fact, if I get an email from a prospective student asking about this stuff (and nothing else), I may reply with the link they could have found in less than a minute and then proceed to grumble aloud. Not looking good for that student.

Create a spreadsheet or document, a database essentially, of information about each adviser/department. Create different columns or categories as you go so you can stay organized. Put website links into the document so you can easily access them later. As you compile more information, this database will help you make decisions (e.g., ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ categories).

In terms of researching what kind of science potential advisers do, this can be less straightforward. Some professors have updated and easy-to-navigate websites highlighting their research group (I think mine is pretty good). Other professors, even very prominent and successful scientists, do not have a website. Or, if they do, it was last updated in 2006 or something like that. If you’ve heard of someone or found someone on a departmental site and it looks interesting to you, try searching their name in GoogleScholar and ResearchGate to find more. This is where the ‘research’ part comes in to this process — the amount of time and effort you spend learning about potential advisers will vary significantly.

Okay, so what kind of things are you looking for?

  • What is their overarching scientific interest? What types of questions and problems are they interested in? If they have a website, they might have a high-level statement that encompasses all their work.
  • Take a look at their publication list. This is one of the best ways to see what they actually work on. Don’t fret if you aren’t familiar with all the details and nuances of a particular paper. You want to get an overall sense of the type of science they do. Note the journals they publish in — the titles of the journals will also be a window into the type of work they do (e.g., field, laboratory, modeling/theory, integrated).
  • What are their current projects? This is important because these specific projects could be the ones for which they have funding (and, thus, $$$ for a new grad student). This isn’t always the case, they may have new projects coming online that aren’t listed yet (e.g., funding still pending).
  • Look at the ‘People’ page of their website (if they have one). How many grad students do they currently have? What types of projects are they working on? Is it mostly master’s, PhD, or a mix?

I’m sure there’s much more, but hopefully you get the idea. Again, try to capture this information into your database. Have a ‘comments’ category to write down your impressions. Once you start looking at multiple options it’s nice to be able to refer to one document to remind you of some details.

(3) You’re Applying to Work with a Person, not Just an Institution

Going to grad school is not like going to college. Not at all. When you apply to undergrad you apply to an institution primarily. When you apply to grad school you are applying to a department, but you are also applying to work with a particular person. Yes, there are situations where students apply to a department and then, after acceptance, find an adviser in that department to work with. It’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s rare.

The adviser-grad student relationship is somewhat like an apprenticeship. You will be learning the trade of doing science from a mentor. You want to learn about what working with this person is like. You are not going to learn everything from a person’s website, I realize that. But, it’s worth putting the time and effort in. I’d add that this is especially important for Ph.D. students since you’ll be working with this person for 4-6 years.

(4) Writing E-mails to and Corresponding with Potential Advisers

Okay, you’ve done some research and have a list of professors whose research programs look interesting to you. Now, it’s time to reach out to them. How does this work? This is where things get tricky because everyone is different. So, I want to reiterate that this is based on my own perspective. (Perhaps any faculty reading this could add their two cents in the comments.)

Firstly, take this seriously. Don’t send off an email you composed on your phone over lunch. Treat this as a cover letter. Create a Word document(or whatever software you use) so you can save and modify the text. Potential advisers will be consciously or subconsciously evaluating your writing in this email. This is what we do! Why would I take on a new grad student who doesn’t even put the effort in to writing a proper email? If you think that’s absurd and unfair, then good luck to you in all your endeavors.

Is there a form-letter you can use where you just change the names? Of course not! If that worked, you would know about it by now. This is going to take some effort. (You’re probably sensing a theme here.) Not only do you need to put thought into this letter, it’s likely it will be different for each situation. That is, you will end up with as many Word documents for as many advisers/departments you plan to contact.

Here’s what I like to see when I get these emails:

