Thinking of grad school at Colorado?

Great! We're delighted you are interested in our program. First off, you might have some questions about the Boulder area and being a grad student at Colorado. Everybody has a different perspective; campus is certainly one of the prettiest around, and outdoor opportunities are nearly endless: from world-class climbing (and climbers) in Eldorado Canyon and surroundings to loads of hiking trails to a strong network of bike trails to the local bus that goes to the Eldora ski area. This makes Boulder very attractive to a lot of people, so housing costs are a real issue, though other expenses are not as troublesome. We're a half hour from Denver, home of professional hockey, basketball, football and baseball not to mention performing arts centers. And with Denver as a major hub for United and Southwest, air connections to the rest of the world are pretty good.

And if you've come looking here, there is a decent chance you are interested in working in geophysics; if so, you should look into the Geophysics program--you can't be directly admitted to the program, but you might well get your degree there. And the Geophysics program also points out the range of expertise in geophysics across campus. Information on applying to the Geological Sciences graduate program is online. And of course you can go straight to the admissions page for the graduate school, which will be the portal for your application.

Some common questions:

What are the career outcomes in geoscience?
A good place to look is the American Geoscience Institute workforce reports on new hiring and the status of the field overall. We've had students end up at the USGS, in the oil and gas industry, in academia, in international research institutions, in middle school classrooms, and in the financial industry. In general, there looks to be a real dearth of geoscientists in the not-too-distant future. Even as oil-and-gas is likely to decline, things like responsibly mining green energy minerals like lithium and rare earth elements as well as attempts at carbon sequestration and continuing risks from natural hazards will all be needing earth scientists.
Are you looking for new students?
I always am looking at new applicants, though my ability to support new students varies from year to year and often is uncertain owing to outstanding grant applications. For starting in fall 2024, resources at my end will depend on some grant proposals, which I probably won't know about until the spring, and our departmental TA and fellowship resources. The overall exception might be getting an external fellowship; if you want to explore this approach to coming to CU (and you really should!), read below and then be in touch with me early. The big problem here is the timeline: fellowship results are announced typically in March or even early April, near the April 15 deadline to accept financial aid offers. If I am aware of your interest and that you have applied for fellowships, then stay in touch and we can probably deal with things as they happen. Exceptional students can be eligible for support from within CU.
Are there are projects available?
For an M.S., it sort of depends. Unlike some other researchers, I don't have a pile of canned, ready-to-go projects that can easily be turned into a masters. We have a large collection of seismological data that can be studied, so there is nearly always something to be done there, but if there is not separate funding, a student working on that would probably have to be a teaching assistant for at least some part of their time here, and such support is limited.

In contrast, for a Ph.D. there is enough time to get funding, and I am always open to ideas on projects that are a good combination of my research interests and your interests. So the existence of a project isn't an important precondition; it is quite possible that we will build something to suit. You can go directly for a Ph.D. without a master's; whether you should try this or not depends on you and your background. Right now I am considering complementing some ongoing work with some new seismological efforts to understand the shallowest mantle and lowest crust around the Sierra Nevada and (separately) across the High Plains and Southern Rockies, but nothing definitive has been proposed yet. A few grant applications should be in the mill before April along these general lines, but some are collaborative and will depend too on the timelines of my collaborators.
What support is provided?
Depends. Ideally we get research grants and you get paid as a research assistant. Of course, getting a fellowship is better still (see below). But often in the first year or so a teaching assistantship is a likely means of support.
What are you looking for?
Nobody is perfect so don't fret if you may not fit everything, but demonstrating responsibility, having a quantitative background, and being a self starter all count. It is nice to see a year or more of physics, calculus as well as some geology, but these vary from school to school. Having done research as an undergraduate is a definite plus.
Why haven't you answered my email?
First, my apologies. Second, please don't be insulted. Yes, it would be better if I quickly responded to the dozens of inquiring emails I get each fall, and I apologize for not doing so more often. Sometimes these emails are just swamped by other things going on. Most of the ones I don't immediately answer are basically saying "hi, here I am, I'd like to do graduate work at CU, here is a cv, can you tell me what my chances are?" If this is the jist of your email, here is the basic answer: We're really grateful for your interest in our program here at CU, I'm sorry but I can't really say much about your chances just from looking at a cv (there is a reason we ask for transcripts and letters of reference; all of these factor into our decisions). We are a very competitive place to get in to; something like 10% of applicants will get an offer from us. If you were looking for some other information and I didn't respond, you can try emailing again with something in the subject field that indicates the nature of your inquiry. Even if I don't answer an email, if you apply, we will look at your application. For things like how to apply and the process of applying to CU, it is more productive to contact our graduate program administrator.
What can I do to improve my chances?
For starters, apply for any scholarships you can. All too often students worry about which program before thinking about the money, but the deadlines for fellowships are frequently earlier. There are some listed on the departmental page and the deadlines on some are quite early (October and November of the year before you would start graduate school) and Anne Sheehan keeps an extensive list (click on "Opportunities" at this page). Four external fellowships that are pretty prominent in Earth Science for U.S. nationals are National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships (October 20, 2023), Graduate Fellowships for STEM diversity (opens in August, deadline is usually late December/earliest January), Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship (opens in mid-August; deadline typically mid-late October) and National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (opens in August, deadline probably late November). Think about what you want to do and what your goals are: these may all change, but if you never think about them, you'll probably not get very far. Communicate these to us in your application if not sooner. Identifying a faculty member you want to work with and getting in touch with him or her is a good idea. If you are in Boulder, drop by and say hi. Here at CU, admission is largely decided by a faculty member's interest.
What courses do you teach at CU?
The CU catalog is always trailing the courses being offered a bit, and in any event it doesn't tell you when the courses are offered. The department will hopefully be posting information about future classes soon. There are important courses offered outside the department as well. My courses are listed on the left side of my home page.
What is going on with my application?
This can get involved. The short answer is that our process gets drawn out for a large number of reasons, and most frequently you should know if we will or will not admit you sometime in February. Financial support might take longer to ascertain; keep in touch (particularly once you know you are admitted) and we'll try and let you know what is likely to happen. It can be a frustrating wait for all involved but usually turns out OK.
I'm from outside the U.S. Can I apply?
Yes. Our system in the past forced students or grants supporting them to pay high tuitions; that policy has been changed and foreign students no longer cost so much if supported as a teaching assistant or research assistant. However, the international student office tends to be slow in processing materials and so you would be wise to get your application in early and to be sure to let faculty you think you would work with aware of your application. Please note that applications do need to be made to the university; sending me your application materials is not helpful (I cannot apply on your behalf).
What's your department's ranking?
Perhaps you have seen rankings from US News and World Report, or the National Research Council (NRC) rankings. I think these ratings are of very limited use for prospective graduate students. The capability of one part of a departmental program might be quite different from another part. If you are thinking of continuing in academia, it will be the thesis work you do and, to a lesser degree, your advisor that will tend to affect how easily you can land a postgraduate position; a strong thesis from a solid advisor in a weak program will usually have better appeal than a weak thesis from a weak advisor in a strong program. Industry criteria vary widely. Some people thrive in the pressure-cooker environment that Caltech, for instance, cultivates, but others might succeed in a lower-stress situation. Some need a program to have a lot of students doing similar work, others are delighted to work alone with a faculty member. Some want a lot of options, others know exactly what they want to pursue. The graduate education process is very different from getting a B.A. or B.S. and is highly individual; it varies certainly from group to group and often from student to student. In the end, the ranking that matters most is your own. But in case you are interested, here are some words about these rankings:

US News and World Report's Earth Science grad school rankings relies on questionnaires sent to department chairs asking them to rank other departments (in their words, these rankings "are based solely on the results of surveys sent to academic officials in fall 2022 and early 2023 in chemistry, computer science, earth science, mathematics and physics"); these are often highly backward looking and border on beauty contests, as most "academic experts" hardly spend much time learning about the capabilities of other schools' academic programs unless they happen to be on a school's visiting committee; for instance, rankings in earth science a few years back had MIT tied for first largely because of its high profile for some 20 years, but at the time that program was in turmoil, with a number of high profile departures, and might not have really merited that ranking at the time. The rate of change between these surveys might actually be a more useful barometer than the ranking itself, but such information is hard to get and tends to reflect changes years in the past. We here were listed as 23rd in the 2014 survey, same as the previous version, but moved into a tie for 14th more recently in earth sciences. While moving up overall, we dropped from #9 in the Geology subfield to below #11, which was odd, and then rose to #7. We suffer compared to many other departments because there are earth scientists in other departments (e.g., geodynamics and part of seismology are in Physics, a fair chunk of geodesy is in Aerospace Engineering); since we collaborate across department and school boundaries, this isn't quite fair and is part of the reason we are not listed in the geophysics rankings. (Not having a geophysics department doesn't help).

But then there is US News and World Report's "Best global universities for geosciences" where CU ranked, um, #3. This is less of a straight beauty contest (their methodology is more objective, but also backwards looking as it relies on citations to papers) and more of a reflection of the research productivity of a school as a whole. One reason CU jumps up so high? The grad school ranking is of departments, but earth sciences at CU is scattered over two schools, at least three institutes and several departments. Much as we love beating out Berkeley and MIT in one of these rankings, keep in mind that a big part of CU's high ranking is the very large number of soft money climate scientists working in CIRES and some others in the other institutes.

Or perhaps you've seen the Nature index for us, where we were listed as #7 globally in earth and environmental science but have since slid to #23 (#19 within academic institutions). This is a straight count of papers published in "prestigious" journals that seems to be as much about promoting Springer's Nature brand as anything else. It is in some ways a measure of funding success in that many of these journals are pretty expensive....but not a great way to evaluate a graduate program. Or, if you prefer, one other variant counts numbers of articles published in "influential" journals (CU Boulder was number 1 in geoscience in 2017, last time they broke out by subject in that beauty contest). Whose collection of journals matters most? And is this any way to pick a graduate program?

Confused yet?

The NRC rankings were probably the most comprehensive, but they are now quite dated (go back to 2004). For that reason, I've dropped a rather lengthy discussion of this approach as at this point, most programs have had serious turnover in faculty.

Hopefully you are now skeptical about rankings, at least in terms of picking a grad school. This all shows that CU is a pretty successful place to do earth science research and not a lot more.

How successful are your graduates?
An interesting question. I have had only a few students. One was the Colorado geologic survey's sole seismologist; she has moved on to the seismo lab at Nevada-Reno. One chose to leave the PhD to pursue a career as a middle school science teacher. One was a postdoc at two prominent research schools before deciding that working in investment analysis was a better fit; he is on the department's advisory board now. One is a research scientist overseas. One was a postdoc at the USGS, a temporary assistant professor and is now working in industry. One is now pursuing scientific opportunities in Japan. Generally our graduates have found success in the directions they are interested in. Frankly, if you are looking for a career in oil and gas, which is an industry that very much works within an old-boy network, you probably don't want to be working with me (I just don't have those old boy connections that oil schools have in spades).


Please send mail to if you encounter any problems or have suggestions.

C. H. Jones | CIRES | Dept. of Geological Sciences | Univ. of Colorado at Boulder

Last modified at July 22, 2023 2:19 PM