  • Not too short, not too long. Two paragraphs max. A very long letter, regardless of how well its written, will probably not be read in full. That’s just the way it is.
  • State your name, what degree and institution you have or will have, and the date or expected date of said degree. Do that all in one sentence.
  • State what you want. For example, “I want to pursue a master’s degree in geoscience and your research program looks like a great fit for me and my interests.” As an adviser, I like to know if a student wants a master’s or Ph.D. from the start. You might think being flexible is better, but we are constantly planning and looking ahead about the make-up of our group.
  • State your long-term goals. Do you want a master’s degree and then pursue a career in industry? Do you want a Ph.D. and pursue a career in academics? I appreciate that you may not yet know what you want to do. In that case, put some thought into writing a sentence or two that communicates that.
  • All the above would be in the first paragraph. Close that paragraph with a direct question to the person. For example, “Will you be accepting new graduate students to start in Fall 20XX?” A direct question prompts the person to do something, to act. In this case, to reply to your email. You might even put it in bold.
  • The second paragraph can summarize and highlight things you’ve done/are doing. I especially like to hear about any undergrad research projects you’ve participated in or are currently participating in. Don’t get too hung up on if the project you did doesn’t match exactly with what the person does. From my point of view, doing any research as an undergrad is valuable because you (hopefully) see the process of doing science.
  • But, don’t go overboard on this second paragraph. Keep it succinct. You can refer them to the resume/CV you will attach to the email at this point. (Bonus tip: Include your last name in the file name of your resume/CV. There’s not much more annoying than a folder on my hard drive with 15 resumes called “resume.pdf”. Oh yeah, and convert it to a PDF, don’t send a .doc/.docx file.)

Okay, you’ve sent off this important email that you’ve put a lot of thought and work into. Now what? What if you don’t get a reply immediately? Well, in all likelihood you won’t get an immediate reply. Professors are busy people. Some are better than others with this sort of thing. Don’t take it personal. If you don’t get a reply after 2-3 weeks, then I think it’s appropriate to send a follow-up email simply saying you’re emailing again (and then include the original text in there so they don’t have to go searching). This is another reason why it’s important to start the process early. It may take up to a month to get a response.

When they do reply, hopefully you get some solid information. They might say “Sorry, I’m not taking on any new grad students right now.” This is a bummer, but obviously important to know. Or, they might say “I might be taking on grad students, but I’m not sure just yet, please contact me again in X weeks.” Sometimes we are waiting to hear about grants or other sources of funding and aren’t ready to make a decision. Or, they might say something like “I will be looking to accept a new graduate student, I encourage you to apply.” This is very good. It’s exceedingly rare that you’ll get “OMG, yes, please apply and I will definitely accept you into my program!”.

The types of replies you might get are too variable to even categorize here. It really just depends on their situation and how they do things. Expect different things from different people. If you get a reply back encouraging you to apply, then reply back saying that you’re aware of the application deadline and process (basically, that you’re ‘on it’). If you get a reply saying they aren’t taking new students, it’s good to send a quick message back thanking them for the information.

(5) Get It Together

Finally, this is the most important message (and is advice that goes way beyond applying to grad school): Get your stuff together. (You can substitute another word for ‘stuff’ if you like.) Get organized. Stay on top of things. Get your ducks in a row. Etc. Seriously, there’s nothing more frustrating than a talented and creative student that doesn’t have it together. I don’t care how good your grades are, how high your IQ is, where you went to undergrad, etc. … if you aren’t ready to jump on an opportunity when it comes your way, you could miss it. It’s competitive out there. Get it together.


Okay, I’ve already written a lot in this post. I’m sure there are a thousand other things to talk about from both the student and adviser perspective. Again, this is not meant to be comprehensive. Feel free to chatter away in the comments.

Playground example of gravity-driven deformation

November 28, 2014

I went for a walk yesterday (Thanksgiving holiday) with my brother-in-law and niece to get a bit of fresh air and, as we strolled past a small playground, we saw this:


Here’s a shot zoomed in a bit more:


The next image has my interpretation:


As you can see, the layer of snow has been deformed into a little fold belt at the base of the slide. The slide itself acted as an effective detachment surface (sometimes called a décollement). I suspect that as the temperature went above freezing and a bit of snow melted, a threshold was reached where water between the snow layer and the metal slide acted to ‘detach’ the snow from the slide. The relatively coherent slab of snow then deformed into the fold belt at the down-slope termination of the detachment surface (the slide).

This is a very loose analogy to gravity-driven deformation observed on sediment-rich continental margins. As kilometers of sediment piles up and loads the margin, shale or salt horizons act as effective detachment surfaces for large-scale ‘gravitational tectonics’ characterized by extensional faults in up-slope positions balanced by compressional fold-thrust belts in down-slope positions. The amount of throw on these normal and reverse faults can be significant (100s to 1,000s of meters).

Here’s just one of numerous schematic representations of this phenomenon.


1960s Video Explaining Longshore Sediment Transport in Southern California

October 29, 2014

After seeing my post the other day of a turbidity current caught on video, a good friend of mine sent me the link to this wonderful little film called Beach: A River of Sand, which was produced in 1965.

It’s 20 minutes long and well worth watching when you have a bit of idle time in your day. It focuses on the origin, transport, and fate of beach sand in southern California (from Santa Barbara to San Diego). It combines information from observations and scaled-down models to tell the story of how sand makes it way southward along the coast and, ultimately, into submarine canyons. There’s even footage of sand cascading down into the head of La Jolla submarine canyon!

Although this video is almost 50 years old I think it’s just as good, if not better, than documentary material produced today. Sure, we might have fancier graphics/animations today, but they tell the story in such a simple and clear way. I love it.

Submarine ROV Captures Turbidity Current on Video

October 28, 2014

This video posted by MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) is quite amazing. This past August, a submarine ROV (remotely operated vehicle) was in the head of Mendocino submarine canyon (~400 m water depth), offshore northern California, when a sediment density flow (turbidity current) occurred. The ROV captured the event on video and made measurements of sediment concentration.

These observations indicate that this flow had a lower layer that was more concentrated (but still very dilute, <0.1% sediment by volume) and an upper, less concentrated layer. In total, the turbidity current is estimated to have been >100 meters tall. Approximately 1:25 into the video there’s not much to see because the ROV is caught in the more concentrated layer — experiencing a sediment ‘black out’. Check out the GRL paper by Sumner and Paull that accompanies this footage.

This is really exciting because basic observations of these important processes are exceedingly rare. To my knowledge, this is the best video footage of an event like this.

Debris basins and signals in sedimentary landscapes

October 8, 2014

I recently submitted a review paper along with four co-authors on the topic of signal propagation in sedimentary systems across timescales. The idea that landscapes contain within them information about controls such as tectonics and climate has been a part of our science for a very long time. But, recent advances in the measurement/calculation of rates of processes (for example, with cosmogenic radionuclides) as well as theory and modeling related to how such ‘signals’ generate sediment and propagate across the Earth’s surface to be, potentially, encoded into stratigraphy motivated us to write a review. I’ll post more about the paper once it’s gone through the review-and-revise process, but wanted to write a brief post here on the topic.

Let’s start simple. Consider a sedimentary source-to-sink system with erosional uplands (sediment production) connected to depositional lowlands and/or marine basin (sediment accumulation). A tectonic or climatic change can change the rate of sediment production in the uplands that is potentially recorded down-system as a change in deposition. The morphology and length-scales of the system play a huge role in the behavior, which, in turn affects how (or if) that up-system signal is ‘preserved.’

As analogy, consider human-made debris basins. These structures, common in steep and tectonically active mountains such as the west coast of North America, are designed to mitigate debris-flow hazards on communities built on slopes that are prone to mass failure, especially during precipitation events. Debris basins are positioned on failure-prone slopes above concentrated population and/or infrastructure and designed to capture newly liberated sediment as it flows down slope, preventing that sediment from being transferred further down slope where potential damage and/or injury could occur.

Charles Creek Debris Basin, British Columbia, Canada; photo courtesy of B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s Flickr page

Essentially, these basins are localized sinks that store sediment, thus preventing the signal (in this case, a rain storm) from propagating down system as a mass-wasting event. However, if the magnitude of the event exceeds the storage capacity of the sink, part of the signal will propagate down system anyway. For example, if the volume of liberated material exceeds the volume the debris basin can hold, the excess mass would bypass the basin after it fills to capacity. For debris basins to be effective they must be emptied following an event such that the storage capacity is returned to its maximum. So, in addition, time and the accumulation of multiple events plays a critical role in system behavior. For example, the sediment volume released from a single rain storm may only be enough to fill a debris basin to 10% its capacity. But, material from >10 storms of similar magnitude, if not removed, would effectively erase the signal-stopping action of the basin, which would allow future events (signals) to propagate down system.

What is exciting (and quite daunting) is applying these concepts to much larger length-scales and much longer timescales. Over longer and longer time periods the only evidence remaining of these mass-transfer dynamics is the stratigraphic record.

See this post from FOP about debris basins. And, if you haven’t already, read John McPhee’s “The Control of Nature,” which has a section about debris flows in the San Gabriel Mtns of southern California.

Friday Field Photo #189: Maui Beach

September 5, 2014

This isn’t from field work, just a pretty photo from vacation in Maui back in January — but it’s the field nonetheless!


Happy Friday!

‘How Science Works’ — Video Featuring IODP Exp 342

June 16, 2014

You’ve probably seen the fantastic How Science Works interactive diagram and website developed by the University of California Museum of Paleontology. If not, I encourage you to check it out. The main message is that the scientific method is not a simple, linear process. This is an important aspect for both budding scientists and the public to appreciate.

A new video on the YouTube channel for the Consortium for Ocean Leadership discusses the nonlinear, iterative, collective, and highly creative endeavor of doing science in the context of Earth science and ocean drilling. The video is only 10 minutes long and includes footage from IODP Expedition 342 that I sailed on in summer 2012. (If the video isn’t embedded below, here’s the YouTube link.)


A Few Papers I’m Reading This Summer

June 2, 2014

Hey look at this, I’m posting on this blog again! The academic year has ended and I feel like I can take a breath. When people told me that being a tenure-track junior prof was going to keep me very busy they weren’t kidding, holey moley. But, it’s all exciting, fun, exhausting, challenging, and rewarding.

In an attempt to resuscitate this blog, I wanted to post about a few papers in sedimentary geoscience that I’m currently reading (or will read) this summer:

  • From gullies to mountain belts: A review of sediment budgets at various scales — Matthias Hinderer, Sedimentary Geology, 2012 — This is a review paper taking a look at the importance of considering mass balance in Earth surface systems with an emphasis on methods for determining sediment budgets at geologic timescales. This is not about calculating sediment budgets in a hydrology/geomorphology sense — where flux can be monitored and measured in real time along different reaches of a stream, for example — this is about what we can (and, importantly, cannot) estimate or infer regarding paleo sediment budgets. For example, what tools are being used and what critical uncertainties exist for determining sediment budget in Quaternary (<2 million years old) systems? What about further back in time? The paper includes several case study examples that span a range of spatial and temporal scales.
  • Scaling laws for aggradation, denudation, and progradation rates: The case for timescale invariance at sediment sources and sinks — Peter Sadler and Douglas Jerolmack, online-early contribution to upcoming GSL Special Publication “Strata and Time: Probing the Gaps in Our Understanding” — I predict this paper will be cited a lot by those of us interested in Earth surface dynamics, it’s a good one. I’ve written about Sadler’s contributions on this blog before (nearly seven years ago, time flies!), which deal with how unsteady depositional processes create a potentially misleading ‘artifact’ when comparing accumulation rates measured over different durations. Sadler & Jerolmack make the point that denudation (mass removal) rates rarely have this problem because methods like catchment-wide cosmogenics or thermochronology (for exhumation information) already sample the entire area of interest. Depositional (mass accumulation) rates, on the other hand, are typically measured in single locations, e.g., a borehole or outcrop section, which rarely are representative of the entire depositional area. This is perhaps an obvious point to make, but sometimes really important points are simple, and I think they articulate it very well. They then go on to make the case that cross-sectional area (a 2-D slice through a depositional volume) is potentially sufficient to approximate the true 3-D mass balance, which is difficult to impossible to constrain in ancient records.
  • Mid-Cretaceous to Paleocene North American drainage reorganization from detrital zircons — Mike Blum and Mark Pecha, Geology, 2014 — I have not read this yet, I’m looking forward to diving in soon. This paper uses a database of >5,000 detrital zircon ages to reconstruct continent-scale drainage basin evolution of North American over 10s of millions of years of geologic history. The punchline is that during the Cretaceous much of North American drained north, toward the Arctic, and then in the Paleocene it switched towards the Gulf of Mexico (i.e., what has become the modern Mississippi drainage system).

Happy reading.

Friday Field Photo #188: Cross Section of Alluvial Fan Barform

November 22, 2013


This week’s photo is from the mouth of Wildrose Canyon in Panamint Valley, California. My grad student (for scale) and I were out this way doing field work last spring and ended up driving by this nice outcrop on our ‘commute’ from the campsite to the field site.

We didn’t spend much time examining these deposits, but they are almost certainly Pleistocene (maybe Pliocene?) alluvial-fan deposits. Notable features include the poorly sorted, matrix-supported character and the large, inclined surfaces (dipping towards the basin, from right to left).

Happy Friday!

(You probably see an advertisement right below the post. Sorry to clutter up this content with annoying ads, I don’t like it either, but I would otherwise have to pay for hosting. This option is the least intrusive.)

A lot going on, just not on this blog

October 31, 2013

Remember when I used to post semi-regularly on this blog? Yeah, not so much these days. Incredibly busy with three graduate students working on three different projects, two undergraduate researchers, teaching two courses and a seminar this semester, trouble-shooting instrument issues in my lab, working with collaborators over email/phone, and trying to make progress on a couple of papers and two proposals with whatever time is left.

Overall, I’m lovin’ it, these are exciting times. It’s a joy working with motivated and curious graduate and undergraduate students. They make me want to improve how I do my science. I’m trying to continue to learn new skills (or, in some cases, re-learn skills I once knew).

Perhaps someday I’ll get back to posting on here!

Read more…